5/26/12

B. Kojo Laing – One of the greatest novels ever to come out of the African continent: Ghana was a photocopy country, and they wanted the original truth! You could hold the hope in the air and powder it; all the salt would leave the sea and flavor this stew on fire by the roadsides




B. Kojo Laing, Search Sweet Country, McSweeney's 2012. [1986.]
"Search Sweet Country—one of the greatest novels ever to come out of the African continent—follows the lives of an eclectic, interconnected group of Ghanaians living in and around the sprawling, chaotic city of Accra in the mid-1970s. Bringing the city to life in dizzying, lyrical prose, Laing weaves a story filled with bizarre and often melancholy characters: an idealistic professor, a lovely young witch, a wide-eyed student, a corrupt politician and his hack sidekick, a business-savvy young woman, a healer, a bishop, and a crazy man intent on founding his own village. Their collective narratives create a portrait of a country where colonialism is dying, but democracy remains elusive. Search Sweet Country is a timeless, near-forgotten gem by a virtuosic writer, as necessary now as when the book was first published. Like Joyce’s Dublin and Dickens’s London, Laing’s Accra brims with both lush specificity and universal relevance.
First published in 1986, this new edition comes beautifully packaged and with a foreword by Binyavanga Wainaina."
 
"The finest novel written in English ever to come out of the African continent."—From the introduction by Binyavanga Wainaina
"Here are two scintillating first novels set in contemporary central Africa: the first in Ghana, to the west, the second in Tanzania, to the east. Laing is a black Ghanian poet whose novel exuberantly reels with language and imagery reminiscent of the early Joyce. Set in Laing's own "sweet country," it revolves around a broad and colorful cast of characters: the student Kofi Loww, "now thirty and living on the wandering side of doubt"; Kojo Okay Pol, an optimist, "the monkey that believed he could climb down his own tail in any emergency"; Professor Sackey ("Professor Carry Yourself") and his wife Sofi; Bishop Budu and his assistant Osofo; and Beni Baidoo, the "shrewd and shriveled" old man who is Accra, Ghana, is "the bird standing alive by the pot that should receive it, and hoping that, after being defeathered, it would triumphantly fly out before it was fried." As a girl, taken on an oryx hunt by her father, Antonia was the first to spot an oryx; the animal's life was then spared. Now a doctor, back in her native Dar es Salaam, a white woman in a black-ruled country, her father dead, her mother returned to America, and their house seized by the government, Antonia does what she can to help the natives who come to her sick from poverty, hunger, squalor. The novel gracefully traces the friendship between Antonia and a young black woman she treats, Antonia mystified by Esther's spiritual healing abilities, Esther eager to learn the basics of anatomy and physiology and Western medicine. Two triumphant works, warmly recommended." -  Marcia G. Fuchs
"Originally printed in 1986, Laing’s novel about the bumbling, bustling city of Accra and its inhabitants in the mid-70s is a figurative, comic treat, filled with wild characters and dizzy, wink-filled prose. This new and very lovely edition, published by McSweeney’s, is sure to convert many to the cause.“ - Flavorwire
"A stylistically brilliant, but dense and demanding first novel about modern Africa by Ghanaian poet Laing. Accra, Ghana, in 1975 is a teeming city of ""sin, juju [witchcraft] and wisdom."" But in this lush land where ""breezes polish souls,"" ""fruit ripens, but the people do not."" The soul of Accra is besieged by encroaching Western values, the ruling Supreme Military Council, a burgeoning national consciousness, and personal greed. ""Almost all Ghanaians,"" a local authority explains, ""would choose to postpone their souls and run after Mercedes Benzes."" The huge (and confusing) cast of characters includes witches, collaborators, academics, priests, prostitutes and madmen. Roughly at the center stand two young men: Kofi Loww, who, paralyzed by his own and his country's identity crises, lives ""on the wandering side of doubt""; and Kojo Okay Pol, ""the monkey who believes he could climb his own tail in any emergency."" The two experience love affairs, run-ins with the military, family estrangements, reunions, and deaths. Meanwhile, townspeople demonstrate against ""the terrible waste of beauty"" only to be placated by the army's meal of corned beef. A bureaucrat finally wheedles the Mercedes Benz he craves, but then smashes it into a cow. Loww eventually marries and returns to the university, but ""the optimist"" Pol's soul, like Ghana, ""remains unfinished."" The prose is energetic and metaphorical, but while it successfully evokes the African psyche, it also renders some of the story mechanics and specifics unclear. Still, there is strong, original talent here.“ – Kirkus Reviews
"Ghanaian poet Kojo Laing, in his first novel, breaks new ground for the genre, scoring a prodigious symphony of life in contemporary Accra. He develops his characters' lives as separate themes, alternating realistic days with surreal nights, as they juggle African traditions and Western values, tribal loyalties and national consciousness. A powerful and original stylist, Laing should become a major voice in Africa.“ – John de St. Jorre

"Mr. Laing, an acclaimed poet inhis native Ghana, captures Accra, Ghana's capital, at a moment of its recent history, through the wanderings and intersections of a large cast of comic characters (.....) The vision is surreal and satirical; every sentence is relentlessly figurative; ideas and jokes crowd every page. Though the verbal excess becomes tiresome, and the whole of the novel is weaker than its parts, Mr. Laing has found an original voice that is all the stronger for making few concessions to the Western reader: wild, sophisticated, sorrowful, it is the voice of contemporary Africa's disillusionment." - George Packer

 "Binyavanga Wainaina begins his Introduction to Search Sweet Country with the bold claim that:
     Search Sweet Country is the finest novel written in English to come out of the African continent. I know no other novel, from a continent full of great novels, which rewards the reader so abundantly.
        That's some high expectations to burden a book with -- and while the rewards of Search Sweet Country are abundant, they don't necessarily come easily.
       The novel is set in Accra, in the mid-1970s, when Ghana -- independent since 1957 -- was under the rule of a military head of state, Acheampong, whose National Redemption Council had overthrown the democratically elected government in 1972. But Search Sweet Country isn't so much concerned with the historical specifics: politics features in the novel, but only as one part of a larger picture of the country and city. Laing's novel is critical, as there are arguments about the failures of state and of differing approaches to governance, but Laing's vision doesn't get hung up in the details of the time: descriptions of the lives of his characters, and the conditions in Accra largely suffice to convey the failures of those in power.
       Wishful thinking -- of how things should be -- and a search for alternatives is common to several of the characters, and one, Beni Baidoo, has ambitions for reinvention at its most basic: "I know everybody in Accra except dignity !" he complains, and his solution is to try to found his own village, and start entirely anew:
All I need now is a little help from my gooooooood friends to start my village. I can get land, I have my donkey, and all I need is a few human beings, some furniture, several superhuman girls, a family god, an okyeame, a village fool and a village thief ... to steal from the rich and give to me gently.
       The novel moves among a variety of characters and their various quests, including the academic, Professor Sackey (who, although, a professor of sociology: "could not manage the society of his house" -- but who also claims: "I am the barometer for Ghana ! When they start making things unhappy for me, then things are getting serious !") and the seeking Kofi Llow. Another character is named Owula ½-Allotey; another the British witch, Sally Soon (and Sooner, and Soonest -- at one point: "huddling behind the moon, crying over her own contradictions").
       There is no clear story arc, as Laing juggles the (often crossing) paths of these many characters -- many of whom finds themselves adrift even as they, like Baidoo, claim (or hope) to have a specific goal in mind. Much of the story amounts to a muddling through, given the circumstances.
       What is most remarkable about the novel is the language, and how the overlapping stories and episodes are told. Laing was a poet before writing this, his first novel, and Search Sweet Country is very much poetic fiction. A six-page glossary is not only of Ghanaian words used in the text, but also: "a few that were invented by the author". But Laing doesn't just sprinkle these words in his narrative, his use of language far exceeds the usual prosaic expectations.
       Typical is the early description of Baidoo:
     Beni Baidoo was Accra, was the bird standing alive by the pot that should receive it, and hoping that, after being defeathereed, it would triumphantly fly out before it was fried.
        Or, for example:
Ghana was a photocopy country, and they wanted the original truth! Cats and lorries, which had been impatient all along, partly joined them with their different types of horn making one tune of solidarity. You could hold the hope in the air and powder it; all the salt would leave the sea and flavor this stew on fire by the roadsides.
       The intensity and density of the imagery that Laing packs in makes for an unusual reading experience, the richness of the language often in danger of obscuring what plot there is -- especially since Laing shifts so frequently between so many different significant characters. A great deal happens in Search Sweet Country, but much of this is not presented in the most conventional form, making it difficult to keep track of all the Accra-bustle. The picture that emerges, of a country and city and people struggling against so many forces -- many imposed by the powers that be -- is a vivid and convincing one, but, yes, the way it is presented is unusual and can be hard to come to grips with.
       Worthwhile, and often fascinating, but not easy going." - M.A.Orthofer




B. Kojo Laing, Big Bishop Roko and the Alter Gangsters, Woeli Publishing Services, 2006.

"A long-awaited novel from one of Africa¿s best regarded writers. He is a poet, but best known as a novelist, original and imaginative. His writing is described as fundamentally African, and specifically Ghanaian in source. Witty narrative and dark humour dominate this new novel in which an Anglican Bishop works scientifically and doctrinally with different types of sharks, an ecumenically minded Pope loves boxing over the telephone, and the Archbishop of Canterbury is powerless to stop genetic experiments which make the interaction between rich and poor countries almost impossible."


B. Kojo Laing, Woman of the Aeroplanes, William Morrow, 1990.
  
"This extraordinary novel eloquently uses pithy humor, fantasy, satire, and bawdy language from African folktales to comment on contemporary society. Enveloped in eternal mist outside mortal time and reality, and invisible to cartographers, Tukwan, Ghana and Levansvale, Scotland are two sister towns, each seeking to enrich its coffers and exchange characteristic virtues. This rich tale is the story of their successes, failures, resolutions, and confrontations with mortality. The novel's imagery is metaphorical and exotic: a lake is one of four town bosses in Tukwan, Levensvale's rocket "rides and diffuses the anger in the heart," sacred ducks and termites defend humans. Characterization and language are both inventive, consistent, and supportive of action from the opening sentence to the end. This is no sleepy Brigadoon. Here, activity and travel are constant, moving in and out of histories; romance flourishes; and love makes daily inventions possible.- Veronica Mitchell




B. Kojo Laing, Major Gentl and the Achimota Wars, Heinemann, 1992.

"The rebirth of Africa in the year 2020 AD is the starting point of this surrealistic novel, which pits Major Gentl against the mercenary Torro the Terrible for control of Achimoto City. The two warriors prepare for a final battle which will decide the fate of Africa's future.
I have not read this book in seven years. My recollection may be fuzzy. As far as I am aware this book was never reprinted, and I have struggled to find a copy. I have only recently found a copy in South Africa which I have bought and begun re-reading. At any rate, I think that this book is a very worthwhile read. It is suprising, poetic and dense. The density of the writing may put people off, but it is certainly worth it. This book has qualities that are missing in much popular literature. Each page is full with imagery, wordplay and metaphor that requires real work on the part of the reader
It feels like (in my opinion) an ancient (greek, roman, etc) mythology placed into a futuristic setting, but with all the strangeness that exists in our modern world. Surrealism prevails, but in a telling (and for its time, possibly prophetic) way. For example, in the modern warfare described in this book, each side can only have as much army as can fit in one side of a prescribed area (like a soccer field). Because it is under the auspices of the UN, each side can only shoot into the ground during the battle, so as not to injure anyone. At lunch, all of them take a break and mingle at the supplied catering, afterwards, back to war. One of Major Gentl's cunning plans (with which he won a battle) was to remove all air suipport and require all his troops to fire into the air. The resulting confusion led to a victory.
Finally, the level of description and depth of writing is unsurpassed, though difficult, so this is not a book for someone who wants to have an easy ride.“- D. Henning 




B. Kojo Laing, Godhorse, Heinemann, 1989.


"This collection of poetry, by one of Ghana's leading poets and novelists, looks at themes such as nature, love, death, politics and portraits of daily life."

5/25/12

W. M. Spackman - He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him. Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character


W. M. Spackman, The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, Dalkey Archive Press, 1997.


"Described by Stanley Elkin as "this country's best-kept literary secret" and "a lost American classic," W. M. Spackman is one of the finest writers of the twentieth century.
This omnibus edition includes all five of the author's previously published novels: Heyday (and here presented with revisions the author made shortly before his death); and the critically acclaimed novels published between 1978 and 1985: An Armful of Warm Girl (1978), A Presence with Secrets (1980), A Difference of Design (1983), and A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). The novel As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning is published here for the first time, as well as the author's only two short stories."

"[Spackman's] mature fiction offers a series of blithely moneyed, cavalierly attractive (and single) heroes whom one might conjecture to be Spackman unbound—a shining collegian never chastened by reality... As a writer, Spackman sought what Henry James, in The Golden Bowl, nicely termed 'the convenience of a society so placed that it had only its own sensibility to consider'... [The] fifth [novel of the collection], As I Sauntered Out, One Midcentury Morning, was in the editorial works when death overtook Spackman, who was a notable example of geriatric blooming or of neglected genius, depending on how you look at it... Spackman settled to his subject: men and women doing courtship dances, captured with a [Henry] Greenian precision of fluttering utterance and insistent sensual detail. No more sweating to be a Darwinian Fitzgerald or a patrician Steinbeck: everything is to be oblique, indolent, Watteauesque. In Green's subtly mandarin style... Spackman found a way to flow, picking up every vary and hesitation of the human voice and bending syntax to imbue descriptive prose with the feathery breath of speech... [H]is fiction comes as a revelation. No American writer was more thoroughly captivated than Spackman." - New Yorker

"[Spackman is] such a joy to read that once you close this book, you'll wonder why his fiction has been unavailable for so long . . . Image and allusions stir the senses, reveal the speaker's awareness of his place in a tarnishing tradition, his pride of ownership . . . [O]nce a taste for Spackman's strangeness, his subtle humor, is acquired, [the reader] will be richly rewarded." - The Washington Times

"The six novels and two short pieces that make up The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman constitute what may be the most graceful and sophisticated erotic comedy ever produced by an American writer. Certainly Spackman belongs on that short list of the country's greatest prose stylists." - Newsday

"On finishing A Presence With Secrets, I turned right back to page one and read it again." - Newsweek

"Everything happens: romance, wit, intelligence, geniality, culture without the politics that spoiled it after 1959, sex without tears, a genuinely lovable character... [Spackman] reminds us that once upon a time there was a civilization." - New York Times

"These novels and stories are to be read for the entertainment value of their story lines, but more than that, for the breathtaking experiencing of exquisite language." - Booklist

"The marvelous Spackman dialogue, with its ironic asides, stream-of-consciousness nonsense, and brackets of affection should be patented." - Washington Post

"Studded with disarming observations and gorgeous, one-of-a-kind sentences, Spackman's writing is a sensuous delight." - Publishers Weekly

"Reading [Spackman] is like taking a warm bath in a luxurious prose style . . . This confectionary fiction bound to delight anyone with a taste for sophisticated whimsy." - Boston Globe

"He has the power to make you believe you are engaged in an important act merely by reading him... It isn't too much to say that Dalkey Archive Press's decision to reissue these books in one volume is as distinguished and significant a publishing achievement as the publication in 1946 of The Portable Faulkner." - Stanley Elkin

"In 1978, Spackman, a Princetonian and a Rhodes scholar and incidentally an entirely senior citizen, produced the novel that I believe to be the most elegant American figment of the genre of frivolity. “Worldly Innocence” is the rubric under which this tiny masterpiece is to be filed, its temper elegiac, its aroma erotic, its observations (“sleek arms tenderly flailing”) primigenial." - Richard Howard


"I had been an admirer of Dalkey Archive for a good while—not suspecting that I would work for them a few years down the line—and it was their logo that attracted me to The Complete Fiction of W. M. Spackman, along with the natural question, “Who the hell is W. M. Spackman, and why does he deserve a Complete anything?” I had never so much as seen a Spackman book before, but Stanley Elkin’s blurb—and this was in St. Louis: the city of Elkin, the city of Gass—was seduction enough. I brought it home, and as with many another omnibus edition, began the serious work of putting off doing anything more than admiring its heft.
When I finally did open it, I read not from the beginning, but from the middle—another symptom of the omnibus syndrome—and, as usual, found that I had been a fool to wait. Open to any page of his Complete Fiction and you will be struck dead by a turn of phrase, a lyric description, some gorgeously stylized dialogue—and all just a wee bit off, made strange by his delectably odd manner of deforming simple statements with deadpan qualifications. (Of an interminable lovers’ spat, the narrator shorthands: “And so on and on. As they went on down into the second cool bottle. The conversation becoming still less worth setting even ceremonially down.”)
His writing has an uncanny elegance: he writes like an aspirant to the ribald comedies of seduction that blossomed during the Restoration, though never with recourse to their crudity. He is our lusty, hetero Firbank: a maker of bibelots, sculpted little gewgaws that, when skimmed or flipped through, seem like forgettable trifles, but when engaged with all of the reader’s attention reveal the full density of their textures.
No one page offers an easy point of entry, a pastoral paragraph in “plain American which cats and dogs can read” (though Spackman’s prose is American through and through: just a vernacular that was never actually spoken, a hodgepodge of Quaker clarity and the cussedness found in the jokier prose of Pound; stolid straightforwardness steeped in modernist quirk), but Spackman is the least intimidating of authors. He approaches us on familiar ground, and then helps us see just how strange that ground really is. Not an “experimental” writer in the familiar sense, he makes even the parry and thrust of predigested “romantic” dialogue—and his novels are as full of this as those of Henry Green—alien, compelling, and hilarious:
Because dammit,” he hurried on, “this outlandish whatever-it-is, relationship, hardly know what, between you and me—total absence of any term from the language if you want my opinion! And I include Freudian technicalities!” he ended with violence. “Now dammit can I get you a sherry?” he in part shouted, springing up again. . . . “The thing is, to take these things calmly, in the name of heaven!” he made her see. . . . “In a word, my lovely little thing, you and I really do have to get our, huh, our mutual history into some kind of handle-able order my God!”
It’s not hard to see why Stanley Elkin would be attracted to this: yes, it’s affected, twee, precious, but my God it’s weird, having what Elkin called “the queer protuberant salience of the obliquely sighted”—the “strange displacement of the ordinary” that turns merely competent reportage into something that rankles and sticks in the mind—and it has it at the level of each individual sentence, making Spackman’s narrative statements not so much a tool for carrying meaning as a means of carrying a tune. You have to be open to it: let it persuade you and teach you how to hear its melody.
Like his prose, Spackman is an anomaly. William Mode Spackman was born in 1905, lived eighty-five years, and the best of his delicate comedies were all written in the last third of his life. Each of them touches, with variation and nuance, on the same themes: the thrill of seduction, the fleeting pleasure of new love, the slow and never quite complete quiescence of desire as a man grows older, and, particularly in my favorite of his novels, A Presence with Secrets, the basic unfamiliarity between us and even our closest intimates—though he is never portentous, never dour. He’s more likely to attract the opposite criticism, that he’s too frivolous and light. But like Firbank and Green—with whom he shares just enough similarities for one to be tempted to issue an opportunistic “movement” name—he was a supreme stylist who could make the most trivial of narrative soufflés into succulent delights.
Further giving the lie to any accusations of frivolity, Presence is a tightly structured triptych, giving us three scenes from the life of a typical Spackmanian “marauder”—read “rake”—and painter named Hugh Tatnall.
The first section is narrated in a coy postcoital third-person, as Hugh wakes in bed with his new lover-of-the-moment following a riot in Italy (“For they had not taken refuge in this room to make love good god! but in a hairsbreadth run for it out of the path of that headlong mob suddenly on their very heels . . .”). The second is in first person, the recollections of a doting female cousin; and the third, “A Few Final Data During the Funeral,” is made up of the thoughts of a fellow marauder, now old, attending Hugh’s quiet, Quaker memorial.
The book is, among other things, a delirious performance: Spackman and his characters talk around Hugh, defining him by his absence, and in the process illuminating the fact that every life is—as Steven Moore points out in his excellent afterword—itself a “presence with secrets”: secrets that are inevitably lost with death, but that continue to tease and charm. At the root of all the bed-hopping and urbane flirtation that Spackman renders with such impeccable eccentricity—the shy then yielding women; the flustered, sputtering men-on-the-make—is his frustration with and delight in the basic unknowability of the texts of each others’ lives: how sex can be driven as much by the lust for knowing, for experiencing a closeness to new and ultimately inassimilable information, as it is by the more obvious dividends.
It’s about as charming a defense of infidelity as you’re likely to find. Hence Spackman’s focus on new loves, when his characters feel themselves drifting into a new affair, illicit or otherwise; his concentration not on the “stark act,” but, like some gruff and coy Philadelphian Schnitzler, on the various meetings and afterglowings: those moments of luxuriance when lovers really meet one another, and discover the boundaries of their access.
Pre- or post-, his characters spend most of their time talking—trying to define their relationships, and making rules for one another about as enforceable as Caligula’s victory over the sea. Their romances start to fade the instant they begin, and the unpleasantness that follows, when it’s sketched in, can’t ever compete for our or the author’s attentions. In Spackman’s world we may only speak with any surety about new loves and loves remembered with fondness. If this tendency towards fickleness and nostalgia in his imaginary lovers bears an unsettling resemblance to the true nature of we hopelessly adulterous and sentimental primates, it’s worth repeating, here and as always, that this particular zero-sum game is only really winnable in art." - Jeremy M. Davies

