Short biography of Uwe Johnson

Uwe Johnson was born on 20 July1934 in Kammin (today Kamień Pomorski in Poland). At the age of ten he was selected for one of National Socialism’s elite institutions (Deutsche Heimschule) for training as a future leader. Half a year later, in February 1945, the boarding school had to be evacuated as the Red Army advanced. His family fled to Mecklenburg and moved to Güstrow. Johnson’s father was deported to the Ukraine in 1945 and was declared dead three years later.  From 1948 to 1952 Uwe Johnson attended the John-Brinckman-Oberschule in Güstrow, then left for Rostock University to study German and English literature. After two years he continued his studies at Leipzig University (1954-56).

In Rostock he refused to join in slanderous attacks on the Junge Gemeinde, the youth organization of the Lutheran church. As a consequence party and university authorities demanded his expulsion from university, but in the turmoil following the uprising on 17 June 1953 they relented. In Leipzig he made a number of life-long friendships and found in Hans Mayer a professor he could respect and admire. For his final exams he wrote a thesis on Ernst Barlach’s fragment Der gestohlene Mond.  

Johnson’s first novel, written when he still was a student, was rejected by several East German publishing houses due to its controversial political message. Thanks to Hans Mayer’s intervention the manuscript was read by Peter Suhrkamp, the doyen of the West German publishing scene, who persuaded the author to try writing an even better novel, (which he did.) His first opus was only printed posthumously in 1985 under the title Ingrid Babendererde. Reifeprüfung 1953. The story takes place in Mecklenburg in the politically strained early summer of 1953 before the uprising of June 17. A female student speaks out for freedom of speech and defends the church’s youth groups from unfounded allegations – just as Johnson had done. Afraid of reprisals she and her friend leave the country for West Berlin.

When Johnson’s mother and sister left the GDR in 1956 he did not join them. As he was suspected to be politically untrustworthy and now had close relatives living in West Germany he could not find any proper employment. He tried to work free-lance and translated Herman Melville’s Israel Potter into German; he also rewrote the medieval Nibelungenlied in modern German. Knowing that his second book Mutmassungen über Jakob would never be published in the GDR he moved to West Berlin in 1959 on the exact day of publication. This novel brought him wide publicity as it dealt with the problems caused by the division of Germany, contradictions within East German society and questions of communication and identity. Its complicated narrative structure also brought him acknowledgement as an experimental writer. He became associated with the Gruppe 47 and made many new friends there, including, among others Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Günter Grass and Martin Walser.

In his third novel Das dritte Buch über Achim Johnson describes the difficulties encountered in assessing the biography of a person living in an autocratic society. Shortly afterwards he found himself reluctantly in the headlines, because the journalist Hermann Kesten asserted that Johnson had justified the construction of the Berlin Wall, an allegation repeated by the West German minister of foreign affairs Heinrich von Brentano in parliament. As the conversation in question had been taped Johnson could disprove the slander, but some negative publicity remained. By then Germany’s literary critics had labelled him “Dichter der beiden Deutschland” (poet of both Germanies) - to his immense displeasure.

In 1962 Uwe Johnson’s friend Elisabeth Schmidt succeeded in leaving the GDR with the help of an organization (Fluchthelfer) based in West Berlin. The couple got married and their daughter Katharina was born in the same year. Johnson received a scholarship for Villa Massimo, a German art institute in Rome. From June to December 1964 he offered to review East German TV broadcasts for the West Berlin newspaper Der Tagesspiegel, on condition that the paper printed the East German TV schedule, something so far boycotted by the West Berlin press.  In the same year a collection of short texts, entitled Karsch, und andere Prosa, was published. He then edited Bertolt Brecht’s Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen (1965) and was even allowed to enter East Berlin to work in the Brecht Archive.

Johnson spent the years 1966 to 1968 with his family in New York, living on the Upper West Side, Manhattan. At the instigation of the publisher Helen Woolf he had been offered the opportunity to compile a reader with contemporary German texts for American schools at the publishing house of Harcourt, Brace & World (Das neue Fenster, 1967). Johnson enjoyed New York, and a second year – again with some help from Helen Woolf - was financed by a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation. Helen Woolf and her friend the philosopher Hannah Arendt not only influenced his views on the United States, but also became close friends of the Johnson family.

