Uwe Johnson

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Uwe Johnson by Paul Dummott

Uwe Johnson In Sheerness by Peter Apps



Uwe Johnson

Uwe Johnson (July 20, 1934 - February 22, 1984) was a German writer, editor, and scholar. Johnson was born in Kammin (now Kamien Pomorski, Poland). At the end of World War II in 1945, he fled with his family to Mecklenburg; his father died in a Soviet internment camp (Funfeichen). The family eventually settled in Gustrow, where he attended John-Brinckman-Oberschule 1948 to 1952.

He went on to study German philology, first in Rostock (1952-54), then in Leipzig (1954-56). His Diplomarbeit (undergraduate thesis) was on Ernst Barlach. Due to his lack of political support for the Communist regime of East Germany, he was suspended from the University June I7th 1953, but was later reinstated.

Beginning in 1953, he worked on the novel Ingrid Babendererde, rejected by various publishing houses and unpublished during his lifetime. In 1956, his mother left for West Berlin. As a result, he was not allowed to work a normal job in the East. Unemployed for political reasons, he translated Herman Melville's Israel Potter: His Fifty Years of Exile. The translation was published in 1961 and he began to write the novel Mutmassungen uber Jakob, again rejected by several publishing houses, before being published in 1959 by Suhrkamp in West Berlin.

Johnson himself moved to the West at this time. There, he promptly became associated with Gruppe 47, which Hans Magnus Enzensberger once described as the Central Cafe of a literature without a capital. During the early 1960s, he continued to write and publish fiction, but supported himself largely as a translator, mainly from English language works, and as an editor.

He travelled to America in 1961; the following year he was married, had a daughter, received a scholarship to Villa Massimo, Rome, and won the International Publishers' Formentor Prize. 1964 - for the Berliner Tagesspiegel, Reviews of GDR television programmes boycotted by the West German press (published under the title Der 5. Kanal, The Fihh Channel, I987)

In 1965, he travelled again to America and edited Bertolt Brecht‘s Me-ti. Buch der Wendungen. Fragmemte 1933-1956 (Me-ti: the Book of Changes. Fragments, 1933-1956). From 1966 through 1968 he worked in New York City as a textbook editor at Harcourt, Brace & World. During this time (in 1967 he began work on his masterwork, the Jahrestage. He also edited Dar neue Fenster (The new Window), a textbook of German language readings for English-speaking students learning German.

On January 1, 1967 protectors from his own West Berlin apartment building founded Kommune 1. Johnson first learned about it by reading it in the newspaper. Returning to West Berlin in I969, he became a member of the West German PEN Center and of the Akademie der Kunste (Academy of the Arts). In 1970, he published the first volume of his master-work, the Jahrestage (Anniversary). Two more volumes were to follow in the next three years, but the fourth volume would not appear until 1983. Meanwhile, in 1972 he became Vice President of the Academy of the Arts and had a lectureship on Max Frisch's Tagebuch 1966-1971.

In 1974, he moved to 25 Marine Parade Sheemess-on—Sea on the Isle of Sheppey where he enjoyed sitting in the Napier pub nearby. Shortly alter, he broke off work on Jahrestage due to partly to health problems and partly to writer's block. This was not a completely unproductive period. He published some shorter works and continued to do some work as an editor. In 1977, he was admitted to the Darmsadter Akademie fur Sprache und Dichtung (Darmstadt Academy for Speech and Writing); two years later he informally withdrew.

In 1979 he gave a series of Lectures on poetics at the University of Frankfurt (published posthumously as Begleitumstande. Frankflurter Vorlesungen). In 1983, the fourth volume of Jahrestage was published, but he broke off a reading tour due to health reasons.

Johnson died February 22, 1984 in Sheerness-on-Sea in England. His body was not found until March 13 of the same year. At the time of his death, he had been planning a one-year stay in New York City.

Uwe Johnson is buried in plot no. 54 XD at Halfway cemetery Sheerness and he was buried 10th July 1984. Details of where the plot is, can be obtained from the site plan at Swale Council. Hogben and sons were the undertakers and the owner of the plot is Mrs E Johnson. She taught at Minster College and lived at 47 Unity St, Sheerness, ME12 2PR but she is probably not there now.

Paul Dummott

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Uwe Johnson In Sheerness

Some personal thoughts of a Sheerness resident.

Uwe Johnson was a German writer, editor and scholar, born in 1934 in what was Kammin, Germany but is now Kamien Pamorski in Poland. As a student, he read German philology at Rostock and Leipzig but his studies were hindered because he questioned the actions of the communist authorities, believing that they were going against the East German constitution.

He moved to West Berlin where he lived interspersed with periods living and working in America. Throughout his life, he gained recognition and scholastic awards. Still famous in his homeland, Germany, he was a prolific writer. More scholarly articles on his works and achievements are available on-line while printed and Kindle versions of his books are easily found at Amazon.

In 1974 he left West Berlin and New York to base himself in Sheerness in the UK and it is a move that still puzzles his biographers. Some suggest that he was attracted by the gritty reality of a depressed, declining industrial town but Sheerness was never wholly like that.

True, it had relied on the Royal Naval dockyard as a major source of work until they closed in 1960 and in 1974 industry was dominated by an enormous, grubby, noisy steelworks. However, Sheerness had enjoyed another industry which flourished with the coming of the railways – tourism. At one time, special trains would bring day-trippers from London. Although by 1974, the tourists were few and far between, the sea front and beach remained an amenity to be proud of and still is, today. It’s by the sea that Uwe chose to buy a smart four-storey house overlooking the seawall, the beach and the Thames Estuary.

For most of his life Uwe had lived under extremism which he resisted. His boyhood education was under Nazism, his student days under communism and he worked in America still rife with Mcarthyism and remembering his anti-communist witch-hunts. England was far more moderate which probably suited Uwe and house prices in Sheerness were low especially compared to London. His writings reflect how he, a German, a one time enemy, was accepted by the locals and was welcome in the local pubs especially the Seaview and the Napier. No-one cared that he always carried a notepad and pen and was constantly taking notes.

Some pubs are little more than drinking shops while others, like the traditional village pub, are places where you go to socialise without trouble and Uwe chose to socialise. Sadly, he was an alcoholic which resulted in his death at only forty-nine but even so, he didn’t write of staggering home after a brawl, instead he wrote of conversations and people’s reactions.

After a lifetime of living with extreme politics, he settled in a place that was slow moving and relaxed; not posh but unpretentious; not rich but not poverty-stricken. The same could be said of the pubs he frequented.

Author’s Note

Some pubs can be permanently ruined by one bad landlord, others go up and down according to the current incumbent and sadly some just close. The Seaview has gone but the Napier is flourishing. I’m also a published author who drinks in the Napier. I have to admit that my science fiction novels are lightweight compared to Uwe Johnson’s academic works but, indulging in a little friendly rivalry, I can smugly say that I’ve made it to sixty-eight without becoming an alcoholic.

I don’t know about the people Uwe drank with, but today, the regulars listen to me as I wind down from my latest tale of folk in alternate universes. John chats about his day driving his bus through Tonbridge while Sid talks about his chillies hoping for a chance to burn the roof of your mouth off. There’s also Fishy Paul who… Let’s just say that he’s the pub character. I should also mention Jackie, a lovely lady who works behind the bar and who cheerfully trades insults with me.

I’m sure that this is what Uwe saw. The richness of diversity, and people who do not need to impress, they manage very well as themselves.

Peter Apps - 2016

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