Twelve Years: An American Boyhood in East Germany
by Joel Agee
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 324 pp., $14.95
James Agee was a writer of strong talent and many interests, but when he died at forty-five he was by no means the master of his discerning, anguished intellect, not to mention his tempestuous emotions. Even at Harvard he had called attention to himself by the way he lived as well as by his abilities. Until heart disease slowed him down (and eventually killed him) he was much talked about as an insomniac, hard-drinking poet, novelist, and critic, and he was also well known as a film scriptwriter and essayist. An iconoclast, a rule-breaker, a performer, he was a visionary barely able to keep ahead of his own demons. Many of those who admired his prose viewed his life with pity or outright disapproval, thinking of the waste, the promise only partially fulfilled.
When James Agee died in 1955, he was living with his third wife, Mia, and their three small children. By Alma, his second wife, he had become the father of a son, Joel, born in 1940, when the long struggle with the writing of his book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was finally being put aside rather than won. By 1944 Alma had left him—angry, she told an interviewer in the recent documentary film Agee, because of her husband’s unwillingness to settle into a stable family life. She took their son to Mexico, there met and married Bodo Uhse, a writer and longtime communist who had fled his native Germany when Hitler came to power. In 1948 the Uhses (including a baby son, Stefan) returned to East Germany on a Soviet freighter. Joel took his stepfather’s name, became a resident of Gross-Glienicke, a town near Berlin and at the outermost edge of the Soviet zone. He already spoke English and Spanish; he now began mastering German. He became, ostensibly, a German child whose family belonged to the privileged communist intelligentsia.
Joel Agee is now over forty. He describes his autobiographical memoir, in a subtitle, as “an American boyhood in East Germany.” He apparently wants to connect his own childhood with conflicts of recent decades: Western capitalism and democracy as against Eastern socialism, with its ever-present bureaucratic centralism. Before we read of his life, however, we are told this:
Everything in this book is true, but not everything is precisely factual. While none of the events described are fictitious, I have taken liberties of fiction to disguise the identity of most characters outside my immediate family: I have changed names, I have transposed heads, bodies, attitudes. Place names have occasionally been altered for the same reason. Here and there, I chose to imagine the nuance of a gesture or look or utterance rather than bore the reader with repeated complaints about my spotty recollection. By far the greater part of my story, though, is faithful to the facts and their chronology. Foremost among my intentions, throughout the book, was finding the right word, the right phrase and image, to render as honestly as I …