"A very Faberge among novelists ... his cadences, when they don't sound like La Rochefoucauld, are echoes of G. M. Hopkins ... Watteau's Embarcation for Cythera rendered as a fugue by Cole Porter ... imagine Nabokov and Fitzgerald with a soupcon of Anita Loos ... French boudoir farce in the manner of Homer's Iliad ... somewhere between the Scoop of Evelyn Waugh and a very un-McCarthy-like Gropes of Academe ... Jamesian in plot and theme, Colette-like in its sensuality.
FOR once reviewers' hype does not exaggerate, and yet the name of W. M. Spackman whose novels were acclaimed in America in such terms is virtually unknown in this country. But not quite; for in the slim volumes of the undergraduate anthology Oxford Poetry for the years 1928 to 1930, among such names as W. H. Auden, Norman Cameron, Louis MacNeice, E. J. Scovell, Stephen Spender and Bernard Spencer, the diligent researcher will come upon some satirical verses by Spackman, then a Rhodes Scholar reading 'Greats' at Balliol. Born in 1905 in Coatsville, Pennsylvania, into a family of wealthy Quakers, he read classics at Princeton, Class of '27, and was summarily ejected from the editorial board of a students' magazine for writing an article held by the university president to be both sacrilegious and obscene. 'I understand', he observed, 'that he has been reading a good deal of James Joyce's Ulysses and T. S. Eliot and other modernists in literature'. There is no hint of these qualities in his Oxford poems, which are models of decorum.
On going down from Oxford Spackman was for a time an instructor in classics at New York University before turning to copywriting and public relations. He returned to academic life in 1938 as a Professor of Classics, with additional duties as Director of Public Relations, at the University of Colorado, writing educational radio programmes in his spare time. He served in naval intelligence during World War II when he added Russian to the various languages, ancient and modern, in which he was already well versed.
His first novel, Heyday, was published in 1953 when he was forty-nine. Influenced by Fitzgerald's story 'Babylon Revisited' and intended as 'the spiritual biography of a generation, a statement about American values, an elegy upon the immemorial loneliness of man, [and] a statement about the young American upper class in that era of its disaster, the 1930s', it fell far short of its impossibly ambitious programme. An uneasy blend of social observation, tragedy, and sex, it recalls the more expert productions of John P. Marquand, but failed to catch the public's imagination. His later comment (about Ivy Compton-Burnett and Henry Green, whom he considered the two great masters of our own day) in an essay on Henry James that 'Anybody must be forgiven a first novel' surely had also a personal reference. Anyway, he published no further fiction for twenty-five years.
His only book during that period was a collection of astringent, irreverent essays, On the Decay of Humanism (1967), whose primary aim was to draw attention to the aesthetic deficiencies of the American academic mind in the fields of modern and classical literature. Most notable is the essay on James's novels in which, while acknowledging their many excellencies, he also made fun of their manifest shortcomings. The teaching of classics was also subjected to sardonic scrutiny, this essay being made the occasion for a celebration of his favourite of all writers, the Latin poet Ovid, whom he acclaimed as a genius of the order of Mozart and Sir Christopher Wren. (Architecture was one of Spackman's hobbies.) These essays, enjoyably instructive in themselves, provide a useful, a priori commentary on the work still to come: four short novels written when Spackman was in his youthful seventies.
The key to which is Ovid, especially the poet's ability to present girls, not as mere charming decoration, but as girls; and the ideal of love, not as seduction, but what Spackman called sexual courtesy. He believed that the 268 lines of Helen's letter in the Heroides contained
in embryo everything that has, since, developed into the novel of dissected motivations that is one of our glories, from La Princesse de Cleves, Manon Lescaut, and Les Liaisons Dangereuses, to Stendhal and Proust.
What he particularly admired in Ovid was his 'mastery of the whole dizzying orchestration of the female heart', a fair enough description of the theme of his own novels.
Their topography, though masquerading as the real world, is as artificial as that of Restoration comedy or the novels of P. G. Wodehouse, an idyllic never-never land whose fauna are the not-so-idle rich inhabiting variously a gem of Georgian brownstone in New York, the groves of American academe, a palazzo in Florence, a rambling chateau on the Brittany coast or a spacious domaine in Normandy. To bring to life his Arcadian scene Spackman devised a mannered style which combines mandarin with the colloquial, a prose rich in aphorism and literary allusion, employing at times a recondite vocabulary, and instantly recognisable as his own.
An Armful of Warm Girl (1978) is written from the viewpoint of Nicholas Romney -- irascible, a connoisseur of good food, his eye still roving at nearly fifty -- who was born into a Philadelphia Quaker family, read classics at Princeton and, after making a grand tour of Europe, entered the family banking firm, of which in 1959 (when the events of the novel take place) he is the chairman. He had married a debutant, raised an affectionate family, and indulged in extra-marital love affairs. Now, without preamble, his wife has declared her independence and asked for a divorce; so, leaving her to pack up her things on his ancestral property in Chester County, he descends grumbling on New York to mull over his predicament. And soon becomes entangled with two women.
He had embarked seventeen years before on an affair, begun in New York and reaching its zenith in Italy, with a young married woman Victoria, now nearing forty: rich, beautiful, and living with her second husband who plays no part in the novel. (Indeed, in all Spackman's fiction husbands are either absent or at any rate complaisant.) Nicholas and Victoria resume the familiar courtship ritual -- reluctance, pursuit, surrender -- as the scene shifts from the restaurants where they gently wrangle over the champagne to his town house in Barrow Street in the Village with its small wailed garden, Adam staircase, and Copley portrait over the mantlepiece, every room of which is haunted by memories of their earlier love-making. Here at a house-warming he is waylaid by a twenty-year-old actress, much addicted to the psychiatrist's couch, who fancies that Nicholas is the destined love of her life. Her first name is Morgan, like many of Spackman's characters borrowing her name from literature. Torn this way and that between Morgan and Victoria, Nicholas is in the position of David Garrick between Tragedy and Comedy in Reynolds' well-known painting.
The chorus expressing the younger generation's views on their elders' behaviour is put into the mouths of Nicholas's married daughter Melissa and her best friend, also married but who shares her layouts with a married lover. Meanwhile Nicholas's freshman son -- only introduced at the end of a telephone line from Princeton -- exasperates his father with details of his own amatory entanglements. At his wit's end, Nicholas decides to decamp to Paris where Victoria has promised to join him; but at his farewell party on shipboard it becomes clear that the complications of his love-life are not to be so easily resolved.
On this flimsy structure Spackman fashioned his first comedy in the high style, one in which dialogue, narrative and thought-stream seamlessly merge into one another. Derivative in the best sense, his prose is marinated in classical and modern literature. Allusions range from Sophocles and Ovid to Petrarch, Milton, T. S. Eliot ('that Pindar of the prie-dieu') and Hemingway. Like Henry Green he has a precise ear for the cadences and hesitancies of modern speech which define the speaker's social and educational context, and like Graham Greene he can conjure a mood, a time, and a place with a few pastiche lines of jazz lyric:
Settin' around in mah underclo'es Gettin' a piece o' yo' mind.
He can paint a scene in a few words, as in Nicholas's nostalgic reminiscence of love-drenched Italy -- 'by what towers, what ancient streets, down what marble geometries, ah by what fountains ...'; and his portraits of the two women are by the hand of a master. Though Victoria had a point when she regretted that in his irresponsibility (a word that chimes throughout the novel like a clock striking) Nicholas had never learned to distinguish a woman from an entree.
Spackman's next piece of fiction, A Presence with Secrets (1981; its working title had been Portraits of the Painter), consists of three loosely linked stories of unequal length -- 47, 29 and 84 pages respectively -- each written from the standpoint of a different character and describing an episode in the amatory career of an American painter Hugh Tatnall. The title story, set in Florence, is concerned with two, overlapping love affairs: the seduction during a political riot, in a bedroom in a casa d'appuntamenti, of a nineteen-year-old American art student; and a longer relationship with an English married woman. Seen through the consciousness of Tatnall, the narrative weaves backwards and forwards between the two, and once more the style is everything, the most perceptible influences being the Joyce of Portrait of the Artist, Henry James, Proust and, in some of the descriptive writing, Henry Green.
'Pays de Connaissance' is written from the standpoint of another of Tatnall's mistresses, a twice-married cousin whose name is never disclosed. In this story the mood is sombre and, proving that Death stalks even in Arcadia, the climax tragic. The third person in the triangle is a French aristocrat of ancient lineage at whose chateau in Brittany the couple stop to ask the way. The country is in a state of emergency following an assassination attempt on de Gaulle, then President of France, creating a dangerous situation into which the Americans are unwittingly drawn.
The shape of the third story is summed up in its title. 'A Few Final Data During the Funeral', for having escaped a terrorist's bullet at the chateau, Tatnall is eventually shot dead in Florence in circumstances not dissimilar to the semi-comic demise of Graham Greene's burnt-out case. At the memorial service held at a Friends' meeting-house in Boston his best friend (and executor), a professor of humanities at Smith, reminisces about Tatnall's philandering from Princeton days onwards interspersed with his own sexual experiences. As a classicist the narrator has plausible scope for recourse to a wider range of classical authors, and as a teacher of the humanities to an even wider range of modern writers, from Ariosto to Jane Austen and from Dryden to Auden and Sylvia Plath. But the parade of Tatnall's girls--Persis, Camilla, Maura, Nadezhda and the rest -- tends to become wearisome, and in Tatnall, without intending to, Spackman created a thoroughly unlikeable protagonist.
The significance of the title of his next novel, A Difference of Design (1983), becomes apparent as the story unfolds and the names of the characters are revealed. A Wall Street investment adviser Lewis Lambert Sather, a widower of just under fifty and attractive to women -- what Spackman calls catnip -- has been sent to Paris by a rich client Mrs. Newman, widow of an Ohio industrialist and who now runs the business (the manufacture of couplings) with a rod of iron. His confidential mission is to rescue her son Chad from some amatory entanglement and send him home to assume his rightful responsibilities. The entanglement proves to be the beautiful Fabrienne, Comtesse de Borde-Cessac, before meeting whom Sather has begun an affair with Maria Godfrey, senior partner of the guide-and-escort service Mrs. Newman has employed to look after him. If that were not hint enough, Maria lunching with Sather in an expense-account restaurant and discussing his mission exclaims: 'Oh dear, it sounds practically like a novel we had to wade through in American Lit. Henry James or somebody'.
For Spackman's notion was to make good the deficiencies of James's The Ambassadors, in which Mrs. Newsome of Massachusetts sends the elderly Lewis Lambert Strether on a similar mission to extricate her son Chad from the clutches of the Comtesse de Vionnet. Spackman had declared in his essay on James that he could find in The Ambassadors nothing to admire at all, partly because the male characters took up so much of the wordage. More importantly, the love affair at the centre of the action seemed to him a blank, because Mme. de Vionnet was not given enough physical presence to suggest she had ever been in anybody's bedroom. The two women in Spackman's version suffer from no such deficiency.
The action, which takes place in 1983, falls into three parts of unequal length (32, 68 and 15 pages respectively), the first and last consisting of Fabrienne's 'stream of consciousness' which, though occurring in the daytime, has affinities with the night thoughts of Molly Bloom. To her dismay, in the midst of her affair with the amiable Chad, she finds she has fallen headlong in love with Sather. The members of the triangle are all old hands at the adultery game, and with two besotted females making a play for a very cool customer indeed their case is similar to that of Macheath, Polly and Lucy in The Beggar's Opera; the analogy with light opera being entirely appropriate to a production whose only aim is to entertain. As with An Armful of Warm Girl, the characters' predicament remains unresolved at the end of the book, leaving the reader at liberty to speculate on the further complications that lie ahead.
For his fourth novel of the series, A Little Decorum, for Once (1985). Spackman returned to the American scene to pay final tribute to the dizzying orchestration of the female heart. Its twin lynchpins are a novelist Scrope Townshend, still a marauder at sixty-plus who spends most of the book in and out of intensive care after a heart-attack; and Laura Tench-Fenton, editor of a glossy fashion magazine. For twenty years in between marriages they have engaged in a tender love affair, which is now renewed. Representing the next generation are Scrope's daughter Sibylla who is married to Laura's stepson Alec, a university lecturer and poet; and their friends who are living together, Amy another novelist and Charles a classics professor in his mid-thirties who is helping Sibylla write a comic libretto about Agamemnon. The third generation is represented by two Princeton sophomores, Amy's younger sister Mimi who is reading sociology (her term-paper is about generational affective vocabularies) and Scrope's grandson Richard; the three chapters in which they appear they spend in bed alternately copulating and gossiping.
Since the characters inhabit the American literary and academic worlds, there is a great deal of cultural name-dropping, Ovid among classical authors being the most frequently cited; for his spirit may be said to preside over the novel and even to provide its moral (if that is the right word?), namely that it is best to have two loves at a time, for in that way you get tired of neither. References to modern writers are also frequent and here include Larkin, Beckett, Coward, Queneau, Apollinaire -- and Spackman himself. Not only does Scrope share many of his creator's tastes and prejudices, especially his vendetta with Saint Paul and his devotion to women, but also appears to have written his novels. For when Amy questions Scrope about his attitude to young girls, in order to acquire information for use in her own fiction, she quotes as his the passage from An Armful of Warm Girl in which the infatuated Morgan accosts Nicholas in the pantry at his house-warming.
Another exercise in the high style, the device Spackman uses here to keep his marionettes dancing is the duologue, as often as not pillow-talk or a telephone conversation, which -- such is the garrulity of women -- usually develops into a monologue punctuated by occasional grunts, 'But's' or 'Well's' on the part of their male listeners. Endlessly they gossip about the other couples' liaisons, each generation finding it hard to accept that within and between all age-groups sex remains very much the same thing. Except in the matter of style; for the older generation accustomed to the courtesies of courtship are shocked by the Boeotian basics of the youngest generation. Mimi, who has already bugged her sister's bed in the cause of sociology, is clearly heading for a career of sexual experimentation, while Richard will have to look elsewhere for his work-outs. Amy is left dithering on the brink of an affair with Alec, whose wife Sibylla after due hesitation -- 'Ah, dammit, Sibylla', he pleads, 'which side of this dizzy debate with yourself are you planning to end up losing?' -- is already rolling in the hay with Charles. The comedy ends on a Shakesperean note of reconciliation with Scrope, by no means a sad ruin of past gallantry, recuperating at an inn in Brittany with Laura, both revelling in nostalgia for the past -- 'the real time of memory' -- even contemplating with indulgence the escapades of their children and grandchildren, which they have come to recognise as a mirror-image of their own.
W. M. Spackman died in 1990 at his home in Princeton at the age of eighty-five. Of a posthumous novel As I Sauntered Out on Mid-Century Morning mentioned in his obituary in the New York Times nothing more has been heard." - John Whitehead

Excerpt

All beyond was in deep darkness, under he saw thick mist above, night-glow from the luminous city around them thrown up saffron against filmy overcast, to be drawn in there, under great lifting curtains and pale coils of cloud, so that light was shed back down too faint anywhere, he hardly made out what this window gave on, below, muffled in black geometries of shadow; a small private square it seemed. And even elegant, a seicento façade over across, arcaded and ornate, the galleria a run of rounded arches all along it, also what must be the shape of a fountain, some spouting nymph he supposed, or riding marble waves a boy and dolphin, anyhow he heard the cold splash of water on stone. Silence again too everywhere, only damp breaths of night-sound rising like exhalations from dark streets and squares, where at last it smelt of spring.
So ecco, he said over his shoulder, in reassurance, and let the long folds of the curtain swing down straight again—there was nothing; had been nothing; late-night passanti scuffling. In any case not that rabble they’d run into, or anything like. But this without looking round at her, for he thought fright, yes, but also the delicate point now was, more likely, how with kindness to get her over what she was so stricken had happened, this helpless shock at herself he supposed: trouble with innocence was historical perspective, it had still to learn what was praxis. So, first, then, deal also with this woebegone nudity. Engaging or not.
There should be the usual toweling vestaglie warming on pipes in the bathroom. Where when he went to look there of course were. So he draped himself in one and brought her the other, saying amiably, here, put this round her pretty shoulders, she couldn’t spend her life under these comic European eiderdowns could she? while he saw to the fire.
On whose incandescent hummocks of ember he took his time shaking from the scuttle dribblings of fresh coal. Culm, it appeared: soft dusts kindled instantly, showering sparks, then soon the whole hearth glowed again, strewing its roses deep into the room’s vaults of shadow, so that when he turned round at last and found great innocent eyes dolefully upon him, those crimsons fluttering in her cheek anyone would have taken for hopeless blushing, so deep among the bed’s canopies of night had the hearth distributed its insubstantial emblems.
And blushing she may have been—helplessly not even he supposed being sure merely what next, or expected to know, for in the fire-fringed shadows she dropped her eyes from his to her cold hands. It seemed she could not speak for misery. Or gêne, for he saw it might be she had no idea what in this situation a girl found—desperately, or even at all—to say. A topic, even. Or, generally, what was, well, expected!
This unforeseen . . . could he label it “threshold-ritual”? anthropologically speaking it had been gone through like an angel, but on from there is not so near second nature. Including light drawing-room conversation if called for.
So, humanely, and still from across the room, imagine, he said to her (as if in complaint), getting caught in another of these pointless Mediterranean revolutions, what a damn’ nuisance. Assuming revolution was actually what it was, for he said genially he hardly thought Italy, Firenze anyhow, was a place any practical-minded Marxist would pick to start one. With their millennial history of total political cynicism? And all the black-marketable antiquities!
But she said in a shamed voice, “I thought we were going to die.”
Yes, well, after a moment he conceded, he supposed it was mostly that ominous lowering sound of a mob coming, like a typhoon. It was daunting; daunted anybody. So in pure primitive reflex people turned and ran. Whereas she’d seen for herself all they’d really needed to do, she and he, was step into the nearest doorway, or a courtyard, or anywhere out of the way. He was appalled he’d frightened her by not doing that on the spot. Instead of haring off first like a fool—luxurious as this pensione (or whatever it was) had in the event turned out to be.
But still it seemed she could not look at him, it was such a hopelessness, only murmuring something downcast about “. . . una condotta di collegio . . .” as if she did not see how, in English, she could possibly ever bring herself to face such a thing.

Jenny Erpenbeck - The house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century. She vows to seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory



Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 2010.

Read it at Google Books



„A house on the forested bank of a Brandenburg lake outside Berlin (once belonging to Erpenbeck’s grandparents) is the focus of this compact, beautiful novel. Encompassing over one hundred years of German history, from the nineteenth century to the Weimar Republic, from World War II to the Socialist German Democratic Republic, and finally reunification and its aftermath, Visitation offers the life stories of twelve individuals who seek to make their home in this one magical little house. The novel breaks into the everyday life of the house and shimmers through it, while relating the passions and fates of its inhabitants. Elegant and poetic, Visitation forms a literary mosaic of the last century, tearing open wounds and offering moments of reconciliation, with its drama and its exquisite evocation of a landscape no political upheaval can truly change.“

„In this original and evocative novel, Erpenbeck charts the history of a property in the Brandenburg hills through snippets--temporarily opened windows offering brief, tantalizing glimpses before slamming shut. There is a Jewish girl murdered during the Holocaust; a disillusioned Communist activist who leaves Nazi Germany and returns after WWII; an architect who collaborated with Albert Speers on the Germania Project; two hard-partying structural engineering students who try to escape to the West, and so on. Amid all these protagonists, there is the recurring figure of "The Gardener," who goes about the bucolic business of maintaining the property with unwavering application. Erpenbeck's elliptical style, rife with naturalistic descriptions of landscape and geology, is better at describing the physical world than the emotional life of her characters, but in so doing, she hammers home her basic point--that people are part of the same continuum as the trees and glaciers that come and go over eons, and that "eternal life already exists during a human lifetime." - Publishers Weekly



“The brutality of her subjects, combined with the fierce intelligence and tenderness at work behind her restrained unvarnished prose, is overwhelming.” - Nicole Krauss



“Visitation adds to her compact scenarios something intangible and enormous, which works on them from outside their modest frames with a force eroding human history and its claims to establish durable meaning.” - The Nation



"It is very rare that a book combines a mastery of language and cadence with an assured and innovative vision to redefine the literary landscape. Visitation is such a book. It is, to my mind, a contemporary masterpiece.
It will be widely compared, no doubt, to Simon Mawer's The Glass House, because its property on a Brandenburg lake outside of Berlin is at the heart of the novel. Yet in that book, Mr. Mawer sacrificed characters to themes. In Visitation, Ms. Erpenbeck does something far more daring: she focuses on time and place as a constant, while each of her characters is (to quote Macbeth) "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more." She is absolutely unflinching in her ability to look beneath the surface to the tapestry of individuals who come and go while the shimmering lake and woodland remain.
Each of the characters receives his or her moment on the stage, with only one who consistently appears: the gardener. There is something soothing and reassuring about his constant reemergence, as he spans the seasons, adding topsoil, sowing grass seed, gathering fallen branches, coaxing nuts from their soft husks, stacking logs in the woodshed. He is a symbol of the cycles of life, spring, winter, summer, fall, always predictable, regardless of the temporary drama being played out.
To illustrate the temporal nature of all characters, each is only defined by his or her profession: the architect, the Red Army Officer, the writer, the illegitimate owner. There is one exception: the Jewish characters are named: "Hermine and Arthur, his parents. He, himself, Ludwig, the firstborn. His sister Elisabeth, married to Ernst. Their daughter Doris, his niece." Indeed, that chapter - the Cloth Manufacturer - contains some of the most powerful writing I've ever read, as Erpenbeck uses cadence and repetition to move her characters towards one of the worst horrors of modern history.
On the chapter on Doris, Erpenbeck writes, "For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever call her by: Doris."
Descriptive and passionate writing like this - in the chapters that focus on the gardener and on the Jewish family - is interspersed with the mundane elements and ritualsof life, for example: "Present exigency: The property that is the subject of the proceedings. Pending determination of ownership. Registration number 654."
The language, in many cases, is like lyrical poetry. I must acknowledge the outstanding translator, Susan Bernofsky, who expertly translated this masterwork from German to English. For literary readers, all I can say is, this is why we read." - Jill I. Shtulman



