This fall, New York Review Books is trying its hand at something bigger—literally.
In October, NYRB will publish German author Uwe Johnson’s Anniversaries, an 1,800-page novel originally published in Germany in four volumes, by Suhrkamp, from 1970 to 1983, the year before Johnson’s death. Written in 365 chapters in the form of diary entries, the book chronicles each day in the life of a German single mother raising her 10-year-old daughter in Manhattan from Aug. 21, 1967, to Aug. 20, 1968, as they puzzle their respective ways through big city life following their emigration from a small town in north Germany still reeling from the fall of the Third Reich.
NYRB editor Edwin Frank sees the book as “a new kind of historical novel—a novel of day-to-day-life, and at the same time a sort of epic of everyday life.” He added that the story changed during its writing, as the vicious news cycle of 1967 and 1968—filled with riots and assassinations and foreign wars—developed.
“When Johnson started writing it, he didn’t know what would happen in 1968,” Frank said. “He didn’t actually finish the book until 1983, and he started it in 1967. As he worked on it, it changed. He had to take into account the new information that emerged throughout the year of 1968.”
The publication marks a pair of firsts, one for NYRB and one for the book itself. Though Houghton Mifflin published the novel in what Frank calls a “much-abridged” two-volume English-language translation by Leila Vennewitz in the early 1970s and mid-1980s, this is the first time Anniversaries has been brought into English in its entirety; its new translator, Damion Searls, is translating the whole book from scratch. This is also the first time NYRB has ever tackled a book of this size.
Those both presented some challenges, which NYRB and Searls navigated fairly neatly. To fund the translation, the book was “very generously supported,” Frank said, by the Goethe-Institut, “in reflection of the importance the book has in Germany.” Searls also independently received both a Cullman Center and a Guggenheim fellowship to help bankroll his translation efforts, which Frank called “an indication of the perceived importance of the work.”
To drum up interest in a nearly 2,000-page translated novel, the design and publicity teams both came up with unique approaches. In terms of design and packaging, the book is already distinguished from the bulk of NYRB’s list by consisting of two paperback volumes instead of the usual one; they will be sold together in a boxed set priced at $39.95. (Though the publisher may eventually sell the two in distinct volumes, for now, they are only available as a set.) Both the print size and the page count are bigger on this book than on other NYRB books, hence its segmentation into two manageable volumes.
In terms of design, Frank said the publisher hoped the book would be instantly recognizable as an NYRB Classic, even as it branched out from some of the line’s typical visual characteristics. “Each of the two volumes has a bespoke cover,” he said. “It lacks our usual lozenge or cartouche or text box or whatever you want to say for title and author. But the spine of the book will be the same. The box has been fun to think about. We have the great picture of Uwe Johnson transcribing graffiti on the New York City subway to go on one side of it, and then we’ll play off the two front covers for the other side of the box.”
The big trick was marketing such a monster of a tome—and, in the U.S., an obscure one at that—to booksellers. That’s where NYRB’s reputation in the business came in handy. “At some level, booksellers who know and like NYRB Classics and are already interested in what we do will hear when we say, ‘This is, literally, the biggest book we’ve ever done,’ ” said NYRB publicity manager Nick During. And yet, he added, “We wanted to give people time to get going.”
That meant sending out galleys of the first quarter of the book earlier this year before a three-book set of galleys was finished in late June. The publisher also sent out a pamphlet comprising a handful of the first few chapters of the book to dozens of bookstores as a giveaway for customers. Many of those bookstores, During said, asked for more.
This shouldn’t be much of a surprise, to hear Frank tell it. “This is recognized in Germany as a book of major importance,” he said. “It is regularly compared to some of the most famous German novels of the century: Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain and Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. They would also compare them—as Uwe Johnson wanted to be compared, and consciously invited the comparison—to Proust and Joyce.”
That made the full translation of the book imperative in Frank’s eyes. “It’s a book that should exist in its entirety,” he said. “You don’t want to have just one volume of Proust. It seemed important to make it available that way. Not least because the bigness of it, and the range and scope of it, is what makes it such a pleasure.”