How does Sheerness live

BiographySee through the writer's eyes

Frauke Meyer-Gosau: "Trying to find a home. A trip to Uwe Johnson"

By Meike Feßmann

Legendary gruffness: the writer Uwe Johnson, here at a reading in 1973. (picture alliance / dpa - Manfred Rehm)

When Uwe Johnson died in 1984, he had pissed off friends and family. "Trying to find a home" approaches the writer, but without speaking to companions, but rather by visiting the places where he spent his life. A worthwhile trip.

Anyone who undertakes a "trip to Uwe Johnson" has to be armed, possibly having already bathed in dragon blood in their minds, for example when looking at the lindworm, which is the landmark of both the Austrian city of Klagenfurt and the Slovenian capital Ljubljana. Frauke Meyer-Gosau, editor of the magazine "Literaturen", knows both places. She lived in Ljubljana for a while, did research in Klagenfurt, when she made her "Journey to Ingeborg Bachmann", which was also carried out at C.H. Beck appeared. Even this first book was well told. In the numerous conversations that she had, the charisma of Bachmann himself could be felt posthumously.

Armor against desolation

This time the storytelling has a different function. It is a kind of protective armor against desolation with which the biographer arms herself - and at the same time a creative tool that captivates a writer who never set out to please. Uwe Johnson's gruffness is legendary and in the course of his life grew into an aggressiveness that even his closest friends feared.

When the writer, who was born in Pomerania on July 20, 1934, died of a heart attack in Sheerness-on-Sea at the age of less than fifty, he had long since pissed off everyone: his wife Elisabeth and daughter Katharina had left the house they bought in 1974 in 1978, and friends were visiting only by letter with him. The completion of his epic "Anniversaries", the first three volumes of which were published in 1970, 1971 and 1973, drained his strength. The fourth volume finally came in 1983, shortly before his death in February 1984.

Friends and family didn't want to talk about Johnson

Nobody wanted to talk about the great writer. So the author made a virtue out of necessity. She drove to the places of his life, to Darsewitz, Anklam, Recknitz, Güstrow, Rostock, Leipzig, New York and Sheerness and roamed through Berlin-Friedenau, where he had landed for fifteen years in 1959 after moving from the GDR. So she learned to see through the eyes of a writer who saw the Mecklenburg landscape as his "home" (even if he only used the term in connection with New York) and "saw" her everywhere.

He lived on the Upper Westside with his family from May 1966 to August 1968, in the immediate vicinity of Hannah Arendt, who looked after him with the publisher Helen Wolff. He incessantly collected material for the one year that his Mecklenburg heroine Gesine Cresspahl was to spend there with her ten-year-old daughter Marie during the "anniversaries".

Frauke Meyer-Gosau aptly characterizes his worldview as a "look through ice", which keeps the smallest things in the "freezer of memory" until the "cat memory" (as Johnson called it) brings them back to life. In doing so, she not only opens up the person, but also the poetology of a work whose stubbornness outlasts. He has always resisted being apostrophized as the "poet of the two Germanys". He didn't want to be a "branded article", but rather to be read. It's still worth it.

Frauke Meyer-Gosau: Trying to find a home. A trip to Uwe Johnson.
C. H. Beck Verlag, Munich 2014
296 pages, 22.95 euros