In literature the only thing better than finding a new word in the dictionary is hearing about an intriguing writer a description of makes you desperate to read. How Uwe Johnson (1934-84), one of the most significant post-war European novelists, "the Poet of Divided Germany", ended up in the terminally uninspiring backwater of Sheerness on the Isle of Sheppey in suburban Kent, is fascinatingly explored in the Radio 3 programme 'A Secret Life'.
After defecting from Communist East Germany and living for much of the 60's in New York (during which time he worked on his magnum opus Die Jahrestage (Anniversaries), as yet untranslated into English), no-one is quite sure what drew Johnson to Sheerness, where he moved with his wife and daughter in 1974 and remained until his premature, perhaps drink-related death a decade later. The programme's oblique examination of his markedly unremarkable existence there (he was known as Charles to his neighbours and spent evenings in the local pub transcribing banal conversations) reminded me both of JG Ballard in his own bourgeois disturbia of Shepperton and Johnson's fellow German "emigrant" WG Sebald, who spent the last 30 years of his life in rural Norfolk. As well as being adherents of Flaubert's dictum "Be regular and orderly in your life like a bourgeois, so that you may be violent and original in your work", the three writers share an intense preoccupation with the dark depredations underlying apparently seemly urban existences, the "cracks in culture" Andre Gide spoke of wanting to probe.
However, no novels or other books emanated from Uwe Johnson's residence in Sheerness. It seems he was "blocked" - semantically ironic, if we consider that it was the "Eastern bloc" he had veered away from. One of the few texts he completed was an essay on the SS Richard Montgomery, which had run aground and sank a mile off the coast of Sheerness with 3,172 tonnes of explosives on board.The essay seems indicative of Johnson's strange, imploded character in how he appears to relish this source of imminent danger and disruption submerged within the tedium of his internal exile. It describes how, due to the inherent danger and projected expense, the ship and its cargo had never been salvaged; and how, if the wreck were to explode, it would be one of the largest non-nuclear explosions of all time, perhaps sending a tidal wave up the Thames which would cause widespread damage and perhaps engulf large areas of London.
Monday, 20 April 2015
Monday, 13 April 2015
|Ancient city of Tharros, Sinis peninsula|
"Comes over one an absolute necessity to move". In London we live so much in the virtual clouds our heads now resemble and by the abstracts societal pressures reify within our minds: clock-time, monetary status, group-approval. Until we travel we tend to forget we're primarily a body of which the brain is only one small component. We forget to look, feel and experience the world through sensory channels; that verbal explanations of phenomena are not always necessary. Through receptivity to otherness you can grasp experiences in a way that isn't either intellectual or culturally-circumscribed. Equally, there is always new learning to be acquired just by relinquishing the concept that living in a big sophisticated city gives us a privileged access to knowledge and understanding ie. the worldliness or knowingness - mediated through equivocating layers of irony - of the sceptical urbanite.
|Torre di Castari, on the Costa Verde|
Wasn't this the impetus behind DH Lawrence's "savage pilgrimage"? You encounter this difficult, unwieldy sense of wonder, of the unkempt poem as "an act of attention" in Birds, Beasts and Flowers but in the novels set abroad - as well as travel-books such as Sea and Sardinia - the sense of frustration at not being able to turn off his critical intelligence and participate in the simpler, less cerebral life he encounters is palpable. But the expectation that Lawrence could ever discover a zone exempt from what he saw as the ravages of modernity - "Sardinia, which is like nowhere. Sardinia, which has no history, no date, no race, no offering... It lies outside; outside the circuit of civilisation" - seems inherently flawed, even if we still recognise the urge to locate this "uncaptured Sardinia" today.