Max de Gaynesford

Buried in England


The Sea View Has Me Again: Uwe Johnson in Sheerness, Patrick Wright, Repeater Books 2020, pp. 800, £25.00 (hardcover)

Like the baobab tree that seems to be waving its roots in the air, there is something upside-down about Uwe Johnson (1934-84). Though his status as one of the very greatest German novelists is now secure, his own progress seems reversed, launching out with the profound success that his work would ultimately warrant, and ending in the solitariness and self-doubt characteristic of the start of a writer’s life. His writing seems up-ended also, the better we become acquainted with it. The reader notices immediately how keenly Johnson seeks to capture the specificities of whichever present he is writing from. But no matter how obsessively he records the contemporary details, it becomes steadily more obvious that it is his roots he flourishes about, his roots he labours hardest to produce, and his roots we see clearest from afar.

To start, then, at the end. Johnson died alone on an unknown day in the late winter of 1984. He was last seen alive on 22 February at the Napier Tavern in Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey, one of two pubs where he was a regular, and first seen dead on 12 March at his home on Marine Parade. The two landlords of the Napier smashed a window at the rear and climbed in to find his body on the living room floor. He had apparently fallen while opening a bottle of wine – two stood empty on the table; a third, still full, remained upright beside him – and struck his head on the table. The Coroner’s report cited hypertensive heart disease. Johnson was cremated without ceremony, according to his wishes, and his pinkish gravestone records his name only. He was five months shy of his fiftieth birthday.

The lonely death of a writer whose output had been drying up for some time may remind us of tragically neglected figures like Robert Walser. But if there was neglect here it was largely self-neglect and the course of events was unlucky rather than scandalous. An automated system that turned the house lights on and off at odd times of day and night, the knowledge that Johnson was sometimes away without notice, and the fact that he did not order milk, all conspired to hide the accident that had occurred. His estranged wife still lived in Sheerness, five minutes’ walk away, but they had a complicated system of routes and times in place so that neither met the other, even by accident.

Patrick Wright records these details in his thorough, discerning, compassionate but not all-licensing account of Johnson on the Isle of Sheppey: The Sea View Has Me Again. Two things in particular stand out: that Johnson was a difficult person, not obviously courting trouble but endlessly unwilling to obviate it, and that there may indeed be something exceptional and potentially revealing about his decade in Sheerness, the longest period he lived anywhere continuously since his earliest childhood. The bearing of each on the other more than justifies Wright’s marvelously mad attentions to almost every conceivable detail about the isle of Sheppey, every local happening, before and during and after that period. His book is a convivial profusion of interviews, newspaper stories, observations, histories and photographs all bound together with a ‘gazetteer’ in place of an index. There is a method to these goose-chases, and no matter how wild, they pass the only test that matters, of bringing us closer to Johnson himself. It is worth trying to explain why this is so, though it will take the rest of the review.

Johnson had arrived on Sheppey in the autumn of 1974 from West Berlin, somewhat in flight from himself, his drinking, his irascible relations with fellow German writers, and his difficulties writing the fourth and final volume of his monumental novel Jahrestage, a title whose rich and ambiguous meanings are always, regrettably, shrunk to Anniversaries. Max Frisch funded the move to Sheerness. He seems to have understood Johnson well at this period of his life. He was deeply concerned by Johnson’s anger and violence, his sudden fits of ‘moral rigorism’ which made him that awkwardly durable and resilient thing, a puritan of socialist morality who is ‘anything but small-minded’.

Frisch noticed that Johnson’s diatribes were directed particularly towards East German writers. Christa Wolf was one whom Johnson had got to know when they were students at Leipzig and Günter Kunert was another. Both Kunert and Wolf were involved in a highly embarrassing evening at Johnson’s house in February 1974, where the host held his guests responsible for the ills of the GDR, despite the fact that they were each making their own criticisms of the state at the time; indeed Kunert would soon be cast out of the Socialist Unity Party for signing petitions in support of dissidents. At the heart of Johnson’s misery, Frisch diagnosed a long-term, deep discomfort at having left the GDR, made worse by the company of those like Wolf and Kunert who had decided to stay.