"Jenny Erpenbeck has already received a great deal of well-deserved critical acclaim in the wake of her third novel, Visitation, which Vogue has called “a remarkable achievement.” Such a response (especially coming from the mainstream, one is tempted to say) is very exciting for the cause of literary translation, and particularly in this case given the book’s unconventional tactics.
The novel eschews convention in many ways, foremost among them being that its central character is a place—on a lakeshore, a collection of adjacent properties, a summer getaway, a garden, a paradise. It is based on an actual place in Brandenburg, Germany, where Erpenbeck’s family had a summer home for the latter part of the 20th century. In her recent interview with Vogue, Erpenbeck explains how she arrived at the present work: It began as an effort to retain something of the lost childhood home (a desire we can all relate to, especially those of us who have only recently fled the nest). As it progressed, however, Erpenbeck widened the novel’s attention from her own relationship with the house to the house itself as a locus of the lives, stories, comings and goings of its many inhabitants over the twentieth century.
Twelve of these inhabitants drift in and out of the book; unnamed for the most part, they are of all ages, and they come from all different sides of Germany’s many different conflicts of the long century. The original Jewish owners of the house emigrate before the Nazi threat in the 30s. A Nazi architect renovates the house, delighting his young wife’s whims with a hidden closet and a metal bird affixed to the balcony railing. During the Russian advance at the end of World War II, a Russian officer takes up brief residence in the architect’s bedroom, unaware of the architect’s wife hidden in the secret closet. After the war, the architect is forced into exile for illegally doing business with the West, and is replaced by a communist writer and her family, returning from their own Siberian exile. In the nineties, a young married couple who enjoy sailing on the lake briefly occupy the toolshed as subtenants.
The only person who remains quietly in the background throughout the book is the gardener, constantly performing the same rituals of planting, pruning, beekeeping and harvesting. Erpenbeck’s scrupulous repetition in describing these actions, laced with minute changes, enacts the cycle of seasons and years in which everything stays more or less the same even as everything decays and is renewed. Erpenbeck’s prose in Susan Bernofsky’s translation tends toward luxurious run-on sentences that nevertheless must end. The gardener does eventually disappear, but the villagers continue to tell fantastic stories about him.
The novel is divided into short chapters, each devoted to a brief moment of these lives and the lives of their neighbors and children. In shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition, minute descriptions of daily routines are tightly interwoven with rhapsodic fits of reminiscence. Fragments of speech unassigned to any particular speaker echo like ghosts in an empty house. The immediate concerns of these people are as various as their backgrounds; what unites them is the place, the garden and the house, which most of them badly want but can’t quite allow themselves to call home.
The word itself, home—where and what it is, how we manage to find it, keep it, lose it, and find it again—seems ultimately what is most at issue for Erpenbeck. Unable to hold on to her childhood home in actuality, Erpenbeck sought to do so in writing; far from answering the problem, Visitation seems to complicate it in the most beautiful fashion. The word visitation may indicate Bernofksy’s take on the problem, taking into account the original title Heimsuchung, which also translates as “home searching.”
Perhaps in this search we really only make nothing more than visits to various places. Yet we keep looking, maybe because the idea, the word home itself, keeps drawing us on. In one early chapter, “The Cloth Manufacturer,” Erpenbeck lets home resound among achingly familiar scenes of quiet family life in the countryside:
Arthur says to him, Ludwig, his son: let me take a turn, and he picks up the spade himself and tosses the earth back into the hole all around the root ball. Ludwig places his arm around Anna, his future wife, and the two of them look at the broad, glittering surface of the lake. Home. Why does everyone like looking at the water so much, Doris asks. I don’t know, Anna replies. Doris says, maybe because there’s so much empty sky above a lake, because everyone likes to see nothing sometimes. You can let go now, Arthur says to Doris.
This is the Jewish family, the original owners, forced to flee by the threat of the Nazis. In a later chapter, “The Writer,” a communist family has returned from an exile imposed by the same threat. The chapter is sprinkled with a similar recurring phrase:
This doctor wasn’t even born yet when she returned to Germany. He has traveled to Japan with one or the other government delegation, to Egypt, to Cuba. I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e. Down in the kitchen the cook is making the plates clatter, the gardener is sitting on the threshold to his room, on the meadow her granddaughter and the boy next door are spraying each other with water. . . .
The recurring phrase, “I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e”, represents a fragment typed out at the tail end of the writer’s current work-in-progress. Living in the house, enjoying the garden, sitting to dinner with her whole family: these are not home; she hasn’t gotten there, wherever it is, yet; she is still “going.” And the fact that the repeated phrase is spelled out with dashes reminds us that it is typed: it unifies the act of heimsuchung with the act of writing, as the author set out to do. Unlike the sentence, it does not necessarily have an end—which is just as well, because Visitation is well worth reading again.“ – Three Percent



„At its worst, the British literary scene behaves like a community of nerdy parochialists who imagine themselves to be cosmopolitans, fretting about whether there can be any great novels any more now that Amis is past it and Updike has died. The ongoing story of literature in foreign languages is barely noticed, a background pixel in the all-important anglophone display.
Indie UK publisher Portobello has issued all three novels by Jenny Erpenbeck, a multi-prizewinning German who is one of the finest, most exciting authors alive. In our island, she's just another obscure outlander whose work attracts almost no reviews and certainly no media fanfare. This autumn, an extravagantly hyped American novel examining in exhaustive detail how the middle classes there currently feel about themselves will be bought by a great many Britons who'll strive to understand every local nuance. But Erpenbeck? East Germany? Who cares? How I wish that Visitation could change all that. How I hope that some room may be found to celebrate this author's uncanny gifts.
Erpenbeck's reputation was made by her 1999 debut, The Old Child, one of the best first novels ever written. Next came The Book Of Words, surreal and dreamlike but no less potent. Each of these pocket-sized novellas was about a young girl, yet also functioned as an enigmatic allegory of a country with dark secrets. In Visitation, allegory is toned down, history intrudes more explicitly, and the narrative canvas is bigger. The page count may still be modest, but the achievement and resonance are massive.
Visitation's central character is a place. In a grand house and its grounds, by a lake in Brandenburg, a succession of occupants dislodge each other, borne along by the political calamities of 20th century Europe. The Jewish family who own the property in the 1930s are forced to sell while they wait for visas out of the Third Reich. An architect renovates the house; at the end of the second world war, it's requisitioned by the Russian army; then, under the GDR, the architect has to flee for having done illegal business with the west. The place is reclaimed by returning exiles from Siberia, then resold by estate agents.
The set-up is strikingly similar to Simon Mawer's Booker-shortlisted The Glass Room, published only last year, although Erpenbeck's novel appeared in Germany in 2008. The handling could hardly be more different, with Erpenbeck's prose eschewing the conventional tactics, neatly sewn-up psychologies and film-friendly dialogue that characterised Mawer's work. Visitation is foreign in the profoundest sense of that word. We are shown no dramatic meetings, no fraught conversations, between the architect and the Jews he supplants; we only see him taking a swim and wiping himself dry with one of the towels that are still hanging in the bathing-house "before it could occur to his wife to wash them". He congratulates himself for having given the Jews the full half market-value set by the law, and for helping them escape persecution. "Strange towels," he reflects. "Cloth manufacturers, these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods."
Quotes like this, while they hint at the troubling finesse of Erpenbeck's touch, don't do justice to the true subtlety of her fiction. It's common for literary authors to give objectionable characters a veneer of decency for us to see through; that's not what Erpenbeck is aiming for. She immerses us so deeply in the worldview of each protagonist that we grow fond of them all, worry about the things that worry them, cease to see the things that they ignore. We want them all to hold on to their home.
The one person known to all the owners and occupants – and thus the thread that binds the narrative together – is the gardener. Periodic updates are given of his activities, describing his routines in detail. The first few times, the repetitious litany of watering, pruning, composting, etc, seems unnecessary, but as the decades pass and the property gets eaten away by misuse and decay, the gardener's patient, pragmatic labours become unexpectedly moving. No word is ever heard from him, and Erpenbeck allows no access to his mind, but we end up feeling great relief whenever he reappears, and deep sadness as this increasingly frail figure does what he can to forestall his Eden's incremental slide into ruin.
Indeed, the amount of emotional engagement Erpenbeck manages to win from us, in a mere 150 pages, is just one proof of her mastery. In marked contrast to the unearned love that inflated novels so often demand, Visitation allows us to feel we've known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place, without authorial pestering or pathos-cranking.
Impressive as it is, Visitation lacks the jewel-like perfection of The Old Child. Its richly populated, realistic narrative poses a big challenge for an author previously hailed as a miniaturist, and Erpenbeck is tempted by different methods of tackling it. The introduction, describing the prehistoric forces that formed the landscape on which the house will stand, may strike some as pretentious. The chapter devoted to the first tenant and his four daughters, in the Weimar period, is part fable, part poetry, part database of superstitious custom, stylistically harking back to The Book of Words. Even once Erpenbeck has settled into the book's distinctive form, the concept of the Brandenburg estate as the narrative's picture-frame is not consistently adhered to: a chapter covering the fate of Doris, one of the exiled Jews, shifts the action to an abandoned house in the Warsaw ghetto. (A forgivable diversion. This 11-page episode, set mostly inside a pitch-dark closet, is one of the most powerful distillations of the Holocaust I've ever encountered in fiction: it deserves to be widely anthologised as a classic short story.)
Translator Susan Bernofsky, who did a superb job on the previous books, is back for this one. Erpenbeck's German is poetical, almost incantatory, taking full advantage of the portmanteau words and Rubik's cube grammar of that language. Bernofsky opts for a smooth style that won't come across as bizarre in English, sacrificing some of Erpenbeck's verse-like cadences and delivering a flexible, accessible narrative. Typical of her shrewdness is the title, Visitation, which at first glance seems a dryly prosaic alternative to Erpenbeck's original Heimsuchung ("homeseeking") but reveals its appositeness as the story unfolds: not only is there a literal visitation when a wife is granted access to her imprisoned husband, but the displaced residents of the house become increasingly like unwelcome ghosts haunting the locus of their lost lives.
So, there you have it: an extraordinarily strong book by a major German author, ingeniously translated, produced with love by an idealistic publisher intent on doing something about the shamefully small proportion of foreign literature whose existence our country acknowledges. Will Visitation find a home here? Or will the Anglo incumbents claim all the lebensraum?“ - Michel Faber



"Like the storied estates of Brideshead and Manderley, the house in Jenny Erpenbeck’s unsettling, inventive novel Visitation has a hold on everyone who passes through it. Built by an architect in the 1930s, it serves as a weekend getaway on a Brandenburg lake in what will be East Germany.
While in the British tradition these stately homes of rural England tend to play host to the symbolic decline of one family, the house in Erpenbeck’s novel reveals an even more expansive story. She uses the experiences of its occupants over the course of seven decades to chart the upheavals of twentieth-century Germany.
The lake house comes out of a broken inheritance; originally a royal grant, the land has belonged to the village mayor’s family since 1650. The short history of the mayor’s daughters, related in an early chapter, displays Erpenbeck’s skill at creating menace through repetition. A laundry list of the village’s wedding rituals lasts several pages, turning an anthropological account of curious regional customs into something darker—a litany of laws that distinguishes conventional from unconventional and thus separates insider from interloper. For all these matrimonial prescriptions, though, none of the mayor’s daughters marry. Instead one loses her fiancé to emigration, one ruins her reputation with a premarital affair, one remains celibate, and another commits suicide. Having no heirs, the mayor divides up the land in the 1930s and sells plots to the unnamed architect and Arthur, a Jewish cloth merchant. As Arthur watches the construction of his neighbor’s house, he plans a house for his only son, Ludwig, intending it as an inheritance. All they have time to build, though, is a bathing house before the Holocaust interrupts their plans.
Meanwhile, next door, the architect builds his dream house to delight his young wife. He fills it with hidden closets, secret lookouts, a balcony with decorations of iron birds. “A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing,” thinks the architect, whose pride in his creation is detailed with Erpenbeck’s characteristic exactitude. The couple treasures the way the stairs creak at the second, seventh, and second-to-last-step going up—and the second, fifteenth, and second-to-last step descending. But after almost twenty years in the house the architect must abandon it. In 1951, he leaves for West Berlin, fleeing imprisonment for having bought screws from West Germany—there are none to be had in the East—in order to complete a building commissioned by the East German government. He and his wife relocate to a West Berlin apartment, and the state takes over the house.
In the ensuing chapters, Erpenbeck tells the stories of others connected to the house, including the architect’s wife; the cloth merchant; his twelve-year-old granddaughter, hiding in the Warsaw ghetto; a Russian major who occupies the house during the war; after the war, a writer who acquires it through her impeccable Communist credentials; and her granddaughter, who eventually has to sell the house when East German bank accounts are halved. Between each of these chapters is an account of the gardener who tends the grounds no matter who lives there and who, movingly, declines along with the property.
Another character in the novel is time itself, which often bullies, taking on an almost physical presence. Although the architect was master of three dimensions, “the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.” Of the child hiding in the ghetto, Erpenbeck writes: “time has dragged her off and locked her away in this dark chamber.” The lake home, however, provides a refuge for its inhabitants, however temporary. During the twenty years the architect’s wife lives there, “time appears to be at her beck and call, like a house in which she can enter now this room, now that.”
The same could be said of Erpenbeck, who is a master of concealment and delay. She omits dialogue and interaction almost entirely; each chapter immerses readers in the mind of the title character, creating gaps that can only be filled by later accounts of the lives of others. We sympathize at first with the fleeing architect, but then learn that in 1939 “he’d paid the Jews a full half of market value” for the bathing house, even using the “strange towels . . . top quality goods” of the cloth merchant’s own make that are left hanging there. He offers the feeble justification that the money he paid the Jews allowed them to flee to Africa or Shanghai. Only later do we learn whether or not this is true. The architect’s wife speaks of a man who “drilled a hole in her eternity for all eternity,” but only when we come to the Russian soldier’s story do we learn how and who this person is.
Erpenbeck’s strategies—these concealments and gradual disclosures—create a subtle layering of stories that is the novel’s greatest strength. That said, one sometimes wishes that Visitation would leave a little more to the imagination. For example, Erpenbeck includes the full story of the cloth merchant’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, whose memories of the lake provide comfort as she hides in the Warsaw ghetto. Had readers been allowed to wonder at the granddaughter’s fate, however, the girl’s story would have been more powerful.
Erpenbeck is as proficient at the delayed reveal on the small scale as she is on the large. She repeats particular sentences, allowing us to trace the dawning of our comprehension as she gradually reveals more through concentric descriptions and elaborations. We read about a lovely visit the cloth merchant and his wife pay to their son’s family in some tropical locale, hearing several times the innocuous phrase “two weeks later Arthur and Hermine, Ludwig’s parents, go home again.” Only later do we learn that Ludwig left Brandenburg—and his “inheritance”—in 1936 for South Africa, that his parents visited in 1937 but insisted on returning to Germany, and that when they finally apply for a visa two years later it is too late.
Her graphic account of their deaths skillfully evokes the mingling of horror and bureaucracy so peculiar to the Holocaust: “two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of his head as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before . . . all the possessions of Arthur and Hermine, including the proceeds from the sale of the property beside the lake, containing 1 bathing house and 1 dock, become the property of the German Reich.”
Susan Bernofsky’s translation elegantly captures Erpenbeck’s language as it swings from mathematical precision (the bathing house is “5.5m long, 3.8m wide, outer wall construction: wood, roof construction: thatch”) to legalese (“whether acquisition was in good faith and in rem right of use and enjoyment exists is not relevant to the matter under dispute”); and it stays with her through the subtler effects in between, from Carrollian wordplay to Freudian mishearings. Bernofsky smartly retains the original German in scenes where language has become outmoded by exile. On a summer day in South Africa, Ludwig’s young daughter, named Elisabeth after his sister, asks her father, “What is a snowy Winterwald?” Erpenbeck, with her stammering repetitions and strategies of delay, knows that language cannot always keep pace with what happens to people. Her own language, however, convincingly portrays a range of characters—Russians and Germans, Christians and Jews, children and grandparents, communists and capitalists—while conveying their shared pain at losing a country as well as a home.“ - Fran Bigman



"Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation first came to my attention with a positive review from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor at theMookseandtheGripes when this translation was released last summer — more than a quarter of Trevor’s reviews are of translated fiction and when he likes one I pay attention.
I have also had positive experiences with translations of contemporary German works (see my review of Christoph Hein’s Settlement from last year’s IMPAC shortlist). So when Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life gave this four stars I paid even more attention — Lizzy knows her German literature and a recommendation from her is definitely worth notice.
Both those evaluations have since been confirmed with Visitation being included on every 2011 translation prize longlist that I have seen. I thought I would sneak my thoughts in before the shortlists for those prizes come out.
I also have to admit that a feature of every review of this novel that I have seen (and which I am about to repeat) had a lot of influence. Visitation centres not on characters, but a summer house built on a property just outside Berlin in the early 1930s and what happens to that property over the rest of the century. If that reminds you of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (based on the real story of the Villa Tugendhat and my choice for the 2009 Booker Prize), then you are hearing the same echoes that those reviewers and I did.
Erpenbeck actually goes back much further than the 1930s to set her story. A prologue explores the geological history of the area and the glacial action that created the lake which is a feature of the property. The opening chapter (The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters) is a fable-like story that sets the ownership of the land which is in place when the actual novel opens:
Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara’s Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt en der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben, who enters his son’s name in the contract of sale in order to arrange for his inheritance, and finally Wurrach sells the third third, the part where the big oak tree stands, to an architect from Berlin who discovered this sloping shoreline with its trees and bushes while out for a steamboat ride and wishes to build a summer cottage there for himself and his fiancee.
While the author follows the story of all three of those parcels of land, it is the architect and the cottage he builds that will form the central structural theme of the novel. The reader is introduced to the conflict-driven world of the novel’s characters — and the property — when she first brings the architect into the book:
How bitter it is that he is having to bury everything. The porcelain from Meissen, his pewter pitchers and the silver. As if it were wartime. He himself doesn’t know whether he is burying something or simply laying in provisions for his return. He doesn’t even know if there’s any real difference between the two. In general he knows far less now than he used to. Just before the Russians marched in, his wife had packed up these very plates, these tankards and this silverware in crates and lowered everything into the water on the shoal of the Nackliger which she knew from swimming. That was the place in the middle of the lake that was so shallow when she was swimming far from shore in summer her feet would suddenly get tangled in the water plants and then she would start laughing and pretend to be drowning.
We soon discover that the architect is about to flee East Germany (a dangerous indiscretion has been discovered) and head to the West — and Erpenbeck has completed erecting the superstructure of her story in the first 30 pages. An idyllic property is subdivided and a beautiful cottage is built pre-War; Nazism, Russian invasion and a brutal East German republic are all to come. While the three properties will continue to change as slowly as they have over time, each change of human power will dramatically effect those who own it at the time; and somehow the original architect of the summer house will always remain a participant.
There is another human theme that is as strong as the story of the architect. The cloth manufacturer from Guben who bought one of the parcels was Jewish. We meet the family through the eyes of their 12-year-old daughter Doris who is introduced hidden in a closet of the cottage just days before her death during the war (the protectors who hid her have fled):
As the girl sits there in her dark chamber and from time to time tries to straighten her head against the ceiling of her hiding place, as she opens her eyes wide but nevertheless cannot even see the walls of her chamber, as the darkness is so great that the girl cannot even recognize where her body stops, her head is visited by memories of the days on which her entire field of vision was overflowing with colors. Clouds, sky and leaves, the leaves of oak trees, leaves of the willow hanging down like hair, black dirt between her toes, dry pine needles and grass, pine cones, scaly bark, clouds, sky and leaves, sand, dirt, water and the boards of the dock, clouds, sky and gleaming water in which the sun is reflected, shady water beneath the dock, she can see it through the cracks when she lies on her belly to dry off after a swim. After the departure of her uncle, her grandfather continued to take her sailing for another two summers. Surely her grandfather’s boat is still in the village shipyard. Four years in winter quarters.
The cottage and the lake are not the only continuing, slowly-evolving elements of the novel — they are personified by a gardener who is present throughout the ever-changing political landscape (and in alternating chapters in the novel) and whose work, for the most part, doesn’t change:
In the spring he puts in a flowerbed along the side of the house that faces the road, filling it at the householder’s request with poppies, peonies and yellow coneflowers, with a big angel’s trumpet in the middle. For the border, he just pokes a few box twigs into the earth all around the flowers, they’ll put down roots and grow. In summer he sets out sprinklers on both lawns, twice each day they will bow to one side and then the other for half an hour, once early in the morning and once at dusk, meanwhile he waters the flowerbed, roses and shrubs.
I have included more and longer quotes in this review than I usually do because the flat, almost hypnotic, tone of the author’s prose is what distinguishes this novel (both Trevor’s and Lizzy’s reviews will give you a much better idea of the “story” than this review does). Erpenbeck and Mawer may use similar elements to establish a similar story, but they tell it in very different ways. The strength of Visitation is the way that Erpenbeck continually builds a tension between the slowly evolving (the lake and cottage) and the momentous, life-threatening changes in the human world surrounding them — both have their impact on the characters of the story. The introspective way that the characters of the novel experience those two aspects of change, rather than the drama and upheaval that produce them, is the beauty of the novel.
That strategy of story-telling has its risks and probably will not appeal to some — but it certainly worked for me. Erpenbeck deserves all the praise that she is getting for this ambitious piece of writing.“ – Kevin from Canada



"Jenny Erpenbeck may be an exceptional writer—where most writers seem to be continuously chasing after the next hook to a story, Erpenbeck’s fiction has at its core an uncanny blankness. In The Old Child, the title novella from Erpenbeck’s first story collection to appear in English, an orphan tactically maneuvers adolescence in a children’s home by making herself as invisible as possible. Erpenbeck’s second book to appear in English, The Book of Words, is also about a young girl, who, coming of age under a totalitarian regime, finds greater truth in silence after language itself becomes corrupted for her by administered lies and unspeakable political violence. Invisibility, silence—Erpenbeck’s writing is at its sharpest when she writes passivity. Visitation, Erpenbeck’s latest book, then provides an ideal protagonist: a house. Situated on a Brandenburg lake outside of Berlin, it serves less as a static object in Erpenbeck’s hands as it does a vessel onto which its generations of inhabitants write their own histories, inhabiting the house with a story of its own to be read.
That story begins with a geological prologue of the glacier melt, which, millennia later, would result in the Brandenburg lakes. From there it picks up at a newly unified Germany of the 1890s and the wealthy farmer who presides over the land—and who ultimately parcels off tracts to be sold during the Weimar years to an architect and to a Jewish cloth manufacturer. Russian liberating forces pillage it at the end of the Second World War. Its occupants flee to West Berlin before the Wall is built. German Bolsheviks return from their war-time exile in Russia and settle onto the property, now collectivized by municipal authorities of the GDR. The fall of the Wall gives rise to dispute over who the rightful owners are. The house falls into disrepair, and by book’s end, it is razed.
These events form the narrative frame, and it would be tempting to read German history into them; however, Erpenbeck is careful not to chronicle. The house’s location outside of Berlin places it outside of political capital, and its primary use as a summer or weekend home observes a different mode of timekeeping that is better marked by perennial cues from the landscape. Each inhabitant’s story occupies a chapter in Visitation, and like a refrain, each chapter concludes with a litany of the gardener’s labor—pruning, turning over soil, splitting wood, and so forth. (The gardener’s memory of the war includes the detail of the potato beetle invading Poland—a delicate nod.) Nameless throughout and characterized solely by the tasks he performs, the gardener remains indentured, not merely to the land and its succession of holders but to the narrative as well, providing constancy and resilience after each chapter’s upheaval.
Visitation‘s most arresting chapter takes place outside of where the house can bear witness. After the Warsaw Ghetto has been liquidated, the twelve-year-old niece of the Jewish cloth manufacturer hides in a broom closet or crawl space in one of the tenements. She has the grim understanding that either she will die waiting to be found, or else she will be found only to be killed. She keeps fear at bay by imagining there in the cramped darkness her summers spent at her uncle’s house on the lake because it is “the only place that can still be counted on to resemble itself.” Here Erpenbeck’s writing is at its hardest and its best, perhaps in no small measure because it returns her to familiar preoccupations. However, in Visitation, Erpenbeck manages to perfect her treatment of themes previously taken up in both The Old Child and The Book of Words—a young girl practicing nonexistence as a means of survival. In both of her previous books, however, Erpenbeck made the decision to break the rules of her fiction’s reality at climactic moments, deflating the impact of her narrative work by leaving her reader to puzzle out what was real and what was not. In Visitation, though, Erpenbeck keeps her characters successfully anchored in their own realities throughout, allowing the house itself to assume the fantastic realm for them to retreat to.
Erpenbeck delights in meticulously detailingthe house and its “quality German workmanship.” Although the specificity of the description frequently makes for lovely prose, it oddly does little to spatialize the house itself in the reader’s imagination. Erpenbeck, too, modulates her narrative pacing through paragraph-length fragments, which add up over the course of a chapter to a completed event. Although this works almost entirely to good effect by tautening narrative tension and emphasizing the pleasure of the prose, it can occasionally obscure the telling of the story itself by requiring the reader to re-situate herself with every new paragraph. On the whole, though, Erpenbeck reveals a workmanship in framing the reader’s view and building her narrative in such a way that is “made to measure”—and Susan Bernofsky’s instincts are uncommonly good in translating an author whose work is riddled with specifications. On a basic level, Visitation requires a translator who can capture a multitude of voices, which Bernofsky does with an ease and versatility. However, what stands out even more is her treatment of the stylistic frailties of a narrative which ages along with the house itself.
My only reservation about Visitation is that it reads less vividly once it reaches the GDR, which is a pity when the house-as-surveillor strikes me as being an ideal conceit for the schism between private and public lives under Socialism. Perhaps there’s a temptation for writers to do greater imaginative work when a story lies just beyond the era they know firsthand. Maybe Erpenbeck merely writes the ways in which people move quietly on with their lives after history’s upheaval. Still, under the eye of a stultifying government, people were forced to lead intensely private lives, and there’s a distinct liberty to be found in conveying those interior lives within the theater of a house. For example, a character attempts to swim across the Elbe River, and to the West, and ends up imprisoned for it; however, it serves more as a historical marker than an action that richly defines this character. Had Erpenbeck written a different facet of that same event, one that could be contained, and given dramatic rise to, within the walls of the house, it would have animated the era more powerfully.
However, the East can still be read in Visitation. The book ends in the 1990s, after German reunification, when the house falls derelict and is razed. “Until the time comes when a different house will be built on this same spot, the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more.” In spite of disruptions—even violences—everything will not only resume, but will come to resemble itself again. Even countries will come to resemble themselves again. The East had to be razed, so to speak, to be enfolded into West Germany in order for Germany to “resemble” itself as a reunified nation. However, the East, like the house on the Brandenburg lake, remains a place of rich memory for the people who inhabited it.“ - Annie Janusch



