The Decades-Old Novel That Presages Today’s Fight for Facts

Uwe Johnson’s magnum opus Anniversaries, which catalogs the life of its protagonist for the span of a year, is a sharp exploration of the daily effort to preserve shared truths.

AP / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

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.

Gesine and Marie’s relationship provides a stable foundation for Anniversaries’ many formal gambits. Its “chapters” comprise Gesine’s life story, a scattershot chronicle that reads as equal parts diary, common book, confession, and transcript (mother and daughter often speak into a recorder for this purpose). Threaded through the day-to-day scenes of contemporary New York life are episodes from the Cresspahl family past—the eponymous anniversaries—some of which are told to Marie, while other, more troubling material is recorded for later listening. Gesine, born in 1933 to an English cabinet maker and a pious and depressive mother in the fictional Baltic German territory of Jerichow, came of age during Hitler’s rise to power. Her account of the viscous creep of fascism over her parents’ rural town is brutally subtle and entirely convincing; as in a long-exposure photograph, what is constant stands out, while changes in the scene are blurred to obscurity. Johnson, a master ironist, relays the horror of Nazi rule with devastating understatement, as when the local butcher ended up in a camp for “a little dumb talk.” Central to this novel-within-a-novel is the enigmatic life of Gesine’s troubled mother, forever altered after seeing a Jewish child killed during Kristallnacht.

Throughout, Marie resists Gesine’s version of events, often pushing for clarity or revision. “I never promised the truth,” Gesine tells her. “Of course not,” she replies. “Only your truth.” Johnson’s enduring dilemma is how humans preserve and transmit truth, even as it is threatened by the motivations that underpin its telling. (“It’s not wrong to lie as long as that protects the truth,” Gesine remembers her father telling her as a child.) For all the rich detail of her recollections, Gesine is never less than aware of the ambiguity of memory, and the compromises it exerts upon reality. “The moment of recall,” she writes, “the fact of bringing it into the present, corrodes both at once: past memory and present view.” Part of Gesine’s charm as a narrator, and how she earns the reader’s trust, is the way in which her own fallibility, readily acknowledged, provokes a hunger—for both the truth of her past and the truth of the world she inhabits now.

Information, then—what Gesine calls “the consciousness of the day”—becomes an essential component of the book’s ethical project, a means of parsing reality and making principled choices. “That’s what I have left: I can learn how things work,” Gesine says. “At least live with my eyes open.” She is an obsessive reader of the Times (which she refers to as “Auntie Times”), inserting its clips into her diaristic observations, and transmuting its reported facts into a kind of moral fuel. “Make fun of it if you want, that I learned New York from the Times,” she tells Marie, “not only who our senator was but how he’d obtained the vote; not only the mayor’s name but the limits to his authority; what qualifies as misconduct, as misdemeanor, and as felony, and what the letter of the law permits you vis-à-vis the police.”

The range of stories she includes in her daily record—death tolls from Vietnam, weather reports, Mafiosi trials, the rise of domestic crime, Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination—provide a real-time map of American history running parallel to, and sometimes melding spectrally with, Europe’s own recent past. “Are we supposed to stop riding the railroad since it profits from the transportation of war materiel?” she wonders. “Are we supposed to stop flying on airlines that take troops to Vietnam? … Where is the moral Switzerland we can emigrate to?” The Times is Gesine’s conduit to an engaged civic life, and though she isn’t afraid to question a matter of interpretation or track typographical errors, it remains a kind of divining rod for truth: “You can hear [Auntie Times’] voice shaking, and still she doesn’t lose control of herself—she advises us to see the situation in its proper context and instructs us how to do so.”

This faith in the notion of a shared, objectively verifiable reality may seem quaint, or enviable, to the reader of 2018. Thanks in part to persistent abuse from President Donald Trump, public trust in the press has never been lower, and the basic definitions of truth and falsehood are now a matter of daily contention. Gesine is no stranger to strategic misinformation—legitimately fake news—having grown up with “the Nazi People’s Observer, the Soviet Union’s Daily Review.” The consequences of such falsehoods lay strewn in the wreckage of her past. Her trust in the Times’ “indispensable fairness,” then, stakes a measured claim for substantiated fact as the lifeblood of a functioning republic, and as a bulwark against the repetition of history. In the grip of Trump’s post-truth nihilism, such commitment feels decisively participatory—something like an aspirational model.

“We imagine [the Times] holding up for us the life we have missed … as though we could still catch up,” Gesine writes. This is the melancholy of her pursuit—that life is governed by the sum of incomplete information. Truth is, at last, a matter of alertness, a kind of diligent sifting. The lingering presence of mid-century catastrophe furnishes Gesine’s American life with just such vigilance. She knows from difficult experience that without trusted arbiters, truth bends until it breaks. In a nearly 1,800-page novel of vaulting formal ambition, one does not expect its most radical feature to be this simple acknowledgment of reality: “We do not live by bread alone,” Gesine advises her daughter, “we need hard facts too, child.”