The analysis is perceptive but the distress almost certainly lay deeper, and is a matter of roots. Johnson was born in 1934 in Kammin by the Baltic, now Kamień Pomorski, then part of the Prussian Province of Pomerania. Towards the end of the war, when Johnson was ten, he was sent far inland to an SS boarding school in the town of Kościan, notorious as an early testing-ground of Nazi murder methods, before being sent to make his own way home amidst the stream of refugees fleeing the Red Army in January 1945. Under Soviet occupation, his father was interned in a camp from which he never returned. His mother took a job as a railway conductor so that the family would not suffer the grave disadvantages of being classified as ‘bourgeois’. Johnson grew up in the fledgling GDR, associating with youth movements demanding freedom of expression, and was eventually barred from progression at university. Moving to Leipzig where he attended lectures by Ernst Bloch and Hans Mayer, he again kept independent-minded company, was prevented from starting on a doctorate and refused regular employment. He struggled for three further years in East Germany on the generosity of friends and freelance literary work before finally abandoning his life there, crossing to West Berlin in 1959. There he published his first novel and almost immediately met with extraordinary success, sealed with the Prix International in 1962 and the award of grants that enabled him to travel for long periods, including a two-year stint in New York (1966-8).

Given these rewards after who knows what torments, Johnson’s decision to immure himself in an English backwater is indeed puzzling. Günter Kunert’s bewilderment, apparently shared to this day by German literary circles, only grew when he visited Johnson in Sheerness. One pungent detail will be particularly vivid for any who can recall branch line English trains in the 1970s: the headrest on the Sittingbourne train was so gummy that tufts of white hair remained stuck to it; it was as if, so Kunert writes, an old man had had to ‘tear himself from his seat on arrival’. A striking image, and no doubt telling for those who knew Johnson. His life to this point had indeed been a series of wrenches, dramatic conflicts, brutal histories. And if he was not yet an old man when he ‘moved house’ to Sheerness – the studiedly nonchalant phrase Johnson used for leaving the GDR – he had already experienced enough for several more ordinary lives.

Why Sheerness? Patrick Wright does provide the materials for an answer, I think, though his own response is cautious, broken up, and judiciously secured in different parts of his long book. Three elements strike me as particularly relevant, beyond the oft-repeated explanation that Johnson himself would give when pressed: that he had a thing since childhood for places where rivers flow into seas. One is that Johnson would probably have preferred to continue his struggle for independence of thought from within the GDR itself. This is a difficult thing to prove, given Johnson’s proud reticence, but Wright convinces me of it. If so, it is not surprising that Johnson was less comfortable living in countries where the contrast with the GDR was deep, avowed, existential and always present. Another element is that, no matter how gamely Wright agrees with locals that there is much to be quietly fond of in Sheerness, he nevertheless allows that living there would have had its privations for Johnson, and plausibly hints that this itself would be a reason for his staying: such privations would suit a puritan of socialist morality. It seems variously relevant, for example, that the locals who knew Johnson as ‘Charles’ had no idea he was a world-renowned author. Finally, and deeply as Wright excavates the specificities of this particular town, he is under no illusion that he need explain a permanent commitment. As he puts it in characteristically tactful fashion, for Johnson ‘the experience of being in England may never have been entirely removed from the thought of departure’.

That Wright brings us closer still to understanding Johnson is largely a matter of method. This is because the approach he adopts is itself an active engagement with his subject, amalgamating the two procedures which underpin Johnson’s most accomplished novels. The first method owes much to the multiple narrative style of William Faulkner while the second is almost entirely of Johnson’s own devising.

The Faulknerian method is clearly apparent in Mutmassungen über Jakob (Speculations about Jakob, 1959), the first novel Johnson succeeded in publishing. Without a single controlling voice, the novel assembles rumours, theories, assumptions, pieces of hearsay and sheer guesswork from a variety of different characters, all stimulated by different motives, each with their own reasons to want to explain the death of a young East German railway despatcher. In a similar way, The Sea View Has Me Again sends out feelers in all directions to encompass the findings of the many people, local and distant, who want to explain the life and death of Johnson in Sheerness, why he went there in the first place, why he stayed, how he died in those particular circumstances.

Johnson stretched and developed and replaced different aspects of this method in his succeeding novels until he arrived at his own entirely individual approach for Jahrestage, the novel which will secure him an enduring name. The first three volumes were already published before Johnson set out for England (1970; 1971; 1973) and he was labouring to complete the last throughout the Sheerness years, finally succeeding (1983) shortly before his death. There are occasional flashes of family resemblance, but Jahrestage is quite different from the earlier novels. Johnson creates it out of the equally various but more precisely developed ruminations of a single voice: Gesine Cresspahl, an ‘invented person’ – the term Johnson preferred to ‘character’ – first described in Jakob and now found living in New York’s Upper West Side (Riverside Drive).

The novel takes carefully shaped form as journal-like entries covering mid-August 1967 to mid-August 1968, combining a year’s worth of Gesine’s experiences and newspaper dependent observations on the Vietnam War and other current events with her deep dredge work on Cresspahl family history in Weimar Germany and her own memories and life experiences of the Baltic-Mecklenberg region from the 1930s to the 1960s. Like such archaeological enterprises of the heroic period as produced the Minos-and-Concrete of present day Knossos, these are excavations that construct as much as they discover, and they are motivated at least as much by the tale teller’s need to explain herself to herself as they are to instruct an audience – in this case, Gesine’s ten-year-old daughter Marie, whose father (Johnson is always circling) was the railway man Jakob.