"Many novelists have surveyed the narrative assets provided by houses, with idiosyncratic homes from Brideshead to Manderlay creating plot threads and ominous atmospheres. In Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck shows that it doesn't require a great aristocratic pile to draw readers into another world.
Erpenbeck has focused on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake to produce a novel that layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. The tales illuminate the conflicts and conflictionssuffered and perpetuated by the German population during the Jahrhundertwende, the turn-of-the-century shift, and over the following decades of war, National Socialism and Soviet occupation. It's a Who Do You Think You Are? for bricks and mortar; a lineage of hope, despair, love and tragedy framed by an architect's dream weekend home.
The book is a mosaic of character portraits all linked to the property. There is Klara, the village mayor's melancholy daughter who, in the greying embers of the 19th century, should have inherited the forest plot; there is the nameless draughtsman who built the house for his wife, and the Red Army soldiers who shatter their peace. Each story is followed by glimpses into the seasonal life of the local gardener. The result is a strangely ethereal fairy tale of the Reich-scarred, Stasi-suppressed era and its lingering hangover.
In "The Architect", the titular designer has to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war GDR authorities. Closing up the house, "he buries his pewter pitchers among the roots of the big oak tree, the Meissen under a bushy fir, and the silver in the rose-bed right next to the house. Rest in peace. He knows that two hours from now he'll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed with dirt."
Erpenbeck has a lovely way of conjuring bittersweet images out of plaintive language. No more so than in the gardener's interludes, which act as a corrective to the characters' actions: "After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time."
The stories flit back and forth in time and shade. During the house's construction, we witness the pleasure of creating vistas from "open spaces and thickly overgrown ones" and illuminating rooms with coloured stain glass. However, later days are clouded by events. In "The Cloth Manufacturer", Erpenbeck takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the architect's neighbours and he proves to be a complicit bystander. With chilling brevity, the Jewish grandparents' fate in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence: "Arthur's eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she's never seen before."
The collusion of average German civilians in the atrocities of those years emerges like a photograph in developing fluid. It is a slow waltz of a tale, dancing along to the riffs and motifs of human fallibility. If Visitation has a central theme, it appears to be that everything is temporary but that history will judge whether your part in the proceedings was morally sound. A Brandenburg lake house proves to be a memorable courtroom for this arbitration into the lives of others.“ – Christian House




„Over the past 10 years, Jenny Erpenbeck has gained a reputation as one of Germany’s most adventurous young writers, exploring personal and national secrets through allegory (The Old Child) and fable (The Book of Words).
Visitation, her third book, is set on a lake in the Brandenburg forest. A prologue enacts the violent drama of its Ice Age creation, while reminding us that even lakes are “temporary”.
The next great rupture comes at the end of the 19th century, for it is only then that a steady chain of inheritance, dating back to 1650, comes to an end.
Erpenbeck narrates the fairy tale of the mayor’s four daughters, brought up according to what “may and must” be done. But the fiancé of one departs for Australia; another has a stillborn child with a workman; a third should have been “born a man”; and the youngest, Klara, goes mad and commits suicide. Modernity has arrived.
Klara’s Wood is sold off as “parcels of land” and in 1936 holiday homes are built. The rest of the book considers what happens to a group of characters who live in or visit this “particular bit of earth located not terribly far from Berlin” from the Thirties through to the recent past.
As the land is divided up, so is Erpenbeck’s book. Each character initially seems to be isolated into a discrete story, just as most are, at one time or other, enclosed in a confined space – a wardrobe, an oven, a prison cell. The most poignant version is, inevitably, that of Jewish Doris, who hides, and dies, in a pitch-black closet in the Warsaw Ghetto.
But while Doris’s world “had gone on shrinking as the end approached”, other characters experience the pain of exile. Her uncle endures “expulsion to” (rather than from) an Indian Ocean paradise, while “The Writer” carries her typewriter from Berlin to Prague to Moscow to Ufa and back. That all suffering is more or less equal is the dubious implication.
No story is given priority but each instead hints at the connections that place forges between various owners, renters and subtenants. Erpenbeck encourages us to act like detectives, noting the re-emergence of previously insignificant details in new contexts.
As “The Architect” prepares to flee to the West in 1951, we learn that his wife’s room “emanates” the scent of camphor and peppermint. It’s a smell that lingers to the end of the book, evoking many of the house’s other, less mundane, ghosts.
Present throughout is “The Gardener”, who silently rakes his way through the book and through history. From his perspective, and that of the 24,000 years since the ice arrived in Brandenburg, the Nazis and Stasis are no worse than the potato beetle infestation. They’re all just visitors.“ – Kasia Boddy



"The visitation is of ghosts. Early in the book, they appear matter-of-factly. It must be said that the term 'ghosts' could be applied here to both the dead and the living. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. Throughout the novel, the haunting of both is persistent.
The unknown fisherman holds out his hand and she helps him climb out of the rocking boat and then lets his hand go again. Only when he holds out his hand to her a second time does she understand that he wants her to lead him further. Halfway up the slope where the earth is no longer quite so dark and the grass is drier, there will surely be a place for her and the fisherman, whose hair is so wet that the water is dripping to his shoulders and running down his arms all the way to where his fingers are intertwined with hers. Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are all around her in this bit of woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air. It's no doubt because all these people are so quiet that she didn't notice them before. In a sunny spot under the big oak tree the kind of grass she likes is growing, tall, dry grass, tuft after tuft of it, and when she kneels down there and draws the fisherman down beside her, the others finally begin to move, they put their sandwiches, apples and hard-boiled eggs back in their baskets, fold up their blankets and calmly rise to their feet, while the ones who are leaning against the tree trunks now toss their cigarettes on the ground and crush the stubs beneath the soles of their shoes. One at a time, all of them turn to walk back up the slope, leaving behind this place without addressing a single word or even a wave to Klara and her fisherman. The fisherman lays his head in the lap of the mayor's youngest and as yet unmarried daughter, and she begins to dry his wet lock of hair with her skirt. On the far side of the oak tree directly behind her, two last silent visitors to this bit of woods whom she had overlooked now rise to their feet and leave as well. [9-10]
The novel is a tale of a house by the lake in a German woodland area. The main character is Time, who moonlights as Death. Other characters include History and Memory. The page count is small, but the writing is dense with innovative manipulations of language. The story – there's no story – covers a century of racial abuses and prejudices. The plot is linear enough but the delivery is sophisticated. It drives home the point that all human beings are dispensable. If the poet Wisława Szymborska is to write a novel, I would imagine she will produce something like Jenny Erpenbeck's. In Susan Bernofsky's translation, Erpenbeck's prose has the clarity and cadence of a poem. The theme and style also reminds one of the midsection of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the cruel chapter called "Time Passes". That is precisely what the main character does in the novel. He passes. The narrative proceeds in bursts of prose poetry. It holds a candle to the accumulation of private and public memories. I read this in speed read mode – a bad idea. I could have read slowly and listened hard to the music and differentiated the notes soaring above the words. The music is playing the whole time in the background. The musical translation reads and flows well. It's very good, awesome even, but I imagine the original is a nasty beast. It is recommended for those interested in poetry and German history (or just history) and great original writing.“ - In lieu of a field guide



"Thirty-one years before German re-unification, Theodor Adorno called encouraged his fellow Germans to start "working off the past" (Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit). He declared, "what is conscious could never be as fateful as what is unconscious, semiconscious, or preconscious. It comes down to how the past is made present - whether one stops at mere accusation of stands up to the horror, though one's power to comprehend even the incomprehensible."
Adorno was referring to the Nazi past, but the events of October 1990 complicated matters. The asymmetrical nature of German reunification raised a whole new set of questions. Is de-Stasi-fication the same as de-Nazi-fication. What does it mean when your entire country--the GDR--disappears virtually overnight?
Jenny Erpenbeck's haunting novel Visitation (Heimsuchung, literally, "homeseeking") is a working off the past. Set in a house by a lake in Brandenburg, the novel covers, in a cunningly oblique manner, on the ways the past is made present through the characters' work upon the land. The narrative progresses through a series of interrelated tales about the conflicts suffered through and perpetuated by the German population during the Jahrhundertwende, the turn-of-the-century shift, and over the following decades of war, National Socialism and Soviet occupation.
The stories are told in a mesmerizing style heavy on repetition and light on dramatics. We get no insight into the characters' consciousnesses. With no cues to signal an emotionally and morally laden moment, a reader has to pay careful attention to externals. A Jewish couple's death in a Nazi gas truck is told in one sentence: "Arthur's eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she's never seen before." An architect supplants and the Jewish family, but we only see him taking a swim and wiping himself dry with one of the towels that are still hanging in the bathing-house "before it could occur to his wife to wash them." He congratulates himself for having given the Jews the full half market-value set by the law, and for helping them escape persecution. "Strange towels," he reflects. "Cloth manufacturers, these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods."
The elliptical, repetitive style reflects an absurd world where meaning doesn't stick to things. The solidity of the house and the permanence of the lake are illusions. Everything is transient. A prologue enacts the violent drama of the lake's Ice Age creation, reminding us that even lakes are historical objects. As the abrupt disappearance of the GDR illustrates, history is full of ruptures. The Brandenburg property is owned by the same family for 200 years before the family line ends in infertility and madness in the late 19th century. Meanwhile, the nearby village languishes in a magic realist stupor, waiting for modernity to finally arrive. When it does, imperial authority is replaced by an absent cause--ideology in its most potent form.
The only semblance of continuity in the novel is an unnamed gardener who tends to the property as it passes down from owner to owner. His ceaseless labors are recited in the same matter-of-fact tone as the rest of the action. "After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time." Nature must be constantly re-culturalized, rescued from the mythic forces that drive history, both natural and social.
In contemporary Germany there's a saying, "Only Germans born after October 1990 will be united." Erpenbeck is still a young novelist with a small but highly distinguished body of work. She's a member of that generation that will always be riven by history. The house in Visitation symbolizes the repeated ruptures of history and identity. The fictional house is based on a summer house outside Berlin that had been in Erpenbeck's family’s possession from 1954 until 2002, when they lost the property to the heirs of its wartime owners. Originally, Erpenbeck intended to write a non-fiction account of the house's history. She ended up not only dispensing with historical discourse, but she also eschewed conventional historical fiction discourse, with its easy conclusions and reassuring compensations. Instead, she produced a novel the unconscious side of history, its most optimistic and dangerous side.“ - Richard Prouty



"Sometimes when keeping an eye out for books to read something of a perfect storm develops. Michel Faber, author of the best-selling, neo-Victoriana tome The Crimson Petal and the White, wrote a glowing review of the work of Jenny Erpenbeck at the end of October that first caught my eye. Faber's review also drew comparisons with Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, another favourite from last year, as both books use a fixed location and the characters that pass through it over a period of great change. All of which amounted to several flashing arrows and a big sign that said 'This book is right up your strasse.'
It may only be 150 pages long but Erpenbeck manages to cram German history from the early twentieth century and then Hitler's stranglehold on power through to the reunification in 1990 with short chapters that look at the varying inhabitants of a house that stands on the shore of the Märkisches Meer in Brandenberg. It isn't the fact that she crams so much in that makes it a tough read, I am amazed at how she pushes what we might think the novella capable of with some bold techniques and bolder ambitions, but there is something very disorientating about it as a reading experience. Perhaps this is something that would be settled by a second read but as this is something that I seldom do I can only give you my impressions on this first visit.
A prologue first tells us of the geological forces that have created the lake on which the property stands; let there be no mistake that however tumultuous the period of history we are about to enter might be, it is but a blip on the far longer timeline that has seen a glacier flatten all before it and alter the landscape irrevocably. That land has a long history of legacy and changing ownership as an almost fairy-tale like early chapter sets out. Change and ownership are two major themes that run through the book and when we meet The Architect who has been the householder for many years he is burying his valuables in the gardens that surround it, his ownership challenged by the changing political landscape of the Iron Curtain, forced out after having done business with the West.
His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height, width and depth, it was always his business to build things high, wide and deep, but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.
Lest we have too much sympathy for him we will learn later that he himself has profited from the shifting sands, having bought the neighbouring property from his Jewish neighbours for half the market value when they could no longer remain there with any safety. Like Mawer's book there are some lovely descriptions of details of the house, the special pulleys, secret spaces, and special carvings that have been put there by the Architect in many ways as a token of his love for his wife. But this is a much less straightforward narrative with chapters coming non-chronologically and I found it took a fair bit of concentration, and even re-reading, to keep track of where exactly I was.
One constant is The Gardener (forgive me John Le Carre) whose short chapters, often only a page, come as regularly as the seasons, detailing his labour. He has been there since the first holiday homes went up around the lake, thatching roofs and helping to coax healthy plants to life in the blue clay and sandy soil that lies around the shore. What could be rather boring descriptions of pruning, planting and the like are actually poetic meditations, another reminder of the survival of nature in the face of adversity and its place as the central character with all of the lakeshore's inhabitants merely walk-ons.
Some of those walk-ons are outstanding though. The ten page section entitled The Girl is one in which we are hidden with one of the few characters to be graced with a name (Erpenbeck keeps most of her characters identified simply by their profession but significantly gives name to the Jewish characters - repeatedly, like a mantra, for the two families in The Cloth Manufacturer - in order to humanise those who will be de-humanised and erased by the Nazi era). We cannot help but think of Anne Frank as we read the story of Doris and her terrifying solitude and the impact that those few pages have quite incredible. For, having given this girl a name it will be taken away again.
For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.
A Writer character gives voice I think to some of Erpenbeck's process, the sifting of historical material and presentation of personal loss (the book has its roots in her own family's history apparently).
These letters she's been tapping out have allowed her to draw to the surface many things that seemed worthy of preserving, while pushing other things, painful ones, back into obscurity. Now, later, she no longer knows whether it wasn't a mistake to pick and chose, since this thing she'd been envisioning all her life was supposed to be a whole world, not a half one.
If that does give voice to any concern on her part then she needn't worry. In fact the problem for me if anything is that the book felt a bit leaden in places. Structure, prose and import all combine to weigh down the reading experience so that it felt like a much longer book than it actually is (this is no fault of the translation from Bernofsky which is excellent on a particularly challenging text). But as I've said, further reads would probably be rewarded with the richness and complexity obviously contained within in the same way that the house itself has little details that only a discerning eye would spot - a singular carving here, a hidden doorway there.
The episodic nature of the chapters and the dislocation of each of the character's stories also link into other themes. The way in which the land around the house is divided, appropriated, re-assigned is a microcosm of what is happening to Germany herself. The old diary of the mayor shows his realisation that '...home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit...' and in many ways the disparate characters have a very temporary feel in the wider story of the land around them. But as The Childhood Friend muses, that doesn't mean we should underestimate the significance of any of them.
...it strikes him as strange that, independent of what is happening, one day is always followed by another, and to this day he doesn't know what it actually is that is continuing. Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different from what we're hoping for - something that transcends everything that's ever happened - since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it.“ - William Rycroft



"Rather than any single or group of protagonists, Visitation centers around a property, by a lake in Brandenburg, in eastern Germany. Alternating (and generally short chapters) do focus on a unifying figure, 'the gardener', who is a constant across the span of the novel, but the rest of the novel features a succession of characters with a connection to the property -- though their stories are not presented in strict chronological order, and there is some movement back and forth in time. In their stories, Erpenbeck manages to present much of the (east) German twentieth century experience, including the rise of Nazism, the Soviet occupation, the German Democratic Republic, and the unification with West Germany.
Erpenbeck is a writer who chooses her words very carefully, and the German title, Heimsuchung, contains even more layers than 'Visitation' can, as this is a novel not only of visitation (a literal translation of the word) but also of repeated 'Heim suchen' -- home-seeking, as many of the characters seek this sense of place and home (and 'Heimat') there. From the architect for whom: "A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing. Homestead." to the writer typing out: "I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e", this is a book about that most fundamental sense of place and belonging, and the hold such a place can exert. It is all the more effective because this particular home rarely provides the promised hold and expected refuge: this is a book full of dispossession and flight, characters chased from their home by historical circumstance, whether the Jewish family that must leave under the rise of Nazism or the architect working in East Germany for whom: "home had become a trap".
Erpenbeck presents these stories succinctly, in carefully sculpted sections and a precise but poetic language (which comes across well in Susan Bernofsky's translation). The inexorable advance of time is contrasted with the sense of timelessness that any 'place' exudes -- something Erpenbeck already introduces in her prologue that describes the geological formation of the lake (about which she also observes: "like every hollow shape, this channel existed only to be filled in completely some day"). The gardener is the one constant, but otherwise the placidity of place is only at the surface, and Erpenbeck frequently shakes up her language and her story. The summing-up of specific fates, dryly, simply, quickly related, is often particularly effective (and jarring), but the entire novel is supremely and effectively well-crafted.
For such a short novel that nevertheless covers so much time, Visitation is also surprisingly detailed. As her lengthy acknowledgements (and some of the precise legal and technical language) suggest, this is a carefully researched work. There's little clue to this in the English edition, but Visitation is a memoir of sorts, the property and histories ones that Erpenbeck is closely familiar with. It is interesting to see how the approach she takes to it (this subject, which, it turns out, is very close to home indeed) can often seem detached -- a clear and simple statement of facts -- yet she still achieves considerable emotional resonance with it. Admirable rather than truly likeable, Visitation is a very fine literary work.“ - M. A. Orthofer



"That Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, Visitation, is ambitious is unmistakable, for it is undeniably difficult and precisely crafted. Following in the footsteps of T.S. Eliot, who suggested that in such a difficult world we should appreciate and study difficult literature, I think it a moot point as to whether the novel ultimately succeeds in its being difficult.
Is it difficult for difficulty’s sake? Or is the challenge created for an artistic purpose? After finishing this novel I have to admit my own ambivalence, not based on, admittedly, the book’s philosophical import, but because of the way it reads.
Better described as a series of vignettes, the novel initially plays at the edge of chaos, which makes it very hard to follow early on. This is not a book to read quickly for an entertaining plot, nor is it one to appreciate for its initial lucidity. Yet the frustration is often counterbalanced by a glimpse into the author’s pensive vision of history and nationhood. As we move through Visitation‘s multiple perspectives, captivating moments, examples of poetic prose, provide a cathartic payoff to slogging through the initial confusion.
Erpenbeck’s view of history is part of an intellectual tradition evoked by Samuel Johnson’s pithy line—“patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel”—as well as that of German intellectuals who warned about the dangers of nationalism, from Goethe’s assertion “Patriotism ruins history” to Nietzsche’s condemnation of Wagner.
Germany’s citizens are sensitive to overt displays of national pride reinforced today by memories of nationalism-gone-wrong during the two World Wars. Keeping this caution in mind, Erpenbeck presents two inescapable verities: people—their dwellings, and the regimes that rule over them—come and go; nature transforms but remains. The title (Heimsuchung) also suggests some uneasiness; in German it also means “infestation” or “plague” upon something. What exactly is being visited upon, and is the visitation connoting an infestation?
Set at what one character aptly calls “this one particular bit of earth located not terribly far from Berlin” in a single modest house located on a lake in the Brandenburg woods (note: to the east of Berlin). An intriguing prologue about how the lake was formed over tens of thousands of years from glaciers provides a prehistoric frame for the main story, which begins sometime in the early 20th century and follows generations of dwellers in the house who experience major changes from Nazi Germany to the end of the GDR. Each chapter jumps back and forth through time, focusing on a particular perspective, individual or collective, such as a single person (like The Gardener) or a small family (Wealthy Farmer and his Children).
The premise is promising, but the first third of the book seems like erratic, abstract episodes with underdeveloped characters about whom we care very little. Paragraphs jump from vague descriptions of banal activities and social mores to even vaguer commentaries on non-events. At the Architect and his wife’s dinner parties “they all laugh and laugh, another beer, another glass of wine, oh yes, not for me, thank you, maybe just a glass of seltzer. In this way the architect and his wife pass the time on many evenings both for themselves and for their guests.”
Either Erpenbeck is guilty of ostentatiously obscure writing, or the translator, Susan Bernofsky, has done the prose some disservice. For example, the long strings of relative clauses (correct in German, but simply a run-on sentence in English) in this paragraph. They not only reflect brazenly strange writing, but also the translator’s decision to keep the German grammar: “Locks the toolshed, the golden spoon lure he once fished with dangling from the key, … rinses his hands in the bathroom, two hours from now he’ll be sitting in the S-Bahn to West Berlin, his fingernails still rimmed black with dirt, he draws the crank…” The use of repetition to weave the pieces of the story together also becomes stylistically self-defeating: “the chief mogul, who was really the chief consul.” What is the use of being told the same thing twice?
Yet, if you wade through what seems like the intentionally clunky prose of the first third, then you will discover the author connects the diffuse images and characters. You become intrigued by the erratic nature of the prose and some of the narrative begins to make sense.
One particular moment, which is indeed one of the first indicators of better prose to come, involves the first appearance of “The Girl.” This chapter illustrates how each paragraph in each chapter presents a different point in time. The randomness begins to assume order as we learn that this girl is Doris, the niece of Ludwig (the cloth manufacturer from an earlier chapter). It becomes clear that she is in a Nazi-occupied ghetto, where she is alone, hiding, and facing starvation.
It is here that Erpenbeck evokes the philosophical underpinning of the novel:
“None of the people who once knew who she was knows any longer that she is here. This is what makes the transition so insignificant. Step by step she has made her way to this place, almost to the end, in other words, her path must have a beginning, and at the point of this beginning she must have been separated from life by as insignificant a distance as now separates her from death.”
The emphasis on the insignificance of transience—and transition—underlies Visitation, which here powerfully conveys the purgatorial nature of many of its characters, who feel removed from life and death because those who knew them are either strangers, or are dead (a fact echoed when the narrator says toward the end that “Now, a lifetime too late, she is on her own”).
Capturing ordinary experience so eloquently, and glossing over quickly moments of death, even gruesome ones associated with the Holocaust, Erpenbeck exhibits a pastoral quality—not “elegiac,” as the blurb on the back cover would have it, but more akin to the modernist pastoral in Virginia Woolf’s novels (To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts in particular).
Rather than a family or whatever cluster of domestic relations, the house ends up being the story’s main character, and nature the prime mover. Accordingly, the house, the lake, and the woods are given the most descriptive passages.
Also, images concerning memory and ritual recur throughout the book, with a complexity that makes you want to re-read in order to retrace the treatments of, say, the ritual coin-collecting during a wedding procession, or the colored windows in the house overlooking the lake. Much of what seems odd at first eventually becomes clear in hindsight as the assortment of images eventually culminates in poignant scenes involving rape, murder, suicide, mental illness, political tumult, genocide, and foreign invasion.
The concluding infiltration targets the rotting house, which is summarily demolished after the “illegitimate owner” takes over the property. History seems to end once the house is torn down. Survival is found in the value of scattered bits of narrative centered on a speck of earth, where “Happiness grows out of disorder, just as infinity grows out of the finite lake.” - Christopher M. Ohge



"Jenny Erpenbeck's third novel explores the relationship between a place and the people who live there. Set on a lake in the Brandenburg forest, the book is concerned with themes of connection, of permanence and transience. Erpenbeck traces the stories of the inhabitants of the area from the late 19th century on through the turbulence of the 20th, the years of war, the Soviet occupation, while all the time the waters of the lake silently reflect the upheavals of history. One of the earliest sections, "The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters", has something of the rhythm of a fairytale as Erpenbeck describes the local customs and superstitions surrounding marriage and death. After the suicide of Klara, the last of these daughters, the woodland is sold off and built upon.
The concept of home shifts with the passing of the years and a house, designed and constructed as a place of comfort and escape, is gradually transformed. Concealment, of oneself and one's possessions in the face of invasion, is a recurring image, as is that of violation, of body, of land.
The novel, which is a spare, delicate thing, only 150 pages long, encompasses both the domestic and the horrific. Erpenbeck's writing, with its repetitions of situation and expression, is soothing and cocooning, which only magnifies the moments of horror: the brief, brutal fate of an elderly Jewish couple is captured in one chilling line; a young girl slowly starves in a closet in the Warsaw ghetto. No one character is given precedence over another and as a result the book has the feel of a mosaic, with all the various pieces linked by the figure of the gardener, the one constant, connecting presence. These sequences provide moments of calm and peace within the narrative, refocusing the reader's attentions on the land and its needs, the passing of the seasons, the continual process of flowering and fading. And though eventually the house is packed up, the land parcelled out and sold on, the lake remains to bear witness.“ – Natasha Tripney



House Proud: Jenny Erpenbeck talks to Megan O’Grady about her buzzed-about new book, Visitation




Jenny Erpenbeck, The Book of Words, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 2007.