While the Johnsons were living in New York their apartment in Berlin had been occupied by the leftist group Kommune I without the owners’ knowledge and consent. The young protesters planned an attack on a visiting American politician and concocted so-called ‘pudding bombs’ in Johnson’s flat. Johnson only learnt about this by reading it in the newspaper.

Back in West Berlin the journalist Margret Boveri asked him and his wife to help her with her autobiography. Since Boveri very soon died, Johnson had to compose the final version from their tapes (Verzweigungen, 1977). 

From New York Uwe Johnson had brought back drafts for a new project, Jahrestage, a monumentalsequel to Mutmassungen über Jakob that retrospectively surveys Germany from the 1920s until 1968. In daily entries spread over exactly one year from August 1967 to August 1968 events in contemporary, mainly American history are set in juxtaposition to the female protagonist’s narration of her parents’ life and her own experiences in East Germany after the Second World War. The family history of the past is woven into the present, and the events that Gesine Cresspahl and her daughter have to deal with (the Vietnam war, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the Soviet invasion in Prague) are confronted with the problems of earlier times. As complex as the narration is his style: “remarkable for its free syntax, its meticulous precision, its discreet irony, and its quality of control” (Oxford Companion to German Literature, 1976).

The first three volumes of Jahrestage. Aus dem Leben von Gesine Cresspahl were published in short succession from 1970 to 1973.

For Max Frisch who had become a close friend and later supported him financially he edited the Swiss author’s diary Tagebuch 1966-1971. In 1972 he was elected vice president of the Academy of Arts West Berlin. In this capacity he organized together with Hans Mayer and Karin Kiwus a colloquium on Samuel Beckett. When the Austrian poetess Ingeborg Bachmann died he wrote an unusual obituary for her, Eine Reise nach Klagenfurt (1974), in which the mourning for his friend is hidden behind a seemingly objective analysis of the town’s history.

In the autumn of 1974 Johnson and his family left West Berlin for Sheerness-on-Sea, a provincial town on the Isle of Sheppey in the Thames estuary – to the surprise of everyone, even some of his close friends were not told of his new address.

Here he worked on several smaller projects: He edited a collection of essays on East–West relations entitled Berliner Sachen (1975) and compiled a collection of excerpts from Max Frisch’s œuvre (Max Frisch Stich-Worte) in celebration of the Suhrkamp publishing house’s 25th anniversary. He also produced a new translation of a fairytale first written down in Low German by the painter Philipp Otto Runge, Von dem Fischer und seiner Frau (1976), which Johnson characterized as “the story of a failed marriage”.

Work on his big project Jahrestage had stopped for some time with the last volume still outstanding. He would later claim that a heart attack he had suffered in June 1975 and the rift between himself and his wife had caused the interruption. In an attempt to help the author overcome this writer’s block his publisher Siegfried Unseld invited him to give four lectures on poetics at Frankfurt University. Johnson used his own biography to demonstrate how circumstances can influence an individual to choose writing as a profession. In 1979 an amended version of the lectures was printed (Begleitumstände, 1979) containing surprisingly personal - and unproven – accusations against his wife. The topic of marital relationships is taken up again in a memorial publication (Festschrift) for Max Frisch, Skizze eines Verunglückten. He also collected material about his new English neighbourhood and wrote several short sketches about Sheerness and the regulars in the pubs he frequented (published posthumously as Insel-Geschichten, 1995).

After a gap of ten years Johnson finally completed the last volume of Jahrestage. It was published in 1983 together with a Kleines Adreßbuch von Jerichow und New York by Rolf Michaelis, which was designed to help the reader find a way through the novel’s numerous characters and narrative strands.

A reading tour had to be abandoned because of the writer’s poor state of health.

Uwe Johnson was found dead in his house in Sheerness on 13 March 1984.