Patrick Wright ("The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness") and translator Damion Searls ("Anniversaries") on Uwe Johnson, with Edwin Frank

January 5, 2021, 7:30 PM

Scholar Patrick Wright and translator Damion Searls join NYRB Poets editor Edwin Frank for a fascinating discussion of the work of Uwe Johnson, presenting Wright's "The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness" and Searls's translation of Johnson's "Anniversaries." This program will take place on Zoom. Register here:

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About The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness:

The story of Uwe Johnson, one of Germany's greatest and most-influential post-war writers, and how he came to live and work in Sheerness, Kent in the 1970s. Towards the end of 1974, a stranger arrived in the small town of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. He could often be found sitting at the bar in the Napier Tavern, drinking lager and smoking Gauloises while flicking through the pages of the Kent Evening Post. "Charles" was the name he offered to his new acquaintances.

But this unexpected immigrant was actually Uwe Johnson, originally from the Baltic province of Mecklenburg in the GDR, and already famous as the leading author of a divided Germany. What caused him to abandon West Berlin and spend the last nine years of his life in Sheerness, where he eventually completed his great New York novel Anniversaries in a house overlooking the outer reaches of the Thames Estuary? And what did he mean by detecting a "moral utopia" in a town that others, including his concerned friends, saw only as a busted slum on an island abandoned to "deindustrialisation" and a stranded Liberty ship full of unexploded bombs?

Patrick Wright, who himself abandoned north Kent for Canada a few months before Johnson arrived, returns to the "island that is all the world" to uncover the story of the East German author's English decade, and to understand why his closely observed Kentish writings continue to speak with such clairvoyance in the age of Brexit. Guided in his encounters and researches by clues left by Johnson in his own "island stories", the book is set in the 1970s, when North Sea oil and joining the European Economic Community seemed the last hope for bankrupt Britain. It opens out to provide an alternative version of modern British history: a history for the present, told through the rich and haunted landscapes of an often spurned downriver mudbank, with a brilliant German answer to Robinson Crusoe as its primary witness.

About Anniversaries:

Published to great acclaim as a two-part boxed set in 2019, Anniversaries will now be available as two individual volumes. In Anniversaries, Volume 1, it is August 1967, and Gesine Cresspahl, born in Germany the year that Hitler came to power, a survivor of war, of Soviet occupation, and of East German Communism, has been living with her ten-year-old daughter, Marie, in New York City for six years. Mother and daughter find themselves caught up in the countless stories of the world around them: stories of work and school and their neighborhood, with its shifting and varied cast of characters, as well as the stories that Gesine reads in The New York Times every day—about Che Guevara, racial violence, the war in Vietnam, and the US elections to come. Now, with Marie growing up, Gesine has decided to tell her daughter the story of her own childhood in a small north German town in the 1930s and ’40s. Amid memories of Germany’s criminal and disastrous past and the daily barrage of news from a world in disarray, Gesine, conscientious, self-scrutinizing, with a sharp sense of humor, struggles to describe what she has learned over the years and what she hopes to pass on to Marie. Marie, articulate, quizzical, with a perspective that is very much her own, has plenty of questions, too.

Anniversaries, Volume 2 begins on April 20, 1968. Before long Marie will be devastated by the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, even as the news of the Prague Spring has awakened Gesine’s long-dashed hopes that socialism could be a humanism. Meanwhile, her boss at the bank has his own ideas about Czechoslovakia, and Gesine faces the prospect of having to move there for work. Continuing the story of her past from Anniversaries, Volume 1, Gesine describes the Soviet occupation of her hometown, Jerichow, where her father was installed as mayor and ended up in a brutal prison camp. Gesine herself charts a rebellious course through school, ever more bitterly conscious of the moral ugliness of life behind the Iron Curtain. As the year of the novel comes to its end, past and present converge and the novel circles back to its beginnings: Gesine tells Marie about her father, Jakob, dead before she was born, about leaving East Germany, and, as history threatens to take them away from New York, about the beginning of their life together in the city that they have both come to love.

Uwe Johnson’s intimate portrait of a mother and daughter is also a panorama of past and present history and the world at large. Comparable in richness of invention and depth of feeling to Joyce’s Ulysses and Proust’s In Search of Lost TimeAnniversaries is one of the world’s great novels.

Patrick Wight is Emeritus Professor of Literature, Culture and Politics at Kings College, London. His books include The Village that Died for EnglandA Journey Through Ruins, and Tank: The Progress of a Monstrous War Machine

Damion Searls is a translator, most recently of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet –now for the first time with the letters to Rilke – and a writer. His own books include What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going and The Inkblots. He received the Helen and Kurt Wolff Prize and the MLA's Lois Roth Award for his translation of Uwe Johnson's Anniversaries.  

Edwin Frank is the founder and editor of the NYRB Classics series and the author of a book of poems, Snake Train.