Read it at Google Books



"A searing novella about coming of age in a land of tyranny, by one of Germany's most brilliant young authors.
In The Book of Words, Jenny Erpenbeck captures with amazing virtuosity the inner life of a young girl who survives the totalitarian regime of a curiously unnamed South American country (most likely Argentina during it "dirty war"). Raised by parents whose real identity ends up shocking her, the girl comes of age in a country where gunshots are mistaken for blown tires, innocent citizens are dragged off buses, and tortured and disappeared friends and family return to visit her from the dead."

"Jenny Erpenbeck is fixated on the terrors of childhood. The title piece of her 1999 debut collection, The Old Child & Other Stories, is the tale of a nameless orphan found on the street and brought to a boarding school, where she lives in paralyzing fear of her classmates. “Around me, everything is awhirl,” she says. “No one looks at me, I don’t know what I have done.” The school’s rigid social hierarchy is more than she can bear: She falls violently ill and, in a twist straight out of a gothic fable, ages decades in a matter of weeks.
The protagonist of Erpenbeck’s novella, The Book of Words, published in the author’s native Germany in 2005 and expertly translated by Susan Bernofsky, is also an unnamed girl for whom the world is a perplexing and unbearable place where everything seems in flux and the facade of civilization is eroding. Raised by doting parents in an unspecified country that faintly resembles Argentina during the years of the Dirty War, she lives in comfort in a house filled with antique furniture and backed by a manicured fruittree garden. She is also slowly, bitterly losing her grip on reality. “Words used to be stable, fixed in place,” she claims, “but now I’m letting them all go, if need be I’ll cut off a foot if that’s the only way to get rid of them.” She vows to “seize memory like a knife and turn it against itself, stabbing memory with memory.”
Yet she never fulfills this wish for self-annihilation. Instead, in a series of compact, often loopy recollections, she describes her surreal life under the totalitarian regime. She’s never allowed to go out alone, friends and family members disappear, and horrific acts of violence—a friend’s sister kills herself with an air pistol, a woman is dragged off a bus by her hair—are committed regularly. Circumstances have forced her retreat into a world of private concerns that mirror the problems of society at large. A government-imposed shutdown of the local railroad, she imagines, has effected a rupture in the nature of logic: “You can no longer ride along the words as if they were tracks, always arriving at the same thing by the same route.” She longs for a more direct relation to language—and, by extension, the world.
That’s exactly what she gets, when her father, on the run from the authorities, absconds with her to a mountainside and confesses his complicity in the torture and murder of their fellow citizens. “Once you’ve connected a body to the electrical circuit, the truth comes out of it like a worm,” he says. The metaphor is apt, as what we are left with at the end of this haunting novella is a grotesque vision of humanity. Asked what she plans to do after her parents are imprisoned, she simply replies, “Sleep.” - Tayt Harlin



"Jenny Erpenbeck is a writer who uses abstraction to explore a subject that is becoming widely traversed in German literature: the ancestry of German National Socialist rule (the most controversial example being memoirists who have sought to humanize relatives belonging to the Nazi party). The Book of Words, first published in German in 2005 and translated into English by Susan Bernofsky, is entirely a work of fiction, and given a veiled, unnamed setting that is most likely Argentina, a place where German immigrants happen to have settled for over 100 years and where Perón’s administration allegedly gave safe haven to war criminals. But the book is not about the Nazis; it is about memory, and the virgin consciousness of childhood, and the child narrator is growing up in a climate that reflects neither the nationalist fervor of Nazi Germany nor the pseudo-Fascism of Peron, but the haunting and methodical repression of Argentina’s Dirty War, and even East Germany, where Erpenbeck was raised.
The mother is frightening to Erpenbeck’s unnamed narrator, and puts her in the care of a wet nurse, from whom she feeds until much later than the normal age. And her father, who, though kind and affectionate, later reveals to her that he works as a torturer for the state and that her mother’s father killed babies in a fictitious treatment of WWII Germany. These admissions are matter-of-fact, and contrast with the bulk of the story, where in a child’s mind a gunshot becomes a blown tire, another child’s suicide is imagined as play-acting, and fighting in the street is done in the name of love for a contested woman.
To say a word over and over is to render it meaningless, absurd. To find a word’s meaning reversed by unexpected revelation, as experienced by Erpenbeck’s narrator with the words mother and father, is to kill what it connotes, “stabbing memory with memory.” And when she questions the meaning of the word toes, she wants to cut them off. The writing in this novella reflects the style of repetition of words and images in Erpenbeck’s short stories, published as a collection titled The Old Child (New Directions, 2005). Sentences repeat as the narrator sorts through memories. She asks her parents, her wet nurse, and her schoolyard friends many questions, and over the course of the book their responses blend confusedly until they are deconstructed. There are no chapters or section breaks, though each paragraph is separated by a double stop, and the longer ones are punctuated by punch lines that unnecessarily break the continuity. The choice marks this reader's sole reservation; that the work reads in such a way as to allow itself to be put down every few pages, when it should be read in one sitting.
Reflecting on the tendency to find the human behind the repressor, the father character exposits: “It’s easy to say what’s wrong…if you aren’t one of those who bear the responsibility. It’s always easier to break things down than to build something up.” Though Erpenbeck’s young character appears on the surface to agree with his words, inside she rebels, as he continues: “A body…decomposes with the help of worms and wood lice when placed quite normally beneath the earth, but one might also…transform it into a diamond. Into something that will last. And that’s a great deal more interesting…Yes, she says, it is.” It’s the words worms and wood lice, not diamond, that she focuses on, as Erpenbeck chooses to address the rot of mortality rather than self-righteousness.“ - David Varno



"In Jenny Erpenbeck's fiction, girls are tabula rasa to be instructed step by step by teachers and fathers (state substitutes) to be handmaidens. They are empty vessels to be filled, captives in training to serve. In one story, a teenager arrives at a home for orphans without name or memory to identify her, only an empty bucket that she carries. In another, a woman's lover imprisons her by burning the soles of her feet and tells her that he first became aroused when a dentist's drill caused a young girl to scream. Only grandmothers, servants and sometimes friends, hold onto a counter past that the present tends to erase in order to insure its hegemony.
"The Old Child" (the title story of the New Directions 2005 publication of her stories) takes place in Dresden, some years after the fire bombing of the city at the end of World War II and a few years after East Germany has become a model Communist state. The 14-year old girl who gives the story its title is placed in a home for orphaned children, but unlike other children in the home, she does not want to be adopted. She has entered the home to escape a world that she refuses to acknowledge. "What a blessing it must be to be given up on," she thinks. At the home, she turns what are often considered marks of degradation—silence, resignation, abjection—to her advantage until, inexplicably, she becomes tired, so tired that she cannot stay awake. The home puts her in the infirmary, where she sleeps most of the day—another refusal of the world—until its administration decides that something further must be done and she is taken to a medical center.
In the hospital, doctors bring her back into the world as a 30-year old woman with a past (the hospital has found her mother). "Her attempts to stop time in its tracks has failed." (Doctors, like teachers and lawyers Erpenbeck suggests, do less to help patients than they do to preserve the health of the state.) Like Gunter Grass's Oskar Matzerath in The Tin Drum, who stops his growth at age three because he does not want to grow up into the adult world, the old child, like Oskar, has no choice but to be an adult.
Governments fit themselves into the past like hands into gloves, but the fit is never comfortable. In the Latin American country that The Book of Words (New Directions, 2007) describes, gunshots are believed to be tires blown out; the parents of a friend are on a vacation trip from which they will never return. The market is closed. The market re-opens. Trains stop. Trains begin, although the first train to commemorate the re-inaugural of train travel is blown up by a terrorist bomb, and once again trains stop.
There are more ominous signs that cannot be explained away: the wet nurse's daughter has had her hands cut off, a friend's sister and her lover complete a suicide pact ("they won," the friend asserts). The father of the girl who is the book's protagonist is a major figure in government. He is imprisoned in a change of government, returns to power with another one. In prison, he tells her how to torture, what its effects are, and why it is done in terms as precise as those of a surgeon.
The girl describes whatever happens using the same terms, no matter the circumstances: "Those who, and then their friends, then the ones who remember them, then all who are afraid, and finally everyone." Except each time she repeats the phrases, she drops words, replaces commas with periods. "And" dropped. "Then" removed. "All" gone. Period period. In a totalitarian society Erpenbeck argues, the government cleanses society of what should not be there, but the girl who has been taught by her father to use its language, uses it to tell a different story.
"Teach the petrified forms how to dance," Karl Marx argues, "by singing them their own song." In her subversive counter practice, Erpenbeck uses the language of totalitarianism to speak through it. Erasure becomes signature. The blank page the refusal of "other people's dreams." Silence speech. Erpenbeck gives numbness its voice. Less singing a song than sung by it.“ - Robert Buckeye



"German author Erpenbeck observes the machinations of a repressive political regime through the eyes of an adolescent girl in this slim but dense novella. The story is set in an unnamed tropical capital where the sun always shines (probably Argentina, the translator notes) and narrated by a girl who parrots what she hears from her parents, emigrants from a snowy faraway place very much like Germany: her father is a highly placed minister whose job is to maintain an equilibrium, that is, to torture people; and her mother is a pampered homemaker who prefers to insulate herself from reality. The young narrator begins to notice how things are changing: shops are closed up, the railroad is abolished, food is rationed and people in her life begin to disappear or are detained and abused by the police. Half-truths, hearsay and speculation form the slippery foundation of the narrator's knowledge, giving readers an intriguing vantage point from which to view a country in turmoil." - Publishers Weekly


"The English version of this German novel by Jenny Erpenbeck has been translated by Susan Bernofsky. I have not read the translation. The German original is the work of a first class word smith and an outstanding writing talent.
In the beginning was the Word. The heroine is lost in words and she can not find her way. We are in a literary puzzle. A young woman recollects her childhood. Her language is precise German with a distinct East German touch. We are in the head of the child. The child sees and hears things and tries to make sense of them.
Her upbringing is partly in German. We know that from the verbal `memes' (the term that Dawkins uses for cultural equivalents of genes) that the child finds or remembers or encounters: the rhymes, the songs, the prayers.
Many of these memes are the same that I grew up with, though I am 20 years older than the author Erpenbeck, and though I grew up near the Western borders of Germany, in the French occupied zone, not like she did in the formerly Russian zone, now (during her childhood) officially the German Democratic Republic, and in the present time an odd subject of contradictory memories and myths.
The places that the child lives in are of a mongrel kind. We seem to be in East Germany and then we seem to be in Argentina. Only her grandmother remembers snow. That must be her mother's mother. She came over the ocean, from far away. Mother has a brother and a sister, but her father has died. Snow covered the ground for months over there. The sun nearly always shines here.
The child's father did not come from Germany, his parents live in Argentina and are visited every year by train or car. Is the German background a deliberate obfuscation? Is Erpenbeck deliberately confusing these countries? Or is it not confusion, but fusion? Are we in a practical application of totalitarianism theory? We are certainly not in a realistic narration that we can take literally.
The girl's father, as we find out, has an important position and is friends with the men whose stone monuments stand in the parks. He is in charge of creating order. He is, in other words, torturer and murderer on a grand scale.
The child has a wetnurse (she drinks her milk until rather late), who takes the child to popular altars for a local saint, Difunta Correa. This is what wikipedia knows about Difunta:
According to popular legend, Deolinda Correa was a woman whose husband was forcibly recruited around the year 1840, during the Argentine civil wars. Becoming sick, he was then abandoned by the Montoneras [partisans]. In an attempt to reach her sick husband, Deolinda took her baby child and followed the tracks of the Montoneras through the desert. When her supplies ran out, she died. Her body was found days later by gauchos that were driving cattle through, and to their astonishment found the baby still alive, feeding from the deceased woman's "miraculously" ever-full breast. (end of quote from wiki)
Another hint at biological distance is that the girl's mother has blue eyes, while her own are black. We assume early on that the girl is adopted. She is very attached to her father. In the course of the story we learn fairly precisely what has happened, and she understands quite clearly what her father has done. She waits for him to be released from jail.
This short book is a fascinating text by a promising writer. I have been made aware of her by several reviews written by friends, and I have tried not to remember their opinions when writing this review. The narration is composed of short text pieces which require close attention. After all, we have to decypher different time levels from early childhood to young adulthood, and we need to sort out different places. People are either people or ghosts. Gun shots are fireworks or bursting tires or somebody killing rats or pigeons or stray dogs. Corpses are either buried under lawns or dumped into the ocean from airplanes." - H. Schneider



„In an unnamed Latin American country under an unblinking sun, an unnamed girl tries to find words for the things that make up her life. Father and mother. Ball. Car. But, in the world she inhabits, words do not mean what they say; they have "silent halves... dragging them down like lead weights". The real story is the one "that goes on to the right and the left and above and below the edges of the picture".
Within the edges of the picture is the vividly realised world of childhood: lullabies, prayers, nursery rhymes, friends, games, sunlit gardens, illnesses, and the strange, incomprehensible doings of adults, observed from a child's perspective in a present-tense, stream-of-consciousness narrative. The child's mother is distant, leaving her to the care of a wet-nurse, her father an imposing figure who works "in a palace whose exterior is perfectly white", where he "sees to it that things are made orderly". In the background is a distant vista of a country where it snows, which only her grandmother can remember, but which has left its legacy in her mother's eyes, which are the colour of water.
Beyond the edges of this picture, things are being made orderly. A woman is dragged off a bus by her hair; all the railways are closed down after a strike, never to reopen; people disappear – the gardener, her piano teacher, the daughter of her wet-nurse. In their place appear marble statues of men who visit the house to smoke cigars with her father in his study.
A placard appears proclaiming "Silence is health". In this Year Zero, even the units of measurement, the calendar and the hours of the day are changed. Such things are matters of convention, made by people, and can be changed by people. As are words, which no longer mean what they say.
Jenny Erpenbeck, a playwright and opera director from East Berlin, came to the attention of English-speaking readers with her eerily brilliant novella The Old Child in 2006. More ambitious in technique and scope, The Book of Words reaches at times into the realm of magical realism, as at the dreamlike birthday party at which the guests are the transparent, wraithlike figures of the disappeared. The construction is intricate and masterly. Seemingly innocent words for seemingly innocent things one by one ambush the reader with their true meaning as the narrative moves towards its horrific denouement. Hands, eyes, nose, mouth ... heat, cold and wet.
If the book's setting recalls Argentina during the "dirty war" of the 1970s and early 1980s, the narrator's ancestry points to another country. There, two generations earlier, the meaning of words was also systematically distorted to sanitise political violence: the author's homeland.“ - CJ Schüler



„The Old Child (1999, tr. 2005 by Susan Bernofsky) is such a tough little thing that I wonder whether I would have slipped away from it first time around even without an injury to excuse me. It describes a young girl found “standing in the street with an empty bucket in one hand,” who fails or refuses to give any information about who she is or where she came from. “She was so surrounded by nothingness that there seemed, from the beginning, to be something implausible about her very existence.” The girl, who says she is fourteen years old, is “bigger than she should be”, and “hunches as though she were obliged to do so, to hold back a great force that is raging inside her.” She has a “wide, blotchy face” and her body is shaped “like a block of wood.”
This “pale, huge creature” is, or wants to be, “a blank slate.” But Erpenbeck does not succumb to the obvious technique of leaving the girl as pure allegory, or of filling in her character by the space she leaves around her and the impressions others have of her. We do get the girl’s own thoughts: she is taken to a school for troubled children, where she wants to “occupy the lowermost place that no one will fight her for.” She wants “to be given up on.” But she is human, and so full of contradictions. She finds herself pleased to be of use to the other children, but the relationship she attains with them is akin only to “the intimacy between a conspirator and the guards posted before his door.”
Erpenbeck reflects the girl’s central contradictions in the book itself. We are given frequent insights into the girl’s motives, but she remains mysterious. The ending provides us with a clear solution, yet sends the reader back through the pages in search of answers. There are many references to the girl’s past, which obscure as much as they illuminate. Take, for example, the treatment of the girl’s refusal to take sides in classroom disputes:
The place she occupies in classroom hostilities is therefore not always an honorable one, it isn’t really a place for a human being at all, since it forces one to approach zero, all one’s insides must be emptied out like a fish before frying, and only then will there be sufficient space for storing the misdeeds of others, others’ happiness and others’ grief. But the girl already had such a space within her when she arrived at the Home.
Of course it is these very qualities – demanding, teasing – that make the book such a success, enticing while reading and sticky in the memory when finished.
If The Old Child is a long but nourishing 100 pages, the accompanying story in this volume, The Book of Words (2005, tr. 2007), is knottier yet. A first person narrative by a child, it avoids the problems of many child narratives – cutesiness, sentimentality – by being frankly hard work. That is not quite right: certainly there is obscurity here, and translator Susan Bernofsky’s afterword that “the transplantation from German to English obscures certain fundamental points about the story being told” might have been more reassuring as an introduction. However even when scratching my head, I found much to enjoy within each paragraph, despite struggling to locate a larger view of the story. There is lovely imagery: “Where have all the sirens gone wailing off to? They turned into birds, my wet-nurse says. It is sunny and quiet in the middle of our city where the police live.” Sometimes the content seems to shine a dim light on its own difficulty:
Do you know what monsters live at a depth of four thousand meters? We shake our heads. It isn’t possible to know them, the teacher says.
These extracts, it turns out, are key to the central slow revelation of the story: as, probably, is everything else that didn’t seem obvious to me first time around. It does become clear, and the central figures in the girl’s life take on a new quality as the reader’s understanding grows. To say more, as ever, would spoil. It might be sufficient to point out that Erpenbeck grew up in the 1970s in what was then East Germany, and that this clearly (or turbidly) informs her work.
The Old Child and The Book of Words are what might commonly be called ‘difficult’. But they are only difficult if the reader is anticipating from the book a monologue rather than a dialogue: and where’s the fun in that? The language is clear and unaffected, but both stories resist full understanding until they are completed, which means the reader reinterprets them backwards. This makes a pleasant change from many books where we know what they’re about immediately, and what’s going to happen not long after. In The Old Child, the girl receives medical treatment where she finds staff who
are able to relieve a living creature, at least briefly, of the great responsibility of having always to sustain this life that has been given one, always with oneself to rely on, and without even knowing to what end.
The reader of Erpenbeck comes to know this feeling of self-reliance (for the time being “without even knowing to what end”), but here it makes a nice change, and the mind feels invigorated afterwards from the unaccustomed exercise.“ – John Self




Jenny Erpenbeck, The Old Child & Other Stories, Trans. by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 2005.

Read it at Google Books



"The Old Child & Other Stories introduces in English one of Germany's most original and brilliant young authors, Jenny Erpenbeck. Written in spare, highly concentrated language, "a sustained feat of verbal economy" (Die Zeit), the one novella and four stories in The Old Child go beyond the limits of the expected, the real. Dark, serious, often mystical, these marvelous fictions about women's lives provide glimpses into the minds of outcasts and eccentrics, at the same time bearing out Dostoevsky's comment that hope can be found so long as a man can see even a tiny view of the sky. The parable-like novella "The Old Child" describes a girl's mind as seemingly blank: picked up off the street with no discoverable past, she is taken to a children's home where she discovers she can "succeed by her silence." Another story, "In the Penumbra of My Skull," tells of a girl lying sick in a room covered with rugs and tended by her lover's wife." In "Hale and Hallowed," a woman pays a surprise nighttime visit to the woman with whom she shared a hospital room when their two sons were born. Dark, revelatory, ultimately redemptive (though barely in some cases), these stories bear out Ira Panic's comment that "Erpenbeck's writing is so concentrated, so dense, that a slim volume of stories packs the weight of the world."



