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, if an unruly one. Johnson pairs the book’s late-modern élan—its complexity of structure, its synchronicities and leaps in time—with an uncommon commitment to the simplicity and moral necessity of facts, “the mirror of daily events.” Its unlikely hero, and sometime stand-in narrator, is The New York Times, which Gesine, an admiring if astringent reader, calls “our tried and true supplier of reality.”
Originally published in Germany as a quartet of novels between 1970 and 1983, and available in a new edition ably translated by Damion Searls, Anniversaries spans a single year at the rate of one chapter a day: August 20, 1967, to August 20, 1968. This narrative drip allows New York to gather, unhurried, in rich, vivid accretions: ferry rides, conversations, coffee shops, digressions on architecture and subway etiquette, holidays, afternoons at the Mediterranean Swimming Club, and trips to the pediatrician. Johnson’s seductive prose style—lyrically inventive, humane, and often very funny—is equally at home in grandly orchestrated set pieces and charming, offhand miniatures, a flexibility the author’s subjects demand. Gesine, a translator at a bank, interrogates American urbanity with the skepticism of an Old World exile; her precocious daughter, Marie, brought to the States at the age of 4, is already an adopted New Yorker, attuned to the city’s myths and rhythms. Over time, this generational tension becomes a form of intimacy: an outsider and an insider comparing sketches of home.