Finally the novel Jahrestage can be read in Dutch. A year in the life of Gesine Cresspahl is the magnum opus of the German writer Uwe Johnson. Translator Marc Hoogma worked on it for 7 years. “I thought: should I just get into it for fun?”
“The novel covers the period from August 21, 1967 to August 20, 1968,” says translator Marc Hoogma (68), seated at the kitchen table in his home in Amsterdam. “You could take a year to read it. One day every day. Not only is it a very thick book, it also requires an enormous concentration to read, although it is much more accessible than his previous work. ”
That book is Jahrestage, the novel that Uwe Johnson (1934-1984) completed shortly before his death, and which Hoogma has translated as A Year in the Life of Gesine Cresspahl. Johnson lies dead in his home for three weeks before he is found, a story that contributes to the myth building of the great German writer, who in 1959 exchanged the socialist state of GDR for the free West; West Germany.
Johnson spends a few years in New York, and spends the last years of his life in Sheerness-on-Sea, England. Between 1970 and the year of his death he composes his magnum opus, the four-part Jahrestage, a monument in German literature, now published in one volume by Van Oorschot.
It is about 34-year-old Gesine Cresspahl, who settled in New York from the GDR, and is modeled after Johnson’s wife Elisabeth, who betrayed him more than ten years before his death when it was revealed that she was having an affair with a man who worked for the secret service. from the GDR and the Czech Republic. Johnson felt soiled; the character Gesine and his world view must have been affected by it in his eyes.
With courage and despair he completed the quite dark, fourth and last part of Jahrestage in 1983. Alcohol – Johnson was an avid taker – and drug abuse had already destroyed him by then. They presumably led to a heart attack on February 24, 1984. He lay dead in the house for three weeks, no one noticed. His ex-wife lived two blocks away.
Johnson’s work and his own style are labeled “difficult”. His first two novels, Mutmassungen über Jakob (1959) and Das dritte Buch über Achim (1961), are experimental, very linguistic. He uses many different narrative perspectives and storytelling techniques, changes voice in a paragraph and sometimes in a sentence, and lets the reader figure it out.
Jahrestage begins with such a paragraph, a book to which you become addicted, once you are in it, because reading Jahrestage is an addiction that requires effort. Swimming through the surf, something like that. But once you get there, if you survive and persevere that first paragraph, where the waves hit the New Jersey coast and rippling in the Baltic, at the same time, you will be richly rewarded.
When asked what Jahrestage is about, in short, Hoogma lets out a deep sigh. “That is almost impossible to do. It is such a rich book… I can give a few main points. One of those outlines is: how do you relate to world history as a person? Main character Gesine Cresspahl lives with her 10-year-old daughter Marie in New York. The reader follows her for a year, and every day the reader also follows world news by paraphrasing pieces in The New York Times. ”
It is not a diary, it is about what Gesine Cresspahl experiences on those days in New York in relation to that world history. We read about student uprisings in America and Europe, the Vietnam War, race riots, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy being murdered and the Prague Spring.
“There is also a line in which she tells her daughter the whole story of where she comes from. About her parents and childhood in Mecklenburg, the Nazi era in Germany, then first the English and then the Russian occupation, the separation from Germany, the gradual transition to the GDR, the oppression there, and how she ended up in New York with her. ”
“It’s a story about loss and memories; and also about the question: how can you live a decent life without corrupting yourself to the world? Unless you get out of life, you have to somehow deal with what you encounter. That is an important line in the story. Ultimately, Johnson’s conclusion is that it is almost impossible to do. ”
See the last years of his life …
According to Hoogma, Jahrestage is in the top five of the best 20th-century novels in Germany. However, it is not a widely read book in Germany. He compares it to James Joyce’s Ulysses, which many people have unread on their shelves. How did he – Hoogma was head of P&O at an agricultural college and organized jazz concerts in Nijmegen – actually come to translating that book?
“In the summer of 2013, I read a novel by the German Ulla Hahn, The Hidden Wort. That should be translated, I thought. But then I knew immediately that Jahrestage would qualify more for that. I discovered that book twenty years ago and had already read it three times, while I rarely reread a book. I thought: should I just get on it for fun? No, not a thinner or simpler book first, that never occurred to me. I opened the book and started in the fall of 2013. At first I was not interested in getting it published. ”
Just as enthusiastic
After two years he had translated the complete Jahrestage. “At some point in 2015, I was brave enough to send the manuscript to publishers. Many rejections later I ended up with Van Oorschot. It was supposed to be out in 2017 or 2018, but too many errors came to light. When Van Oorschot started working with me, I did say: I am an amateur, you should actually let someone look at the text again who can see what went well in the translation and what went wrong. . ”
That became Theo Veenhof. “He made many mistakes. He also made some parts smoother, but I remained the main translator and the ultimate responsible. We completed the translation very well together. ”
He is proud, Marc Hoogma, that Jahrestage is in the shops. He hopes to have made the work accessible to Dutch readers and that some of them will experience the same enthusiasm as himself.
“If you want to confront yourself and are willing to take the time for it, you will get a lot in return. Gesine’s daughter Marie, for example, has a black girl in class so that the school can keep the grant. That girl will sit next to her. Then she tells her mother that there is a problem; not because the black girl has been placed next to her, but because her friends don’t like it. She has to choose between her friends and that black girl. It’s so wonderful how Johnson makes such a dilemma visible in a conversation between mother and child. That is really phenomenal literature, you know. ”