"This enigmatic collection by East Berlin–born Erpenbeck explores entwined personal and political histories through the literal loss of memory. In the title story, a 75-page novella, an adolescent-looking female amnesiac is taken off the streets and into a Dresden home for children. As the story unfolds, there are signs that the girl, a metaphorical East Germany, may not be so young after all, and that her attempts to freeze herself in time, and to forget, are failing. In the exquisitely moving "Sand," a girl watches as her aging grandmother becomes frail and strange, inhabited by youthful laughter that, the girl realizes, "must be her own laughter that has returned to her like a lost daughter." "Hale and Hearty" tells the story of Maria Kainbacher, who looks up a friend from 50 years before and, by voicing their shared experiences, jolts Gertrud into vivid recollections (which Erpenbeck then wrenches to a tritely abrupt conclusion). Dark and cryptic, the stories are too diffuse in their language and plot to approach the Grimm-like precision they seem to aim for, but they provide a window into a post-1989 European political unconscious that continues to take shape." - Publishers Weekly



"Jenny Erpenpeck is so talented, she has the skills and the knowhow, and the theatrical panache, to make it really big in American letters just as she has captivated Eoreupe by the simple beauty of her voice. Like Isak Dinesen, she embodies a certain European allegorization of experience, so that we seem to be reading her through, I don't know, Alencon lace, with all of experience translated for us already by the deep mulch of German thought and philosophy.
She's young, of course, where Isak Dinesen was rather old--born old I almost thought. Erpenbeck doesn't have Dinesen's huge cavities of wrinkle, and the New Directions people capitalized on her fresh-faced appeal by publishing her book with a moonfaced, ecstatic child on its cover, a child carved out of wood like a ventriloquist's dummy. After the first story is finished, we understand why, for the "old child," who winds up in an old world oprhanage and is mistreated by everyone around her, nevertheless maintains a quizzical, baroque power that stems from not having given up all of her secrets (unlike the confessional, shallow, Jerry Springer contestants who make up the cadre of Jenny Erpenbeck's op[pposite numbers in American letters). She has secrets she has shared with nobody--a saucerful. "She apppears to herself like someone who has been charred into a little ball, someone who has been charred in time as in a fire and is now nothing more than a blackened lump that has been deposited in a home for children."
I take it that the orphanage represents a larger social entity, perhaps the two halves of a Germany split by V-E day into a capitalist and a communist nation, but Erpenbeck slyly does not allow us to make the one-on-one equivalence you might find in a Burt Kennedy film. She is after more enigmatic fare. If you can imagine a female Antonioni, one with the interest in body imagery and bodily functions of Janine Antoni--sort of a cross between Antonioni and Antoni--she might be the heralded next big thing in German writing, ably translated by Susan Bernofsky, who did so well by Robert Walser in THE ROBBER and the magnificent translation of MASQUERADE, and now she has a female subject from which to speak as only she can." - Kevin Killian



"The "old child" of the title story of Jenny Erpenbeck's accomplished and provocative debut prose fiction, is a fourteen year old, apparent amnesiac, found one night alone in the streets of Dresden. Not being able to discover anything more about her, she is placed in a orphanage/children's home. There, she quietly carves out a life for herself. Erpenbeck applies her condensed prose to narrating the externalities of the girl's life in the home in a precise, yet almost dead-pan voice. But then, before you realize it, her voice is also intimately connected with the child's mind - she can see beyond what is there and shares glimpses with us of what she discovers. The girl's silence and her passive acceptance of the teasing, harassing and bullying that she receives from her classmates is confusing for teachers and readers. Yet, Erpenbeck challenges us to read between the lines and connect the dots that she places for us as clues. In the end, we discover a very powerful study of "the old child" that could also be representative as much for a society in a period of upheaval and dramatic change.
In the original German, the OLD CHILD is a stand-alone publication (see my comprehensive review under the German title Geschichte vom alten Kind.). The five stories, accompanying the novel in this edition, are part of a separate eleven-story collection, Tand., published some two years after the first book. However, they complement the novel very well, in that they allow us to explore Erpenbeck's talents in creating highly visual scenarios and oblique or short intense glimpses into her characters' lives. These scenarios can come out of nowhere and are gone just as quickly, leaving us to ponder the why and how and what night happen next. An exquisite example is the brief, vignette-type, story of the girl in a triangle between her lover and his wife. On the end of the spectrum, in "Sand", the author delicately captures a long life in short memory capsules: that of an aging speech artist, as experienced by her granddaughter. This, my favourite among the short stories, touches so subtly and with such affection on all aspects of the relationship of the two - the girl growing up, stepping into the grandmother's artist shoes and the grandmother's mind slowly wandering off into confusion and nothingness - that I felt myself as an intimate observer. In the award winning short story, "Siberia", a woman returns from three-year detention in a Soviet camp, only to find another woman living with her husband and son. The story, an unusual reversal of what was a common occurrence after the war, is told obliquely, in indirect voice by the son to his own daughter. More traditional in terms of style and structure than most of the other stories, it nevertheless leaves the reader wondering how and why the primary characters behaved the way they did...
Jenny Erpenbeck, a representative of the younger German writer generation, grew up in East Germany. In an interview at the time of publication of the short story collection she reflected on the tremendous challenges her society faced when, literally from one day to the next, life was turned around: where there had been rules and regulations and strictures of all kinds, suddenly there was freedom and the need for independent thought and action. For some it was a frightening prospect. Through these glimpses into strange worlds, she, successfully, captures insights into the complexities of what this new reality could do to people. Her later books, especially BOOK OF WORDS and VISITATION expand on such questions and themes in ever more powerful way." - Friederike Knabe



"Jenny Erpenbeck's first book to be published in English consists of the title novella plus five short stories. Only one of these is at all conventional, but that is a beauty. Entitled "Hale and Hallowed," after a New Year's custom practised by German children, it is about an old woman visiting a contemporary whom she last saw in a maternity ward fifty years ago, when they were both giving birth to sons. The friend has suffered a stroke, and at first remembers nothing. But as her visitor persists, a miracle begins: "Gertrud can now remember the young face of the old woman who has appeared before her, and she realizes that an entire piece of her lifetime which she herself had so thoroughly forgotten that she was not even able to regret forgetting it has been preserved inside this woman like a cake in a cool, dark pantry." Gradually, everything begins to come back in full detail, Gertrud's gain mirroring her visitor's loss.
Most of these stories appear to be about time in one way or another. A young girl sees her actress grandmother slip into dementia, accompanied by the echoes of her old poetic voices. A female prisoner-of-war returns from Siberia, filled with an energy and determination that contrasts with her husband's degeneration. In the final story, the narrator sees "the phases of my life sitting in a circle around Death," living through childhood, an affair, exile, maturity, and old age in five brief almost abstract sections. This seems to refer back to several other stories in the book, including the strangest of all, a collage of psychosexual images entitled "The Sun-Flecked Shadows of my Skull," perhaps the surreal deconstruction of an affair, perhaps code for something else entirely.
The sense of some other meaning behind the apparent surface is strongest in the title novella, "The Story of the Old Child." An unnamed 14-year-old girl is found in the street, carrying an empty bucket. Unable to answer for herself, she is placed in an orphanage, where she willingly accepts her place at the very bottom of the childhood hierarchy, too dull to succeed in class, too heavy to be any good at games, the butt of cruel jokes, but pathetically eager and loyal. She looks older than her years to begin with, and time that seems to have stopped for her mind accelerates for her body, so that by the novella's surprising climax she is virtually a mature woman. The story has a horrible fascination on its surface level, familiar to anyone who has known bullying at school, and written with a remarkable empathy. But I suspect it may also be a parable for something else, perhaps the East German people under Communism; I don't know enough at first hand to be sure. This would certainly be in keeping with Erpenbeck's nightmare novella THE BOOK OF WORDS (2004). And certainly her magnificent recent novel VISITATION, much more lucid and less dark than these earlier explorations, where the passage of time and political power is indeed the main subject." - Roger Brunyate

"Visiting a foreign country can often be frustrating when there’s a communication barrier. The same can be said about reading stories that aren’t written in your native language. If it weren’t for Susan Bernofsky, translator of The Old Child and Other Stories, we’d be unable to digest all of experimental prose, historical parallels and telling memories of the past that East Berlin born author, Jenny Erpenbeck offers up in this collection. This collection introduces us to the oddities and idiosyncrasies that exist in the six stories here. They intertwine love, loss and the magnificence of the human mind.
Erpenbeck is not your average ingénue when it comes to story-telling. She’s been working on operas and musical stories as well as written. She’s been busy creating alternate worlds for her characters on the page and on the stage. And it’s within Erpenbeck’s mystical words and bleak settings that we can experience such oppressive environments, eccentric relatives and a parable about a maverick-like amnesiac. Somber settings and political history serve as undercurrents throughout the collection. Most of the stories have a strong narrative voice and tend to change often.
In the title story, a 75-page novella, we find what looks to be a young girl of middle school age, who’s been abandoned and is picked up off the streets by the in-takers at a nearby home for children. The location is dreary and the rules are strict but they seem to be easy to abide by for this young girl. Dresden is gloomy and often the perfect place for mayhem among youngsters. The staff discovers this young girl has no apparent memory of her past. While she suffers from amnesia, she also remains the social outcast among her peers. She doesn’t need to be the popular one, as she can “simply allow herself to be shoved, she will keep her place in the institution forever and will never have to get anywhere, not even the ninth grade.” This mentality keeps her alone and it seems she prefers it this way. And while she makes few friends, it is her intent to stay frozen in time, thus not moving forward in school and in life alongside them. She becomes a confidant to the rebels and the mischief makers after awhile, but rather than warming up to this attention she begins to feel even more removed from them. Paralysis sets in one morning and she is sent to a local hospital where she is monitored. Slowly, they come to realize she’s indeed, a grown woman. It is painfully apparent that our main character is not playing make-believe. She is acting as if she were a child, yet in her attempt to circumvent adult life she’d become a true child. Erpenbeck alludes to her desires in fact, what she desperately wants and fears. Often times this story will break off into third person narrative and we can catch a glimpse of the psychological root of her wishes.
The story, "In the Half-Shadow of My Skull," we visit a woman who is involved with a married couple in a ménage à trois. The lover narrates a story of love and pain. She endures cigarette burns on the soles of her feet and other abuse from the husband and sporadic comfort from his wife. The wife is picky about her loyalties and often mistreats the lover as well. The Lover has inadvertently picked two masochists who have no difficulty putting her in the middle of their own issues. The husband announces the onset of his lascivious behavior in a short passage. “I heard a drill going next door, and then all at once, a little girl screaming. That’s the first time I ever felt aroused. It has to do with innocence.” While our narrator kisses the wife and tells, she also finds herself being submissive in her relationship with the husband.
"Siberia" is one of the best stories in this short collection. The narrator’s father recalls memories from his childhood about his mother who had returned from exile in Siberia during the war to find her husband now with a live-in mistress. Left for dead, the narrator’s mother finds her way home amidst post-war rubble. The narrator's tells of how his mother returned, atop a milk-truck back to their home to re-claim her family from his father’s mistress, recalling his first memory of her. “She smelled of vanilla. As filthy as she was she smelled of vanilla.” The mother’s verve for life had all but sucked the life right out of the father. One part happy and two parts broken by the return of his wife and the manner in which she removed his mistress from their home, the father slowly retreats into nothingness. While the mistress was never the equivalent to his wife, the father did treasure some of his memories with her. In the end, he never really recovered from her return, and as he became ill later in life, he resisted her. “With his last breath he was still pushing away (her) hand.”
What is interesting about this collection is that submissiveness, mental and physical abuse, even psychosis all feature prominently as themes and thus affecting the mood of each story, yet Erpenbeck manages to not over-do it. The other three stories all deal with memory. Either with the recovery or loss of it. "Sand" is an extremely touching account of a girl’s account of her failing grandmother as she becomes forgetful and weak. Each day she spends with her Grandmother she observes her distinct dissent into senility. And while the Grandmother’s actions become even stranger as time progresses, she keeps a youthful laughter that the girl decides must be her own laughter inhabiting her grandmother. Erpenbeck captures how vital language is to their relationship whether it’s spoken, written or sung. “Then she (the grandmother) gives me sentences to speak, putting stones in my mouth so my tongue will learn to curl its way around all obstacles.”
In Hale and Hallowed, we meet Maria Kainbaher who attempts to find a friend from 50 years prior to see if they can rekindle a friendship from long ago. Maria sets out on a long journey (for an old woman) to find her friend Gertrud by walking the roads of town until she finally reaches her. “She knows that her bones are more durable than those of other people, and it doesn’t surprise her that a body growing older, begins to gravitate toward the earth in which it will soon be buried.” Unfortunately, Erpenbeck cuts this story short with an unexpected ending.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s collection of stories enter into landscapes surreal and often fairytale-esque. Her prose can be dark and the stories eccentric. The collection is extremely dense and heavy yet, handled with precision and great detail. Each of her stories provide a peek at the political rumblings that shape some of the language in her stories. Redeeming in so many ways, Jenny Erpenbeck and her stories have found their way into American hands and its true there is not a word or a phrase that’s been lost in translation.“ - Angela Stubbs




Jenny Erpenbeck’s third novel, Visitation, is a masterpiece. No less than an account of the 20th century, the narrative follows the lives and deaths of the inhabitants of a house in Germany. The property (which, I learnt from Erpenbeck, actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg) is a silent observer of many intimate and horrific moments of the 20th century. Erpenbeck’s precise prose gently weaves through history telling a narrative that at times reads like fable, at others like music. The slim spines of Visitation, The Old Child and The Book of Words (her first two novels) are an intimidating testament to Erpenbeck’s skill. Here is a writer incapable of wasting words.
Unusually, I came to Jenny Erpenbeck’s work via her translator Susan Bernofsky. I interviewed Bernofsky for Higher Arc, a publication I edit in Melbourne, earlier this year, and when we struck on the topic of Erpenbeck’s writing. Bernofsky commented that, “every single sentence has been ‘gone over’ with a nail file and a sledgehammer.” Having sought out and loved her novels, I made inquiries about an interview when I discovered that Erpenbeck would be in Australia in 2012 to attend the Adelaide Writer’s Festival. She was generous with her time, and the following interview was conducted in English over the telephone and via email.
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.
MC: Did you live in the house in Visitation?
JE: I didn’t live in it, but it was the summerhouse of my grandparents, and I spent my holidays there, which were for eight weeks of every year. In East Germany it wasn’t so common to travel around. We could travel to some socialist countries but not really anywhere else. I was completely content to travel every summer holidays to this house. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I’m very happy that I had such a stable childhood in this regard.
MC: Judging by your book, and what you’ve just told me, it sounds like it was a very special place?
JE: It was perfect: you could swim, you could walk through the forest, and do what you wanted to do. Nobody told us what to do. Except there was a rule, we had to come back there for lunch and dinner, but the rest of the day was completely free—and this was perfect.
MC: Were your summers at the house very different from your daily life throughout the year? I really can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up in East Germany.
JE: It wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t as bad as people always think it was. I grew up in the middle of Berlin, the very centre. I attended school, I took piano lessons, I was in an arts club where I could learn how to draw and paint. I never had problems with anything political. I think I was too harmless.
I come from a family of communist immigrants, of communists who immigrated to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After the war, they came back and organised the cultural life of Berlin. For instance, my grandfather founded some magazines. He dug out the machines to print the first newspaper of Berlin. In a way, my family was on the side of the government because it was mostly made up of communists who had returned after immigrating to the Soviet Union. I was probably a little bit safer. No, safer is not the right word, there was no danger. It was very clear to us that the DDR [German Democratic Republic] were supposed to try to do things in a better way than Hitler.
MC: It sounds like your family were always very interested in writing?
JE: They were all writers. My grandparents were writers. My father wrote several novels, short stories and poetry as well until the wall came down. My mother was a literary translator of Arabic literature into German. Everybody in our family sat at desks. I even described this in Visitation; the sound of typewriters was very common during my holidays. My grandmother wrote the whole day in her studio.
MC: You have a character in Visitation who carries her typewriter with her everywhere.
JE: This was my grandmother.
MC: It seems like a very fitting symbolic burden for needing to write wherever you go.
JE: Probably it gives the feeling of being at home no matter where you are as long you have your own device to tell stories or to make sense of what happens around you.
MC: Both The Old Child and The Book of Words are in a way written from the perspective of a young girl. Why do you write about girls?
JE: Actually, both characters are not children and are not young girls. They are adults looking back or trying to invent a childhood. I think that the woman in The Book of Words is looking back and searching for traces of lies in what her parents told her. She tries to make sense of her childhood, to see if she can find where her parents’ lying began, and to find out the things that were never told to her. I always think it’s a little bit misunderstood because, of course, they do seem to be girls but they are not girls. I think the interest for me was in recognizing that it’s always a hard task to figure out retrospectively what was “you,” and what was “you made by others.” There are so many people putting education into you, and giving you meanings and ideas and stories. You never know if the stories are true. This is the first thing. And there are so many emotions that come from other people. Later on you may tell people: “This is my emotion, my feeling, or my memory of something,” and it’s probably not really yours, it’s your mother’s or father’s or someone else’s altogether. This interested me and I think it’s a very complex thing to be brought up; so many people are needed to form a person and to give them an identity. Then all of a sudden you say “I” or “me,” and this, this makes me wonder.
MC: How do you research your novels?
JE: It started I think with the Jewish family from Visitation. I wanted to find out who they were. I went to an archive in Berlin, I found some family members who had survived, and who are still living close to Berlin. There were a lot of archives. I found out something about the architect. Then I found an old lady who had the same type of memories that I have because she spent her childhood there as well. She learned to swim there, and she picked berries from the same bushes as I did. This was a kind of research that was very moving for me. It’s very strange to meet someone who is eighty years old and tells the same personal childhood stories as you. I went to Warsaw to have a look at the place where the Jewish girl died. I went to Treblinka, the death camp where she was probably taken. I found the girl’s letters in a Jewish institute, and lists written by the girl’s parents, which they had written in order to travel to Brazil. I found the same items on another list when the things were sold. I would find a children’s bed on the list, which her parents made in order to immigrate, then I would find the same children’s bed on a list from when it was later sold by the Nazis. It was strange.
MC: So you could trace almost everything?
JE: This was like an adventure. If I didn’t have to write the novel maybe I would still be sitting in the archives. Archives are places full of treasures, you can always find it if you look carefully enough.
MC: Do you think you’ll keep working this way? Starting with an idea and then moving to research?
JE: The book I am working on now is also a novel and it has a lot to do with history. I read a lot, a lot of books.
MC: What kind of books?
JE: Autobiographies and memoirs, some historic books about this or that time. I read parts of the Talmud, just to know what it is. I had to get an idea, because one chapter takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century in Galicia, which is nowadays Ukraine and Poland. I wanted to get an idea of what was important in this time, and, of course, the Talmud was very important for the daily life of every person back then. I read books about Stalin. For one of the last chapters I went to an archive and read some letters written by my grandparents that are stored there, to get an idea of their daily life. It’s not an autobiographical thing that I am writing now. I am trying to follow the way of my grandparents but I have invented stories. I use the way my grandparents travelled from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin to write them.
MC: When will that be published?
JE: In Germany it will be published in autumn. In Great Britain and the U.S. probably in 2013.
MC: Will Susan Bernofsky be translating it?
JE: Absolutely! She has translated all of my books. She has become a good friend to me. We will hold on.
MC: I spoke with Susan last month and she said you were something like sisters when it comes to writing and translating.
JE: She is an absolutely wonderful translator and a nice person as well.
MC: Do you read your translations?
JE: From time to time. For instance, here in Adelaide I had to do a reading. I don’t read my translated books from the beginning to the end. I am kind of afraid of that. I can’t explain why but it’s strange to read your book in someone else’s words. But every time I have read it, or have had to read it for an audience, I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used. Once I asked someone about a word and he said, “This word exists, but it is a very delicate word.” This I liked a lot because she really thought about what words to use, as it is the same for me in German. I love to use old, almost forgotten words because they can express so much more than the daily used words—and I think she does the same for English.
MC: I think you might have similar reading taste as well. I have read that you admire the work of Robert Walser?
JE: He is one of the greatest. He is very good.
MC: What is it about Walser?
JE: He writes very slowly. One of my favourite pieces is The Walk. He is just walking, maybe for one hour or so. He has the whole world in this walk. He describes all the places where he stops for this or that reason. He has to go to the bank to see to his money affairs, then he sees a young girl and wonders about her, whether she will be a great singer or not. Step-by-step he opens up a whole world. The storyteller himself is not always a perfect person: sometimes he’s mean or afraid of something, he has doubts, preferences or aversions. Sometimes it gets almost surreal, but it’s just a walk. Walser is very exact, and he goes into great detail. He’s not fast: he’s just a slow walker.
MC: I understand that you have worked in theatre and drama?
JE: I actually studied opera directing. I started as an assistant director and then I directed myself. I think I’ve done about fifteen productions or so. Only when my child started attending school did I completely switch to writing. It’s too hard to balance school duties with rehearsing for six weeks. It’s not possible.
MC: I have been told that you went to school yourself not so long ago, as research for The Old Child.
JE: This was just a funny idea in the beginning, it was September and I thought I could try it myself and pretend to be new in some class and make myself ten years younger. It worked somehow. I had a talk to the director of the school: she knew, and some of the teachers knew, but the students didn’t. They accepted me, probably because I look a little bit younger than I am anyway. They didn’t doubt that I was a student.
MC: Did you become friends with your fellow students?
JE: I had one friend and I still meet her from time to time. It was wonderful because I was allowed to be a bad student, which I wasn’t allowed before when I really attended school. I was in a God-like position. I could help someone out and be bad myself in a test or whatever. So I would help her with mathematics and I would get a five, which was the worst score. I didn’t care and I didn’t have to care. It was a nice feeling to know that I could leave school after a couple of weeks—just go away. A feeling I had never had before of course.
MC: How old were you?
JE: I was twenty-seven and I pretended to be seventeen. Of course, I had to invent a biography, so I tried my best to make it very similar to my real biography so that I wouldn’t make a mistake if someone asked me something. It was strange, and not as hard as you would think. In my book, the girl goes back to fourteen, this is a different age, seventeen is not as far from twenty-seven as you might think.
MC: So you stayed for just a few weeks and then left again?
JE: Then I left. I told a story, I said that I had to change schools because of my parents. But I told this friend of mine the truth. She was the only one to know the real story, she was laughing and crying at the same time. She was laughing because it was a kind of adventure that she was part of, but she was sad as well because she thought she had found a friend and then I left again. So this was not so funny. But I think that the good outweighed the bad.
MC: Susan said to me that you are not researching facts you are researching feelings.
JE: What I try to do with this research is to put myself in former times. To get a feeling for how things were: daily life, true details, for instance where the light came from in this or that place and moment, how something smelled, if there was already electricity in some city. How it feels, for instance, to be in a cupboard like the girl in Visitation. I put myself in a cupboard for a while. - Interview by





Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days. Trans. by Susan Bernofsky, New Directions, 2014.
excerpt


We are born and we die - but many things could happen in between. Which life do we end up living?' From one of the most daring voices in European fiction, this is a story of the twentieth century traced through the various possible lives of one woman. She is a baby who barely survives beyond her first breath, and suffocates in the cradle. Or perhaps not? She lives to become as an adult and dies beloved. Or dies betrayed. Or perhaps not? Her memory is honoured. Or she is forgotten by everyone. Moving from a small Galician town at the turn of the century, through pre-war Vienna and Stalin's Moscow to present-day Berlin, Jenny Erpenbeck homes in on the moments when life follows a particular branch and 'fate' suddenly emerges from the sly interplay between history, character and pure chance. Fully alive with ambition and ideas, The End of Days is a novel that pulls apart the threads of destiny and allows us to see the present and the past anew.


