Monday 7 April 2014

The stylistic audacity of Uwe Johnson

There is prose and there is prose. I have always struggled with some of the magical realist writings but perhaps this has something to do with the fact that I don't read Spanish or (Brazilian) Portuguese so the particular melody of its most prominent examples escapes me. When it comes to German prose, there have been some books with international recognition recently. Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World and The Reader by Bernhard Schlink are probably good examples of solidly crafted German writing.

Yet, for all their surprising narrative turns and twists or observational acuity, the linguistic means employed in them are often pedestrian to say the least. In fact, I have not read any German novel or story recently that had a playful attitude to the German language. You have to go back to Uwe Johnson to find something remotely experimental when it comes to style. Johnson is famous (and perhaps notorious) for curious placements of adverbs in the sentence order. In his Frankfurter Lectures (published under the title Begleitumstaende) Johnson reveals the fights and arguments he had with proof readers and editors about his writing style. Yet, he offers a simple justification.

'Das ist die Absicht, Sie herauszulocken aus Ihren Lesegewohnheiten, und erlaubt ist es obendrein.' (p.188)

Johnson wanted to tease readers out of their comfort zone and challenge them linguistically. More so, his (grammatically correct) style functioned as a plot device, adopting different viewpoints and constantly shifting the centre of perspectival gravity. His book, Mutmassungen ueber Jakob is a brilliant example of this. As the plot thickens, the voices become almost unrecognisably and continually displaced, a narrative device that reflects the conspiratorial nature of human existence in a paranoid country embarking on a socialist path to human misery.

Fighting with editors over the order of things in sentences - Uwe Johnson

Johnson always maintained that his writing style was guided by simplification rather than obfuscation. I somewhat disagree. Simplifying the structure of the German sentence often acted as a deliberate cover to keep the reader guessing who was talking. In a way, his writing mirrored the anxieties (and double think?) of East Germans as Big Brother was watching over them. Perhaps Johnson refused to see his writing as a measure of his location in time and place because he wanted to write a prose that proved timeless. For me, his rootedness in the paranoia of the East German regime produced a style that is here to stay, long after the Kehlmanns and Schlinks are forgotten.

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