In a similar way, Wright combines an account of Johnson’s rather quiet, habit governed ten years on Sheppey with wide research into the island’s past – the seventeenth century Dutch raids, the subsequent building of its dockyards, the nineteenth century prison hulks that lay off the coast, tales of drowned coastguards, the unlikely appearance of a flamingo, problems with drainage and hygiene, the machine-gunning of holidaymakers in a tragic RAF accident, the twentieth century economic decline.

Like Johnson, Wright resists the temptation to dig too deeply, to forecast or to moralise. What he writes about are facts and stories that were generally known on the island at one time or another, the kind of thing which Johnson himself might have heard or read or experienced. He speaks little of the woe in Johnson’s marriage, but his short account of its breakdown in 1978 and of the tragic and hurtful delusions that followed seems – so far as an outsider can judge – scrupulous and balanced. Just as Johnson ‘meets’ Gesine and secures her reluctant agreement to chronicle her life again, Wright also enters the scene he is describing, first as a student and then as a teacher in 1970s East Kent. The technique is the same in both cases: by first registering and then minimizing their presence, rather than sustaining an absence which would draw attention to them, Wright and Johnson each realise their own neat withdrawal.

The great achievement of Jahrestage, offered by the novel but only secured by the reader in their response to it (Johnson was adamant about the necessity of joint attention, joint work) is a particular sort of mirroring. As Gesine’s months succeed her days, we come to see how the small-scale return of images and figures, which enable us to group the experiences of each single day into an aesthetically pleasing whole, are gradually being replicated at a more disturbing level by the long-term return of motives and rationales revealing the morally corrupting patterns that govern the lives and characters of the different people she lives among, and amongst whom she invariably includes herself in ways that blend consciousness and conscience.

Johnson’s careful shaping is such that, eventually, we cannot look back at even the most flyaway of Gesine’s thoughts and consider it free of the consciousness-conscience of what people to whom she is related – by family, by locality, by experience, by memory – have thought, felt and done, a moral awareness that will not free her of the need to see connections with what the people among whom she is now living are thinking, feeling and doing. The examples start mounting from the opening in August 1967. Gesine is on holiday at the Jersey shore, and as she experiences waves sweeping in over the beach, ‘hunchbacked with cords of muscle’, she ponders the fact that so-called ‘Negroes’ are not allowed to rent houses here, just as in her 1930s childhood, Jews were not allowed to rent houses on the Baltic.

Wright’s book also rests on the subtle shaping of small-scale materials over a large expanse. The last hundred pages are particularly powerful, a final movement which begins quietly enough by introducing the note of the fabulous with the old German story of ‘The Fisherman and his Wife’. The husband is granted wishes which his wife persuades him to inflate – to live like a prince, a king, an emperor, a pope – until she demands to live like God, and they are left again with their filthy shack. The typically ambiguous ending – have they in fact been granted their wish? Is this in fact how God lives, given the nature of the world? – leads to another marine tale, almost equally fabulous, about equally unmanageable gifts. The SS Richard Montgomery, an American Liberty ship, sank in sight of Sheerness in 1944 with all its cargo of unexploded bombs. Its masts still remain visible above the waves and its lower decks are still packed with chemicals which, as inhabitants claim and Johnson will have heard, produce fantastic lights that dance over the rigging at night.

This sets Wright in place to tell his final marine tale, after confirming that the lie of land and sea at Sheerness does indeed make the view akin to that over the Baltic from the Bay of Lübeck. This is a tale of May 1945 and the Nazis in retreat, of herding thousands of concentration camp inmates onto the Cap Arcona and Thielbeck with the intention of scuttling the ships off Lübeck, only to be beaten to the destruction by British bombers intent on denying crucial shipping to the retreating Germans, and of the roughly 8000 bodies that afterwards floated in wave after wave to the shores, where – to bring the cycle of ambiguous tales circling back, like the sweeping gaze of a watcher on the shore – the child Gesine Cresspahl finds them crowding in, as she describes in the final days of Jahrestage.

If we can no longer look directly at that opening metaphor of waves sweeping in, ‘hunchbacked with cords of muscle’, or fail to see what is exactly literal about the final identification at the close of the fourth volume, of walking into the sea with being on the way to the place where the dead are, Wright’s tour de force will have brought us quietly and surely back to Johnson, gaining for its seemingly eccentric enterprise a full and complete justification

Max de Gaynesford is an English philosopher. He is Professor of Philosophy and Head of Department at the University of Reading and author of The Rift In The Lute (2017).

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