This beautiful and ambitious novel by German writer Erpenbeck (Visitation) explores the many paths life can take. A baby girl dies accidentally in a small Eastern European town during the early years of the 20th century, spinning her family into disarray. But what if she had survived? Divided into five sections, each of which imagines a possible endpoint for the nameless female protagonist, the book begins with her death as an infant in Galicia, in the Hapsburg Empire, and spans nearly a century. The second section finds the teen girl living in wartime Vienna, hungry and rebellious. Her fate will hinge on an anguished stranger whom she meets after a heartbreak of her own. In the third section, she has left Vienna for Moscow, where she is an impassioned Communist worrying about her husband’s arrest and fighting to secure her own place within the party. The story concludes with two more possibilities for her as she continues life in Russia and Berlin. Erpenbeck’s graceful prose suits the understated tone of this Hans Fallada Prize winner, whose historical and political breadth could be stretched to unbelievability in less dextrous hands. The novel elegantly frames our human instinct to reimagine endings and tragedies as barely remembered moments over the course of a lifetime. - Publisher Weekly


Reading Jenny Erpenbeck is like falling under hypnosis: your breathing changes, you see moments in time simultaneously, yet you can’t recall names, dates or the order of events. The most memorable character in her novel Visitation has no words to say and is known simply as the Gardener. Ideologies, armies and seasons come and go, but the Gardener plants and replants throughout the 20th century. Through the story of one house and garden, Erpenbeck reveals the metamorphic strata of human experience. A masterpiece of subversion and subtlety, Visitation is an intimate history of modern Germany. Her earlier novella The Old Child is a parable of oppression told through a girl’s life. Now comes The End of Days, her most philosophically and technically ambitious work yet.
A short, musical novel that contains several books and intermezzos, it opens at the beginning of the 20th century in the Austro-Hungarian provinces. We are at a baby’s grave, and flash-forward to what might have been had she not suffocated in her cot. The mother later laments that perhaps “their child … needed only a short while to complete something begun in an earlier life”. In Erpenbeck’s lucid prose, superbly translated by Susan Bernofsky, the first book traces the unfolding lives of the parents after the baby’s death. The father flees to America, where immigrants displaying “madness, melancholia, anarchism” are sent back home, and his abandoned wife is forced into coexistence with her bitter mother, and into prostitution (“I am not a whore” becomes a recurrent cry of protest for all the subsequent female characters). Oppressed by her Jewish grandparents’ religiousness, she thinks “How much better it would be … if the world were ruled by chance not a God” – an authorial nudge, since that’s precisely what Erpenbeck offers: a world ruled by chance so ruthless it might be mistaken for a God.
The second book is a glimpse into what might have been, had the baby survived into the fraught 20th century. Harsh circumstances – wartime famine in Vienna, mass despair, the rise of antisemitism, a first heartbreak – combine with just the right personality flaw to result in our adolescent heroine killing herself. Or do they? Because in the next book, the girl walks down a different Vienna street and ends up with a different life in which her father, now a civil servant who can’t feed his family, dies “of the war” and her mother becomes the bitter woman she seems destined to be in every version. With the parental cry “Don’t go falling down the stairs” echoing down all the chilly roads the girl travels, each new life is succeeded by another; even when she outlives the Berlin Wall to lose her mind in an old people’s home, “some death or other will eventually be her death”.
Existential speculation is not new in fiction, but Erpenbeck’s prose feels newly exhilarating, especially in the first half of the novel. So what if every version of our life is a slow veering off course towards the “entrance into the underworld”, the inevitable fall downstairs. A single life is never single, and in that alone we may take consolation – maybe. But as our heroine falls down to the bottom of one particular set of stairs, aged 60, panicking one last time that “so much remains to be done before everything is as it should be”, she is wrong, Erpenbeck suggests. Nothing remains to be done, and the spiritual question at the heart of The End of Days is profound: why is it that a long life doesn’t necessarily complete what was “begun in an earlier life” any more than death in the cradle?
In contrast to the novel’s magical structure, this forensic vision is the opposite of magical thinking, where anything is possible. In Erpenbeck’s world, only the inevitable is possible and the tree of destiny has endless dead-end branches. The baby is unavoidably subjected to collective destiny – almost in accordance with the Soviet doctrine to “never overvalue the private fate of the individual”, a law our heroine survives during the Uzbek version of her life, but not in the Moscow version, where she is arrested and shot in accordance with the time (Stalin’s purges) and the place.
Except knowing that this is not the only version of her life offers no actual consolation. Erpenbeck’s Chekhovian talent for letting us into the shifting consciousness of her characters’ various incarnations is such that with each death our loss feels definitive. But while in Chekhov there are no exits from personality, here there are no exits from history. Although Visitation was both more grounded in place and more viscerally affecting than The End of Days, which at times feels over-constructed and rootless, reading Erpenbeck always produces a shiver of metaphysical vertigo. Her wisdom feels uncannily ancient and, like the earlier work, The End of Days is shot through with an insight that almost blinds. -


It also taps into some of the key motifs of our post-modern, relativistic age. The novel is constructed around the character of a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five “books” Erpenbeck examines the alternative courses the woman’s life might have taken, its various possible conclusions, and the impact of those outcomes on others.
This is not fundamentally an original conceit: there is a touch of David Mitchell here, among others. But Erpenbeck’s writing is so powerful and so poetic – and her story-telling so nuanced – that there is no sense of staleness about either the narrative or the ideas behind it.
From her birth we follow versions of Erpenbeck’s protagonist to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. At every stage we witness a possible death and are thus confronted continually by both mortality and hope.
Indeed, what Erpenbeck captures perfectly in The End of Days is the urgency by which our lives are pushed forward, yet on the other hand the transitory, perhaps futile, nature of human existence. In that paradox, it is chance which often holds the balance of power in determining the course we take.
The novel is firmly rooted in European traditions and, by following its central player through the continent’s century of torment, it offers insights into Europe’s recent history to rival literary greats.
Having taken her heroine through four deaths – in childhood; as a heart-broken teenager; as the victim of a frozen Soviet prison camp; and from a fall just as her star is at its height in East Berlin – Erpenbeck finally introduces us to the frail and forgotten Frau Hoffmann, at last granted a name by which we can identify her.
The portrayal that follows, of old age, is masterful, as the elderly residents of Frau Hoffmann’s nursing home contemplate the separation of the selves they used to be from the selves they are now. One recalls her post-war trek to Berlin with three children and, in a summation of the novel’s perceptiveness about the impact of time passing realises: “No one can quite imagine what that means any more”.
Erpenbeck has important things to tell us; and she tells them beautifully. - Will Gore


In Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest novel, “The End of Days,’’ words and stories and memory are the vehicle by which the reader moves, intoxicatingly and fearlessly, through a dizzying but magnificent series of terrains. Much like Kate Atkinson in “Life After Life,’’ Erpenbeck explores the ways alternative paths shape the narrative of a life.
The book is split into five sections, with intermezzos dividing them. The first part opens with the death of a baby in 1902 in Galicia, in Eastern Europe, where a mourning Jewish mother sits on the footstool she used as a child when her grandmother told her stories. Stories begin and stories end, but the mother must learn that “[a] day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.”
Right from the start, words are everything. The grandmother of the infant has a treasured possession — the collected works of Goethe. Her husband received it as a gift from his parents — but that was before he was brutally murdered. The mother of the dead child doesn’t know what happened to her father because her mother deliberately keeps it from her.
Everything in life has consequences — both the words we use and the words we don’t use. The life cut short leads to the father abandoning his family for America. The unnamed mother prostitutes herself. But in the intermezzo, Erpenbeck wonders: What if? What if the child had lived — how would all of the characters lives be transformed?
And so we move on to a new section, in which the child is now an adolescent living with her parents and her sister in Vienna. They are starving, despite her father having a job at the Viennese Imperial and Central Institution for Meteorology. At night he reads “Notes on Earthquakes in Syria’’ because “it describes in meticulous detail exactly the sorts of processes he is now able to see with completely different eyes: How one and the same cause can have a thousand different effects on different regions and locations.”
Each intermezzo and segment consider new twists: What if the teenager is heartbroken over a man not loving her and has a near stranger kill her in a suicide pact? But what if she actually doesn’t succumb to her adolescent despair and instead discovers while writing in her diary that she wants to be a writer? And what if that leads to her becoming Comrade H and living in Moscow with her husband, writing an account of her life before she is arrested and sent to a labor camp? What if she survives the camp and has a son with a Soviet poet and goes on to be a great, celebrated writer who even wins the Goethe Prize?
Time is played with, shaped by the author herself. “It’s a shame that no one can see the boundary where words made of air and words made of ink are transformed into something real: as real as a bag of flour, a crowd in which revolt is stirring,” Erpenbeck writes.
It’s as if Erpenbeck has written the philosophical response to “Choose Your Own Adventure,” but she decides for the readers which new path they will take. So much of “The End of Days’’ is focused on death, on those who choose it and those who don’t. But it’s also about the directions our lives take us in. “Might everything that’s ever been said and that will be said everywhere in the world constitute a living whole, growing sometimes in one direction, sometimes in another, always balancing out in the end?”
By the end of the novel, we come full circle. Sasha, the son of Comrade H (now known as Frau Hoffman), is on a trip in Vienna when he goes to an antiques store to get his mother a present. Unbeknownst to him, the very same Goethe books that are his rightful inheritance are there in the shop, but he decides not to buy them. Who knows what those once-treasured volumes will mean to the next person who owns them. - Michele Filgate


At one point in Jenny Erpenbeck’s remarkable novel, The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend), a woman who is falling to her death thinks of how thinks of how, throughout her life, she had done things for the last time without knowing it. “Death was not a moment but a front,” he thinks, “one that was as long as life.” As in the books of W. G. Sebald, life and death in Erpenbeck’s novel are separated by so thin a membrane as to render both a kind of purgatory. But the coexistence is uneasy—something as immeasurable as death doesn’t seem to fit naturally within the measured limits of a life, nor does the intimate clock of a lifespan appear to synch with that of historical time. In this book, Erpenbeck is most interested in what can be recuperated from the space between.
Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying “Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend,” meaning: “It isn’t over until the end of all days.” It begins with the burial of an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, woman, and crone the baby might have become: “She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.” As a result of the death, certain events unfold: the baby’s “goy” father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in how the story intersects with what might have been, giving life to the possibilities foreclosed by, but nonetheless coexisting with, the child’s death. In an “Intermezzo,” she imagines the way things might have been different, “if for example the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill and put it under the baby’s shirt,” allowing the girl to breathe. With this small exchange—a handful of snow for a handful of dirt—Erpenbeck finds an exit from fate, a layer of freedom hidden inside—or under—events. In each of the four chapters that follow, then, the girl survives, living out another stage of life as her mother imagined: an impulsive teenager in Red Vienna, a young wife in Moscow haunted by the Stasi; a middle-aged Soviet author in East Berlin; a befuddled elder spending her last days in a nursing home. These lives, too, are lost for the smallest, most contingent of reasons—the road is iced up; she gives someone a hug; she walks downstairs five minutes too soon—and each of these chance errors is caught up in the vastness of historical events: There is ice on the road because the men who would clear it have been lost in the war; the receiver of hugs is a Trotskyite.
The flipside of such contingency is that nothing is without consequence. A true miniaturist, Erpenbeck adorns her character’s lives with a catalogue of minute incidents and disasters: a beetle crawls up a blade of grass, causing it to bend imperceptibly, a puddle freezes in the shape of South Africa, a stone scrapes the spine of a volume of Goethe, an Aryan bride buys a clock. In Erpenbeck’s hands, these seemingly meaningless moments ripple outward to touch the character’s lives, effecting, as one character puts it, a “constant translation between the far outside and deep within,” binding history to the personal. Although the novel is seemingly narrated from a distance, it’s no small measure of Erpenbeck’s mastery that a similar translation occurs within the novel’s prose. She subtly modulates its tone throughout, from the first chapter’s placid, almost folkloric depth to the fractured upheavals of the third. She continually recalibrates, shifting ever-so-slightly in style to register political events and tiny shifts of emotion alike: “Someone who was a Soviet poet, and she’d have sworn he almost, and with her body, and he would have, and then the two of them, and then, oh, simply given away, what?” Particular phrases, playing in and out of the minds of different characters, create a layered, intertextual mosaic of historical and personal memory, like a symphonic leitmotif or holy text annotated in different hands. Marking her prose in this way, Erpenbeck proves herself an artist of that “deep within,” making poetry, for instance, out of the gorgeous nonsense-profundities of a ninety-year-old (“Slowly, his mother says, I want to try to address the burden with the burden title”), for whom “time is a paste made of time.”
This is, in large part, a novel about time, how the eternity of death might coexist with the measured hours of a clock. The novel’s constant present, tending to foreclose the possibility of things being different, might seem to struggle against this conceit, and the text is full of precision—latitudes, distances, the length of a piece of twine, “how much a herring weighs compared to three apples.” Yet such exactitude is undermined by an equal amount of narrative hedging: “for example,” “possibly something like,” “perhaps.” In this tension between the precise and the haphazard a kind of space is created, something immeasurable, a furrow in what is. In Moscow, the young writer wonders: “Was it possible to change the world if only you found the right words?”
At one point, the dead girl’s great-grandmother recalls “debating whether the realm of God could in truth already be found here on Earth if one only knew how to look . . . [whether] there were two different worlds or just the one.” The suggestion, which comes out of the Jewish faith, is that there is a divine world interleaved into our own—if only we knew it was hiding. The End of Days allows for a similar interpenetration of its narrative world by a world of the dead, enlivening the past with a host of potential presents. In allowing possibility and chance to share a reality with certitude, whether that of death or of the 20th century’s upheaval, Erpenbeck creates the possibility of a kind of creative freedom inside of it, a space where something is saved. The great-grandmother sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, “and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.” Death here, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell. - Jenny Hendrix


For Jenny Erpenbeck, no life is lived in an indisputable straight line. Which is why, in her new novel (new in English, though published in 2012 as Aller Tage Abend) she approaches the narrative as a series of potential emotional earthquakes, some which take place, some which might have taken place, all of which reveal something of how political turbulence plays havoc with the lives of ordinary people. There is no conventional plot, no obvious hero or heroine. In fact, the closest we come to a protagonist dies as a baby in the very first sentence—”The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave”—only to have life breathed back into her later in the book. That child then grows up to live, in Galicia, in Vienna, in Moscow, in Berlin, through a catalogue of 20th-century horrors. We follow her sometimes, though sometimes we drift far away from her, wondering, while in the minds and experiences of other characters, whether she’s still there at all.
This unconventional narrative technique will be familiar to readers of Visitation, Erpenbeck’s last translated novel (in German, Heimsuchung), which brought her almost universally acclaimed work to new readers. The central character of that book was a house, one which just so happened to witness, in miniature, the breadth of complicated East German history in the last hundred years and more. By making her protagonist a silent witness, this allowed the author to sidestep many of the clichés of wartime stories, particularly those wars which have been written and rewritten in novels so many times—while also allowing her to explore the full range of her literary and historical interests. Erpenbeck has said she doesn’t seek to write historically, but starts with something personal and then invariably finds this was shaped by past events. In her fiction, she chases down these events. The difference between Visitation and The End of Days is: in this case it’s impossible to know which of them actually happened.
The effect of layering possibility over possibility is, eventually, dizzying, even for the most attentive reader. Though she manages the trick most of the time; despite learning quite early on that each plot point may be about to un-happen at any moment, the author manages to keep it vivid, make it seem real. So each time the fate of our heroine is sealed, we live it as if it we could be sure of it. And yet, each time it’s temporary. Erpenbeck lets a possibility unravel, running with a “maybe” to its natural conclusion, only to call it back in at the last moment, wrap up the ball of string tight once more, as if the last narrative never happened (which perhaps it didn’t), before taking the novel in another direction entirely. And these directions are not always about key personal moments—how a woman may be tricked into prostitution, for example, or escape it—Erpenbeck often concentrates on the world in miniature. She makes her possible worlds real by carefully selecting the tiniest details of human behavior, or landscape, and offering them up for close attention. Readers of her previous books will not be surprised to find this one is written with grace, delicacy, and no shortage of raw power. Those coming to her work for the first time may be surprised at just how bleak it is.
In Erpenbeck’s fiction, her characters are at the mercy of their century. There’s little hope in battle here, no possibility in fighting the regime, whichever one you happen to be under. (Hitler, Stalin, and several others influence events from off-stage, though smaller powers rule characters’ lives too.) Yes, you may be able to cheat fate in the short term—for example, save your dying infant by rubbing snow on it, to trigger breathing once more—but that only serves to stave off tragedy for while, before that too is reborn in some other horrendous way further down the line. So awful is it in fact that some readers may wonder if the central character of the book, that vulnerable newborn buried on page one, might not have been better off quietly fading away after all rather than surviving to become the elderly, confused woman who features in the final pages, worrying that somehow “the trace will be lost.” So dark is this work, so unremittingly hopeless in places, that each time the narrative rewinds, ready to throw readers into some other maybe-future, you can’t help but hold your breath, fearful of which direction our heroine (the baby in Galicia/the Communist sent to a Siberian camp/the East German Writer) will be hurled in next. And it does feel like hurling. In desperation, the mother of that dead child muses on the meaning of it all:
The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more. How much better would it be, she thinks, if the world were ruled by chance and not a God.
If you’re left with one thing in the wake of this novel then it is surely this: the smallness of individual endeavor, the pointlessness of resistance. Which is my only gripe with it. Artfully done though it undoubtedly is, carefully rendered word to word, The End of Days is an exhausting, draining read. Whether ruled by chance or by a God, there seems little prospect here for those footholds mentioned here to harden into something really worth clinging onto. And yet, because the rise and fall of each tragic image is so clear and believable, it’s an oddly beautiful hopelessness.
Meanwhile, some more prosaic concerns. It’s often difficult to work out exactly who is who in The End of Days, and I’m unashamed to admit that sometimes I did lose track, having to retrace my steps by several pages or more, to understand the necessary links and overlaps between characters in their various possible futures and pasts. Why? Mostly because names are rarely used, identities muddied. Given Erpenbeck is famously such a precise writer, it’s hard to believe this is an accident, or a translator’s weakness. (Susan Bernofsky, also the translator of Visitation, is greatly admired by Erpenbeck, who has called her versions “perfect.”) So readers are forced to see these ambiguities, these many vaguely-referred-to men, women, Comrades and associates of the cast who are usually just identified in terms of their relation to others (“daughter of,” “mother of,” “son of”) as fluid in some way, if not interchangeable. The woman called Frau Hoffman in the final pages, and who has experienced so many identities since her funeral in the first sentence, has barely been labeled as such before. The author prefers to write “she,” or “her,” blending this woman in with all the other she’s and her’s who also, no doubt, have lives that could have gone a thousand different ways. Could this be related to the fact, as our protagonist notes, that the Jews “knew what they were doing when they decided never to call God by his name?” Is even the naming of things somehow suspect? Certainly it feels like Erpenbeck is nudging us towards that conclusion.
In her interview with Mieke Chew for Issue 30 of The Quarterly Conversation, with reference to her earlier The Book of Words, Erpenbeck discussed the challenges for any person of looking back on their past: “It’s always a hard task to figure out retrospectively what was ‘you’ and what was ‘you’ made by others,” she said. This quote interests me because another way of seeing The End of Days is as a tug of war between each character’s “you” and the “you” they are pushed toward by their times, their governments, their financial hardships, and family ties. In that same interview she discussed how research lived at the heart of her creativity as an artist, often the mesh of broader historical research and research into her own family life being the starting point for her works. At the time she was writing what became The End of Days, so it’s relevant to note that the author’s own family made the journey from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin, the same route which the fractured, fragmented heroine of this novel also takes.
Or does she? Does she instead die in the first sentence, leaving the rest of the novel as just speculation? And if so, does that speculation lead anywhere, or does it merely remind us that understanding destiny is impossible? In Jenny Erpenbeck’s world, it’s hard to be sure of very much at all. Except, perhaps, that for the time you spend reading her books, you’re in the company of one of the most skilled, rare and relentless fictional talents currently alive and at work. Of that there is little doubt. - Rodge Glass


Old stories end “and they all lived happily ever after,” but of course they don’t really. The formula is a fig leaf to disguise the fact that all our stories end the same way: in death. Death is the limit of fiction, as it is the limit of life; it is the most pressing of subjects, the one that intimately concerns us all, yet it is also the one about which we have nothing useful to say. In the face of it, even the most sophisticated of minds is reduced to awestruck cliches. “Some death or other will eventually be her death,” Jenny Erpenbeck writes of her protagonist in The End of Days, her eerily powerful meditation on the ways a life can end. “If not sooner, then later. Some entrance will have to be for her. Every last person, every he and every she, has an entrance meant for him, for her. So does this underworld consist only of holes? Is there nothing more to it?....Is there nothing that could prevent a person fromsooner or later, here or therestumbling right into it, flailing, falling, plummeting, sinking?”

