Let’s start with this: Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries is the best book I’ve read this year, and I haven’t even finished the book yet. I’m reading it at a slow pace and it is, you’ll see, a large book, so there’s a good chance it will also be the best book I read next year! Originally published in German in four volumes between 1970 and 1983, NYRB Classics released the first full-length English translation this week in a lovely two-volume boxset. The book’s page count in this edition comes to 1,668 pages.
I’ve been excited to read Anniversaries ever since I read M.A. Orthofer’s glowing review here. I specifically remember thinking: man, I’d love to read that, and I wondered if I’d ever get the chance. Portions of the book were available, if you knew where to look, in English, but over the decades no publisher seemed interested in bring out a full edition. A few years ago I started hearing rumors that NYRB Classics was going to be publishing Anniversaries and that Damion Searls would be doing the translation. I sat back and waited, not worried at all, letting my expectations continue to grow and grow. It’s better than I imagined, believe it or not, and it’s certainly been worth the wait. It is currently well worth the time it’s taking to read the magnum opus!
You see, beyond its length, there is another reason I have not yet finished the book. I’ve spent the last several months with the protagonist, Gesine Cresspahl, and I’m in no hurry to rush her through her year and move away from her. Anniversaries, better than any book I can think of, makes me feel the psychological weight of time, in its vast expanse of memories, in its incessant push forward, and its fleeting moments of respite that are quickly forgotten if forever felt.
Though the novel is long, it actually reads very quickly. After a brief, undated introductory section, the book is divided into 365 sections, each dated by month, date, year, and, in a very pleasant touch, day of the week. It begins on August 21, 1967, and ends August 20, 1968. No section is particularly long, but give each day of the year a few pages and you can see where the book starts to grow.
Here is a photograph of the box from NYRB Classics:
On each day, we follow Gesine Cresspahl, a German immigrant in her mid-thirties. Born in 1933 in what would become East Germany, Gesine has lived through an awful lot. During this particular year she is still living through a lot, raising her daughter as a single mom in the bustle of New York City while the world she knew continues to change.
Because the book focuses so intensely on the day-to-day life of Gesine, I feel I know her well. I read what she reads when she gets time to sit and devour The New York Times and can barely figure out how the world survived the last fifty years. I worry about her work at the bank, feel the descent of a Monday and get the dopamine rush of a Friday. I worry about her ten-year-old daughter Marie, who is brilliant and who is quickly becoming American. I enjoy the moments of rest and beauty that seem to stop time but that, nevertheless, keep passing. And, as the book goes on, I feel deep compassion for Gesine’s parents and the lives they lived and lost. I now feel involved in Gesine’s begrudging attempt to let her daughter get to know her.
It isn’t obvious at the time, but a lot of this is present in the first paragraph:
Long waves beat diagonally against the beach, bulge hunchbacked with cords of muscle, raise quivering ridges that tip over at their very greenest. Crests stretched tight, already welted white, wrap around a cavity of air crushed by the clear mass like a secret made and then broken. The crashing swells knock children off their feet, spin them round, drag them flat across the pebbly ground. Past the breakers, the waves pull the swimmers across their backs by her outstretched hands. The wind is fluttery; in low-pressure wind like this, the Baltic Sea used to Peter out into a burble. The word for the short waves on the Baltic was: scrabbly.
This is a timeless scene. Though undated, it is likely a Sunday in August, any August, anywhere. Time starts to encroach only at the end when we get the sense this is like the Baltic Sea but it is not the Baltic Sea. Whoever is sitting on this beach is present but also in the past. At the start of the next paragraph we find out we are on the Jersey Shore.
Once the days of the week start, the present strikes. Often, but not always, we get a bit of that day’s news:
Five American warplanes have been shot down in North Vietnam. Seventeen military personnel were killed in combat in South Vietnam, among them Anthony M. Galeno of the Bronx.
Police in the Bronx have discovered a cache of weapons: submachine guns, an antitank gun, dynamite, ammunition, hand grenades, rifles, shotguns, pistols, detonators. The four collectors — private citizens, patriots, members of the John Birch Society — had planned to kill the Communist Herbert Aptheker first, then protect the nation from its other enemies.
With no transition, we come to Gesine, either as she goes about that particular day or in her memories:
When Gesine Cresspahl came to this city in the spring of 1961, it was supposed to be for two years.
Gesine’s immigration to New York when Marie was only four is still vivid in my mind. Because Johnson does such a fine job with the rhythm of a day, these feel like my own memories:
The child marched through the city with Gesine, refusing to let go of her hand, pressing against her in buses and subways, watchful to the point of suspicion, and letting herself be tricked into sleep by the monotonous movements of some vehicle only late in the afternoon.
As in life, many of the headlines, though they punctuate the year are not of lasting impact. It’s the moments that feel more like a sensation than a memory. Such as this beautiful morning scene:
Rain has been falling in the city since last night, the thudding sound of the cars on the Hudson River parkway muffled to a low whoosh. This morning, the slurping sound of the tires on the dripping-wet pavement under her window wakes her up. The rainy light has hung darkness between the office buildings on Third Avenue. The small stores tucked into the base of the skyscrapers cast meager, small-town light out into the wetness. When she switched on the overhead fluorescent light in her office, its glow hemmed in by the darkness painted a picture of homeyness in her boxy cell, for a moment.
As he tells the story of this significant year — with all of its riots and revolutions, with all of its politics and cultural battles — Johnson is also telling the story of generations. Gesine herself tries to figure out what memories of her parents and her past are real and what are figments that, nevertheless, make up her identity. We learn about her parents, particularly when she decides she should tell Marie about her heritage.
Again, it’s like Johnson is exploring, in a significant year, in a significant century, how we are created by the flow of time, whether it pushes us forward or pulls us back, whether its turbulent or pacific. I love it. I am so glad I can spend many more days with Gesine and Marie. It’s a time to thank Damion Searls and NYRB Classics for their work of love.