Additional Book Information
Series: NYRB Classics
Publication Date: October 16, 2018
AnniversariesFrom a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl
Two-volume boxed set
by Uwe Johnson, translated from the German by Damion Searls
An NYRB Classics Original
Late in 1967, Uwe Johnson set out to write a book that would take the unusual form of a chapter for every day of the ongoing year. It would be the tale of Gesine Cresspahl, a thirty-four-year-old single mother who is a German émigré to Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and of her ten-year-old daughter, Marie—a story of work and school, of friends and lovers and the countless small encounters with neighbors and strangers that make up big-city life. An everyday tale, but also a tale of the events of the day, as gleaned by Gesine from The New York Times: Johnson could hardly foresee the convulsions of 1968, but some of the news—the racial unrest roiling America, the escalating war in Vietnam—was sure to be news for some time yet to come. Finally, it would be a tale told by Gesine to Marie about Gesine’s childhood in a small north German town, of her independent and enterprising father, of her troubled mother, of Nazi Germany (Gesine was born the year Hitler came to power) and World War II and Soviet retribution and the grimly regulated realities of Communist East Germany. An ambitious historical novel as well as a wonderfully observed New York novel, Anniversaries would take in the unsettled world of the present along with the twentieth century’s disastrous past, while vividly depicting the struggle of a loving, though hardly uncomplicated mother and a bright, indomitably curious girl to understand and care for each other and to shape a human world.
Gesine and Marie are among the most memorable and engaging characters in literature, and Anniversaries, at once monumental and intimate, sweeping and full of incident, stylistically adventurous and endlessly absorbing, is quite simply one of the great books of our time.
Volume 1 of Anniversaries takes places between August 1967 and April 1968, Volume 2 between April 1968 and August 1968. Individual volumes are not sold separately.
[Anniversaries] requires a hard chair, a fresh pen and your full attention — for attention is its great subject...Searls’s superb translation inscribes Johnson’s restlessness and probing into word choice and the structures of the sentences themselves, which quiver with the anxiety to get things right, to see the world as it is.
—Parul Sehgal, The New York Times
Juxtaposing the tumult of 60s America with everyday life in Nazi Germany, Anniversaries chronicles 20th-century turmoil through the eyes of Gesine Cresspahl, who leaves postwar Mönchengladbach to raise her young daughter, Marie, on New York’s Upper West Side...Against the big-picture backdrop, we get a fine-grained treatment of motherhood and migration...It feels thrillingly spontaneous, almost out of control. You can certainly see why it wasn’t all translated before now. But here it is: a novel of a year, perhaps the novel of the year.
—Anthony Cummins, The Observer
Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is a book to live in: two volumes and more than 1,700 pages of roomy universe, robustly imagined and richly populated. Its streets are long, and its landmarks are varied. Sometimes the weather’s sultry, and sometimes the pipes clang in the cold. But Johnson’s rhythm is always patient, always mesmerizingly meticulous…Johnson’s observations are indeed possessed of a peculiar, sprawling omniscience. His opus belongs in the canon of encyclopedic, modernist German-language tomes like Berlin Alexanderplatz and The Man Without Qualities, and it allows itself divagations on everything from the prevalence of the color yellow in the American visual landscape to the subtleties of Hungarian politics…His writing is inhuman, godlike in its immensity.
—Becca Rothfeld, Bookforum
Johnson’s book effectively gives the reader forty or fifty years of world history and a single year of Gesine’s life, every day from August 21st, 1967 to August, the 20th, 1968. Its scope is startling, from the social organization of a small German town, to Gesine’s work in a New York bank, to her father’s work as a master carpenter, running a business in Richmond, in London.
—Tom Sutcliffe, Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
I am absolutely stunned and slightly mortified that I’ve never heard of this book before…I think it’s extraordinary, I think it is a great late-modern masterpiece…How do you map Germany in 1933 with Vietnam? But, he does it, he does it in the first paragraph. It should be clunky or absurd or just slightly embarrassing, but he does it brilliantly. It contains the whole world….I was completely gripped, and there are none of the usual narrative handholds, there’s no romantic relationship, you’re never quite certain why she’s on her own, who the father of the child is—all of those props are not available to us, and still it’s absolutely extraordinary.
—Kathryn Hughes, Saturday Review, BBC Radio 4
European modernists used the novel as a means of mapping metropolitan experience. From James Joyce’s immortalizing of "dear, dirty Dublin" in Ulysses, to the grimy urban paean of Alfred Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz, to Robert Musil’s elegy for imperial Vienna in The Man Without Qualities, the city was no longer merely decorative scrim but a collaborative possibility, the ideal vessel for consciousness. Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries: From a Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, a sprawling novel about an East German émigré and her 10-year-old daughter as they navigate life on New York’s Upper West Side, is a natural heir to this tradition…
—Dustin Illingworth, The Atlantic
Likened to Joyce’s Ulysses, it’s really a kind of Joseph Cornell box in words, a vast montage stretching from August 1967 to August 1968. The narrator, Gesine Cresspahl, lives in self-exile on the Upper West Side, working as a translator, trying to raise a daughter, Marie, by herself. Her diary—which is to say, Johnson’s 2,000-page novel—touches on Vietnam, World War II, postwar Eastern Europe, the inhumane conditions of that New York subway system and the humanity of its riders, the triumph of despair, and countless other topics. A rich book to be read slowly and thoughtfully, from a writer too little known today.
In this sprawling multivolume novel, the events of one woman’s life over the course of a year in New York hearken back to several decades’ worth of German history and political upheaval… The growing political consciousness of Gesine’s daughter, Marie, provides a wonderful counterpoint to the novel’s themes of crises personal, national, and global. This is a haunting and unforgettable portrait of the momentous and the historical.
This book is truly a masterpiece. . . . It is a record, and an enduring one for our whole post-Hitler era. You have actually made this past tangible and—perhaps a much harder task—you have made it convincing. Now I know how it was and is over there—know it down to the tips of my toes. . . . This seems to be the only appropriate way to speak and think: about great-grandmother and grandmother and mother and child, in the interplay of generations and across two continents.
—Hannah Arendt, February 7, 1972, Letter to Uwe Johnson
Uwe Johnson is the most incorruptible writer I’ve ever read, always searching for what we so frivolously call the truth. In Anniversaries he approaches this fundamental thing, the truth, from different sides, across different continents, across time. Page after page, we are shown how we need to see clearly, without prejudice, to think properly. Page after page, thinking with Johnson offers us the greatest of pleasures.
A gripping, complex, highly significant work in which the author displays not only his mastery as a storyteller but also his humor, irony, and descriptive power.
—The New York Times
Johnson has Balzac’s passion for the telling detail, the revealing exactitude, here a passion that is impelled by the imagination of love. So intensely are the figures imagined—Gesine and her daughter, Gesine’s desolated mother, and all the tribe of Baltic relatives who variously endure and resist the Nazi scourge—that the ballast of Manhattan fact is needed to keep the book on the page, the life in focus, to keep the agony from getting out of drawing.