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Monday, 31 December 2018

Book review: Anniversaries from A Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl, Uwe Johnson (2018)

This massive book was originally published in 1970, 1971, 1973 and 1983 and was finally translated into English this year. It’s a kind of collage of impressions of life, mainly in New York, and it relies on the historical importance of the events it retails in (in the beginning, the Vietnam War) for much of its relevance. Picture a German man living in America trying to understand the previous half-century and you get the idea. America in those days still represented progress and such ideas as freedom. Which is definitely not the case anymore (and we should be grateful for our new awareness).

I am hesitant to even publish a review of this book because it runs to about 2000 pages and I only read a dozen or so before giving up in frustration. The problem is that there is a distinct deficit of characterisation in the book so you find it hard to follow any one person through the narrative. There is a woman named Cresspahl (you guess, but are not told) and there is (possibly) her father, but again you’re not sure. All of this uncertainty is quite unnecessary and might have easily been fixed with a little bit of editing.

The lack of consideration for the reader seems to be of a piece with the scope of the book. It’s a book by a political progressive who has turned his foreigner’s eye on the American system. It’s as though a serious work of literature had, by definition, to be inaccessible.

These kinds of reservations might be brushed aside by purists because the book is considered to be a major work of German literature. As already noted, it relies for its imagining on the importance of the United States in what has emerged in popular consciousness as the post-war settlement. But it’s sort of like a dull arthouse movie: so hard to get into that it’s apparently beyond reproach. The fault must lie with the reader who fails to “get it”.

If the book had been set anywhere else it would never have attained the significance it has gained in German literary circles. For me, the work is weak and rambling and lacks a core that can provide the work with the specific gravity it needs to keep the reader interested, but I suggest for the benefit of others that beauties might lie hidden within it. Can someone else please read this book and tell me if it’s any good?

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