If there is something childlike about these questions, it is not because they are easily answered, but because their unanswerability begins to plague us in childhood and never really goes away. Erpenbeck, a highly acclaimed German writer who is now becoming known in America, captures this primal quality through her dreamy montage-like narration: the book proceeds in a series of short numbered sections, frequently switching between points of view. Because the characters are never named, but referred to mainly by pronouns, the reader is left in a constant state of mild uncertainty, forced to deduce exactly who we are reading about.
And not just who, but when. As the book begins, it seems to be a story about a crib death in Brody, a border town in Austrian Galicia, around the beginning of the twentieth century. A baby girl stops breathing one night, and this seemingly gentlest of deaths does irreversible violence to the fabric of her parents’ lives, launching her father into emigration and her mother into prostitution. “A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days,” Erpenbeck writes, yet that is also just what it is. When a person’s story comes to an end, and everyone connected to it is hurled into a new kind of future.
But then the book’s first section concludes, and in a brief “intermezzo” Erpenbeck rewinds it like an old videotape. What if the mother had had the presence of mind to take a handful of snow and put it on her baby’s chest, resuscitating her? Then everyone’s fate would have been different: the father would not have left and the family would have moved to Vienna, where a second sister would have been born. Yet when the next section of the novel begins, we find that this life, seemingly a happily-ever-after in which death was averted, only turns out to be the setting for a different kind of death. The girl, now grown to be a teenager, confronts the starvation of the post-war city and disappointment in love, which combine to lead to her a very different end of days.
But The End of Days has three more sections to go, and by now the reader has identified the pattern: in each section we will read of another way the same life might have ended. Each time the death comes with a different degree of horror or absurdity: homicide or suicide, accident or old age. Almost always politics is involved, and one of Erpenbeck’s achievements is to show the endless ways in which the twentieth century dictated individual fates through war and ideology. Since the protagonist is half-Jewish, the question of Jewishness and its legacies in twentieth-century Germany is never far from the surface. (The family’s set of the collected works of Goethe, which is damaged in a pogrom early in the book, resurfaces near the end in an antique shop, a living emblem of the career of German Jewry and its thwarted desire for belonging.)
Yet no matter how different the setting of her alternative existencesthe novel shifts from Poland to Austria to Russia to East Germanythe lives the woman leads turn out to be variations on the same themes. Autonomy, Erpenbeck suggests, is an illusion. The lives we lead are actually permutations of history and chance, and they all end the same way, in an unnarratable death. But by imagining these different fates so meticulously, The End of Days suggests that we do have at least one kind of power over themthe power of imagination, which turns one existence into many, and gives us at least the illusion of having understood them all. - Adam Kirsch


Jenny Erpenbeck's Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) is an excellent novel spanning the majority of the twentieth century.  We start off in Galicia, now the Poland-Ukraine border region, but at that time part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where a couple are mourning the death of their young daughter.  The tragic loss of the infant has a devastating effect on the whole family, with the father unable to stay and console his wife - leaving her to support herself by what we can euphemistically call 'other means'.  But what if...
...the child never died at all?  Having spun out her tale, the writer then drags us all back in time, imagining an alternate history in which the baby is saved from death.  And, of course, with the daughter still alive, the fate of the parents and other family members also changes, whether for better or for worse.  Resurrect the baby/girl/woman four times, and that's what you can expect from Erpenbeck's latest work :)
It's a fascinating book and a very clever idea, a novel built around the central concept of Was wäre wenn... ('What if...').  Aller Tage Abend consists of five different books, each set in a different period.  The five sections look at different times in the central character's life (her name is fairly unimportant and only really appears towards the end of the novel), although it's probably more accurate to say that they deal primarily with her death.  With that subject matter in mind, you can imagine that the story has some rather powerful scenes.
Between the five books are four 'Intermezzos', and it's here that time is rewound.  As the central character's grandmother notes:

"Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller tage Abend."
p.23 (BtB, 2014)
"She has known for a good while what her daughter will have to learn overnight: the end of a day where someone dies is by no means the end of all days." *** (my translation)

While the grandmother's words are more in the vein of 'life goes on', in Erpenbeck's world they are taken more literally.  We go back and see how other decisions could have been made.  One change of heart, one wrong turn, a file moved to the right instead of the left - and suddenly life really does go on.  Think of the film Sliding Doors, and you'll begin to get the idea.
While a few themes are evident, particularly the role of women in the twentieth century and the problems of European Jews, Aller Tage Abend is not really focused on any particular area, moving straight from the micro of a personal tragedy to the macro of universality.  The book seems to hinge on the fate of one person, showing how things would have been different with and without her.  However, the more we read, the more we get the feeling that individuals aren't really that important. History moves on, countries come and go; are people really that important?  Life always goes on, even if it's not yours...
The book is actually less about one woman at five different times than about five completely different people.  Erpenbeck shows that our life is not a continuum, a flowing stream of life ending in death, but a series of small, potential deaths:

Zu vielen Zeiten ihres Lebens hat sie irgend etwas für immer zum letzten Mal gemacht, ohne zu wissen, dass es das letzte Mal sein würde.  Also war der Tod gar kein Augenblick, sondern eine Front, lebenslang?" (p.226) "At many times in her life, she had done something for the very last time, without actually knowing that it would be the last time.  Did that mean, then, that death wasn't a moment, but a continual, lifelong struggle?" 
Each day, while connected to the one before, is a brand new day, another twenty-four hours of struggle against the possibility of death.
The observant reader will probably be connecting Aller Tage Abend with another of Erpenbeck's novels,
Heimsuchung (Visitation).  Of course, the structure is similar, and the two books could almost be read as companion pieces.  In one, we see history rooted to the spot; in the other, it moves around in the form of the woman.  For me, though, Aller Tage Abend is a much more successful book.  Its five sections (plus the Intermezzos) worked much better than the dozen or so parts of Heimsuchung, and each book is very different (monologue, diary entries, narration).  Death sometimes ends the section, but occasionally begins it too.  While I wasn't a big fan of the first part's detached style, I was enthralled by what came after.
I'm very glad that I decided to choose this one out of the two I bought especially for Women in Translation Month, and (as noted in my introduction) soon you can get your hands on it too!  The English translation is out on the 1st of November, courtesy of
New Directions (and Susan Bernofsky), and the English title is The End of Days.  So, get yourself a copy, and you too can enjoy another great translated novel by a female writer :)
No need to thank me, just doing my job ;)
- Tony Malone


JENNY ERPENBECK, born to an intellectual family in East Berlin in 1967, is a critically acclaimed and prizewinning author in her native Germany. She is less well known in the United States, although several of her books have appeared in English translation. Visitation (Heimsuchung), published here in 2010, concentrates its attention on one small patch of ground, a lake house in the Brandenburg countryside near Berlin. Owners and residents, mostly unnamed, come and go over the generations of the 20th century, united only in their wish to colonize this space, to make their mark on the house and its outbuildings and modest landscape. Each owner puts his own stamp on the house and its grounds, and each sets the gardener to work planting or felling fruit trees, sowing or razing flowerbeds, nurturing or ripping out shrubbery, pushing dirt this way and that.
The residents’ ability to impose order on this space is aided or denied according to the greater political landscape. Jewish owners are forced to sell for a low price and flee to Poland in a doomed attempt to survive. Later, an architect who has worked with West German clients is forced out of the property by the postwar East German socialist regime. The residents’ narratives accrete like layers of paint as each family arrives, makes a home, and departs. By the end of the novel, we hold a single image in mind, one of surprising depth. The residents of the lake house may be anonymous, but we glimpse enough of their desires to feel pain at their striving and loss; we feel bereft at the futility of their lives (and our own) against the merciless rhythms of time, of the earth. The rhythms themselves may be merciless, but their structure consoles — for the homestead’s gardener, as in Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
If Visitation is like a painting, The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend in German) is more like the view from a plane zigzagging through the skies over 20th-century Europe, creating a connect-the-dots puzzle. In 1902, as the novel opens, an eight-month-old girl is buried in the eastern precincts of the Austrian Empire. As her mother throws handfuls of dirt on the grave, she mourns not only her small child, but also the girl, young wife, and old woman the child will never become. Erpenbeck’s story takes back those stolen life stages, exploring what might have been. In an “intermezzo” between the first and second chapters, the narrator imagines how things could have happened differently: to rouse the impassive child in her crib, the mother may have “scooped a handful of snow from the sill and put it under the baby’s shirt,” so that the girl lived. Then each lost stage of her life is lived out; as we bear witness, the girl, then woman, moves from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin, through adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and at last old age near the end of the century. Throughout the novel runs the volatile seam of preordained fate, the fate that comes with any tale set among the upheavals of 20th-century Europe. The child may have survived the dangers of the cradle, but history will not leave her alone.
The earlier Visitation maintains a fairy tale-like feel throughout, a worthy descendant of the Brothers Grimm, who also trafficked in treacherous domiciles. In both the original and the English translation, the prose has a naïve style, which rubs up against insidious events to create a sinister friction, a style more easily translated to English. Aller Tage Abend was hailed by German critics for its highly rhythmic prose, but the translator, Susan Bernofsky, has opted for an unadorned style for The End of Days, though one that nonetheless retains the sense of menace integral to any tale of predestination.
Over the course of five long chapters and four intervening “intermezzo” sections, Erpenbeck explores five possible versions of the girl’s life. (The protagonist’s imagined biography overlaps in important ways with that of Hedda Zinner, the author’s paternal grandmother, who lived from 1905 to 1994 and wrote for left-wing political journals.) In the second chapter, the second of the versions, the girl escapes early crib death through her mother’s quick thinking. Her parents have a second daughter and the family moves from provincial Galicia to Vienna, where the father becomes an employee of the Meteorological Institution. But the family struggles, and when the Great War comes, they nearly starve. Then, in one of the book’s occasional swerves into melodrama, the girl, in a moment of heartbreak, “allows” herself to be killed by a stranger she meets one night while wandering the icy streets.
The unconvincing motivation of this event signals the novel’s unsatisfying treatment of character. The girl dies now because she must do so to fit into the established schema. It’s the kind of plot development meted out regularly in historical fiction — everyone knows before cracking the spine of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies that Anne Boleyn is beheaded by the book’s end. The real disappointment of The End of Days is what feels like a devaluing of individual experience, the girl little more than a marionette, and it is difficult to be moved by the fate of a puppet.
Ford Madox Ford characterized the novel as exercising a “profoundly serious investigation into the human case.” While The End of Days is duly serious, it is ambivalent about the human case. The protagonist suffers and dies five times, but her interior life and struggles are accorded little weight. The manners of death are instructive. Of the five deaths, four are unconnected from her will and desires: she stops breathing in her crib, she randomly crosses paths with a violent young man, she slips and falls down the stairs, and she dies of old age at a nursing home. The recitation is reminiscent of Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies — “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears” — without the grim humor.
In the third iteration of her life, the protagonist ends her days as a prisoner in Stalin’s gulag, despite her careful efforts to win her freedom, energetically demonstrating her loyalty to the Soviet state. This chapter, set largely in the pre-World War II Soviet Union, is the most compelling section of the book. It’s the only version of her life where the protagonist is permitted any true agency, where she is granted motive and goal, a narrative animated by clear stakes rather than attenuated by accidents or pure biology. In it the young woman leaves her parents’ home determined to support herself by becoming a writer. Frustrated by the older generation’s passivity, she is seduced by the empowering rhetoric of the Austrian Communist Party. She joins a group of young people who feel themselves part of the great sweep of history as it marches toward progress. She marries a fellow writer, Comrade H. (H. is for Hoffmann, we eventually learn), and they flee to the Soviet Union as conditions grow dangerous for communists in Austria in the interwar years.
Comrade H., as she is also now known, finds herself, after several years of faithful service and politically expedient writing, engaged in composing the most crucial text of her life: her autobiography. Through it she hopes to show her ideological purity and fealty to the Soviet state; her husband has just been arrested, and she fears for his life and her own. Sitting at her desk in her Moscow apartment, she considers the urgency of her task.
It’s entirely possible that this written account will be the end of her actual life, possible that this piece of writing will be transformed, if you will, into a weapon to be used against her. It’s also possible that it will be kept in reserve, and that from the moment she turns it in she’ll be obliged to live up to it, or to prove herself worthy of it, or else confirm the darkest suppositions that might arise from it. In the last case, the words she’s writing here would also — with a smaller or greater delay — be something like a misdiagnosed illness that eventually, inevitably, would kill her … There’s only one thing she doesn’t assume: that this piece of writing will be nothing more than a sheet of paper with ink on it, slipped into a folder and forgotten.
In fact, this is what happens. The novel’s most absurd and powerful scene, deftly sketched, reveals two alternate versions of Comrade H.’s fate. In the bureaucratic warren of the Secret Police, her autobiography, its pages slipped into a folder, is passed around as if by invisible hands. Comrade ö., who thinks of Comrade H. as a “narrow-lipped hysteric,” places her file on the left-hand side of his desk, rather than the right. The pile from the left “is forwarded to Comrade B.” Comrade B. remembers having eaten a fine strudel made by Comrade H., but finds that insufficient reason for “sparing a counterrevolutionary element.” So he assigns her dossier to the stack on the left-hand side of his desk, and it is forwarded to Comrade S. Comrade S. cannot anticipate Comrade H.’s saying anything incriminating about him if she were arrested, so he too places her file on the left-hand side of his desk, to be forwarded to Comrade L. And on it goes. Her file eventually lands with an officer who is required to order a certain quota of arrests by the end of the month. He goes about his selection process alphabetically, and Comrade H.’s fate is sealed. Still, it could have been worse, for she is at the end of the list — the first 10 people in her group are assigned to the firing squad. Or — perhaps — as the intermezzo suggests, one comrade along the chain might have made a different judgment, and placed her folder on the right, so that Comrade H. survives. The book’s final two chapters find her in East Berlin, where she has achieved prominence as a writer whose works provide intellectual cover and support for the socialist government. Comrade H.’s trajectory, as traced in these sections, provides a fascinating study of the circumstances surrounding the founding and operation of the East German state.
¤
The sweep of history may be the most prominent force circumscribing human fate, but a brief passage in the middle of the novel invokes the less culpable yet more powerful force of geologic time, which, as in Visitation, dwarfs all lives, and all species, equally.
A wind rises up far away on a bit of steppe, 45.61404 degrees latitude north, 70.75195 degrees longitude east […] A beetle, emerging from nowhere, on its way nowhere, passes the time by creeping up one of the grass blades, where, having reached the top, it turns around again and goes on its way facing down. The blade of grass bent a little beneath the weight of the beetle when it reached the tip — bent almost imperceptibly, since the beetle’s weight was so slight, but still it was something. Now that the six-legged visitor has returned to earth and is once more making its laborious way among the other stalks belonging to this tuft of grass, the stalk is standing erect again, trembling ever so slightly from time to time in the tranquil air we describe as a lull.
Erpenbeck uses geographic coordinates throughout to emphasize the tininess of human life; those who people the book are equivalent to entomological specimens mounted and pinned, their one-time fluttering among the sun and leaves irrelevant. But they don’t know any better.
The metaphor of the beetle, “coming from nowhere, on its way to nowhere,” barely moving the blade of grass despite its steady efforts, complements the novel’s title. The original title, Aller Tage Abend, comes from the German saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend (literally: “It is not yet the evening of all days,” meaning: “It isn’t over till it’s over,” or, “Life goes on”). The phrase “the end of days” recurs throughout the book, first appearing in the first chapter, conveyed by the mother of the young woman whose baby (our protagonist) dies in the crib: “For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.” The day her daughter thinks, knows, is all-important will recede in weight as she is forced to go on — and the child’s death is already comparable in effect to the trace of a beetle clinging to a stalk. By the book’s conclusion, the protagonist has reached her final end of days, expiring in a Berlin nursing home in the years just after the fall of communism, the cause to which she devoted her life and writing now vanished, irrelevant.
Her son, in his mourning, is engulfed in sensations that mimic the spiritual, something the book does not endorse but can’t seem to wholly forsake:
Briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it will feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being […] this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it has beset him.
It’s a problem for writers who don’t have faith in a higher being: how to affirm and express those moments of connection to another that feel like catching sight of something ineffable — or those times gazing at the sunlight in the trees or the light falling through the window in a Rembrandt, or reading a fine passage of prose in a novel — moments that feel like we are transcending some sort of everyday limit on our consciousness, when the ordinary suddenly seems numinous. Even the most fervent unbeliever hesitates to discount such moments, and Erpenbeck tries to give them their due, though they fit uneasily in this novel. Her experiments with the lives of the writer Frau Hoffmann enact a sort of oscillation. Our lives and deaths are completely arbitrary and without meaning, except when, as in the book’s powerful USSR section, they are not —Comrade H. may, ultimately, be powerless, but her fate is something she is able to recognize and struggle against, decidedly unlike the clueless beetle. Our connections and actions give our lives meaning — they sustain us — or they don’t.
In the novel’s second section, though, Erpenbeck touches on a middle way. The father of the future Frau Hoffmann spends his late evenings in their Vienna flat studying his wife’s sleeping face, in an effort to trace how external forces have made their mark on her. He wants to understand “how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature — such as war [or] famine … can infiltrate a private face.” He notes
a constant translation between far outside and deep within, it’s just that a different vocabulary exists for each of us, which no doubt explains why it’s never been noticed that this is a language in the first place — and in fact, the only language valid all over the world and for all time.
The ephemeral, inconsequential entity that is a human life may be caught in a skein of impersonal forces, borne down on by historical and geologic time, but each in a private and distinct way. Perhaps the imprinting that results is the locus of dignity and compassion.
Frau Hoffman dies her last death around age 90. The dead woman’s son carries on with his life in Berlin, “at 52.58867 degrees latitude north, 13.39529 degrees longitude east.” Every morning he rises early, before the birds, to mourn free from the scrutiny of his wife and children. Choking on his tears, he wonders if this is all there is. - Marian Ryan


One of the very first books I wrote about for book-plate was Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. A beautiful, concise and poetic novel, I was completely enchanted by it and wanted to tell everyone I knew to go out and read it. It was one of the key moments where I realised that I wanted to write about books and get others excited about reading and thus, book-plate was born and launched in January of this year. Now, as we slowly tick over into December and the year comes to a close, it seems fitting to be able to talk about Erpenbeck’s latest release. 
The End of Days is a reflection on the every day decisions that change our lives irrevocably. The ‘what ifs’ and the near misses. Following a central character through different possibilities, Erpenbeck takes us through a number of alternative lives. What if a child dies as a young infant. What if she lives to become an adult - will she die loved or alone? Like Visitation, Erpenbeck again spans generations and the history surrounding them. There again are references to World Wars One and Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this time from a profoundly Eastern perspective. From Galicia (which today straddles the corner of the Ukraine and Poland), to Vienna, Moscow and finally Berlin, the novel offers a timely history lesson on Eastern Europe, with the recent twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the current tensions between Germany and Europe over Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. (As a side note, this excellent portrait of German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a fascinating history of the German parliament and of Merkel herself that is fascinating in itself, but also gave me a much better understanding of the German attitude towards Russia and the Ukraine.)
Similarly to Visitation, there’s a pervading darkness in The End of Days, a strong sense that something sinister is just around the corner. There is again the use of poetic repetition in Erpenbeck’s prose that is evocative and beautiful. Long descriptive passages are broken up into tiny fragments, as we pause to watch moments of lives, like an onlooker passing on a train, or sitting by the window of a cafe on a busy street: 
At night, the younger daughter sits in the street, waiting for midnight to come. Indeed, she’s been sitting like this for years, sometimes with her mother, sometimes with her sister, and often alone. This waiting began soon after the start of the war—first for bread, meat and fat, and later also for sugar,  milk, potatoes, eggs, and coal. The war is over, and still she’s sitting here, just the same as before, in this dark forest of bodies that has been growing up all around her for the past five years, stretching its limbs further with each passing night into alleyways and streets, around corners, up steps, and across the squares of Vienna, while she herself has grown within it.
Erpenbeck uses The End of Days to explore the balance between what is dictated by the lives we make for ourselves, and the life dictated to us by others. How much of our own lives can we control, how much of it depends on those who rule us. The whimsy and attitude of those sitting behind a desk can often cause major events in our lives. If your name is amongst those being called for slaughter, will your paperwork be processed by a man who has never met you and for which you are only a number? Or will it be processed by a man who remembers you made beautiful strudel and as such you are given a second chance? What if a minor error is made in the spelling of your name and you are denied this memory, this glimpse of hope? Erpenbeck reminds us of the acts of our country that we cannot change, and how they can alter our lives beyond recognition in a blink of an eye. 
The End of Days is more broadly about sense of place. How do we connect to a place that wants us expelled, yet is the site of our childhood, our family, our sense of home? The disconnection between past and present, between home and away: 
Ever since her husband’s arrest, she has felt like a stranger in this land, even thought when they first arrived, it was a homecoming, despite the fact that they’d never set foot here before 1935. A homecoming to the future that was to belong to them.
There is a powerful message in The End of Days about displacement that despite being set in the past, is just as relevant in the present. Every day in Australia someone sits behind a desk and makes decisions on the lives of those wanting to build a new home here and is not only influenced by rules and regulation, but whether they had a good night’s sleep, whether they have a headache, whether they are worried about their child at home or whether they are distracted by the news of the day. Every day people’s lives are changed for the better or for the worst by a small group of people who represent a whole nation. We think of these decisions being made by powerful dictators in the past, but they are still made every day, by ordinary people. We have distanced ourselves so much from this reality that we not only separate ourselves from those we make these decisions about by hiding them away behind barbed-wire fences out of sight, without the ability to know who they are, to hear their stories, to make ourselves vulnerable enough to know that someone once made a really good strudel and therefore deserves a second chance. But we’ve also distanced ourselves to a point that we are the ones making these decisions. That the facelessness that we’ve created is just as powerful as the dictators that we hope to distance ourselves from. Erpenbeck’s subtle, beautiful novel tells us what can happen when we give second chances, and the devastation we can cause when we look the other way. 

Lately I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed at the shortness of life. In the last few months a handful of people I hold very dear have been struggling. Really struggling. Some are coming out the other side. Some are making really good progress. Some are well and truly still in deep. It’s been gut-wrenching and heart breaking to see this happen to people you love and admire. It’s affected me strongly and I’ve been pretty emotional about it all. But it’s also made me stop and think about what I have to be grateful for. My partner is an incredible human who has literally picked me off the floor during some pretty dark times and I believe him when he tells me we are here to look after each other and make our world happier by being together. One of my best friends is pregnant and I’m excited beyond belief for her and her very excellent partner. Two of our friends just got married in the most beautiful, joyful, yet relaxed way possible and it still makes my heart full thinking about it. Summer might finally be coming to Melbourne. It’s nearly Christmas. Next year is going to be the start of some big changes and I cannot wait to tell you more. 
Heidi from Apples Under My Bed recently wrote this truly beautiful post about what she is grateful for, as she prepared to attend my friend Yasmeen’s Friendsgiving meal. She ruminates on finding your place in the world, on finally connecting with what truly makes you happy. It’s something I completely understand and as always, Heidi articulates it beautifully. As I write this, I’m grateful for little things. Like avocados being affordable again and the start of cherry season. Like friends who I don’t see very often but when I do it just makes sense. Like being able to spend a Sunday afternoon reading, writing, drinking cups of tea and baking. I had been wanting to make this recipe for a Life Changing Loaf of Bread for ages, but then came along Heidi’s tried and tested Nut, Oat and Seed Loaf and here we are. I did two things wrong: I didn’t weigh the nuts (despite Heidi’s many warnings) and my loaf tin was too wide. If you’re also using a standard loaf tin rather than the smaller one Heidi uses I’d make a double batch of batter to fill out the tin properly. But it still made a beautiful, moorish loaf that is as tasty as it is beautiful. I can imagine eating this across all three meals of the day: with a boiled egg for breakfast, with avocado and leaves (as I did here) or chutney and cheddar for lunch, with soup or a salad niçoise for dinner. - ook-plate.com/chapters/44-the-end-of-days


review by José Teodoro


interview at npr

Liberating the Canon - an edited anthology capturing the contemporary emergence of radically innovative and non-conforming forms of literature in the UK and US

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