This summer I’ve read two short, critically-acclaimed novels by Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation, and The End of Days, winner of the Independent foreign fiction prize. I have to say that both books left me a little cold.
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967, where her father was a physicist and philosopher, and her mother an Arabic translator. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. She is also an opera director, and still lives in Berlin. Erpenbeck’s grandparents both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. They are figures which suggest that there is much that is drawn from her own family’s history in these two books.
The central character in The End of Days is a Jewish woman born in a small Galician town in the early 20th century. In a sequence of five alternate lives, each separated by an intermezzo, Erpenbeck imagines the different courses the woman’s life might have taken, and how the impact of those different lives might have had on others around her. It’s a bit like one of those old silent films in which the pratfallen clown rises up to live another day.
The scope is ambitious: from the provincial borderlands of the Austro-Hungarian empire to Vienna, Moscow, East Germany, and finally the reunified Berlin of the post-Communist years. 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.’
The protagonist seems to have died in the first sentence:
The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.
The child being buried is 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, wife, and old woman her daughter 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.
After the child’s 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 what might have been: the possibilities foreclosed by, but seemingly coexisting with, the child’s death. The other night I watched an Horizon documentary about the concept of multiverses: Erpenbeck’s story has that sort of flavour. Each of the intermezzos which punctuate the narrative enable Erpenbeck to shift gear and imagine how things might turned out differently in one of these parallel universes.
It’s certainly a clever way for Erpenbeck to extend the lifetime of her protagonist from a Jewish shtetl in Galicia in the dying days of the Austro-Hungarian empire to an old people’s home in 1990s Berlin. Her heroine meets death several times: as a fragile infant sickening in a freezing winter to a fall downstairs that kills an eminent Communist writer in 1960s East Berlin. Each time she dodges death, enabling the writer to refashion her history: each sidestepped fate opens the door to another kind of destiny.
Each intermezzo and subsequent ‘book’ introduces a new twist. What if, for example, the teenage protagonist is heartbroken by being rejected in love and induces a virtual stranger to kill her in a suicide pact? But what if that doesn’t happen and instead she becomes a writer and a Communist who settles in Moscow with her husband? What if doesn’t die in the Stalinist purges and labour camps but goes on to be a celebrated writer who wins the Goethe Prize?
Well, I’m always ready for a novel that embraces the sweep of Europe’s 20th century, and I don’t mind a good helping of modernist allusion. But, I have to say that I found this one uneven and ultimately unconvincing (the section set in the Soviet Union, in which Erpenbeck’s leaden prose aims to emulate the doublespeak of Stalinism is a particular slog).
Although there are many effective passages, overall I found Erpenbeck’s prose mannered with its deliberate distancing in which names are rarely used and identities muddied with characters often identified only in terms of their relation to others (‘daughter of’, ‘mother of’, ‘son of’, etc).
And then there’s the question of what it all meant – all these alternative lives? The cruelty of fate? The randomness with which a person’s life can intersect with history? This might be unfair, but at the end I felt it was like the great-grandmother in the story who 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.’
At the end of the novel, after her heroine has endured death four times and lived through Europe’s 20th century turmoil in four cities, Erpenbeck finally grants her a name as she introduces us to the frail nonagenarian Frau Hoffmann in a Viennese nursing home. Her son Sasha, travels to Vienna where he enters an antiques store to buy his mother a present. Unwittingly, as he browses, he handles the very same edition of the Complete Works of Goethe that once belonged to his mother. He takes a fancy to them, but decides not to buy them.
You know, she says, I am afraid that everything will be lost – that the trace will be lost.
What trace? her son asks.
I don’t know any more: from where or to where?
The scene in the nursing home that follows is masterful, as the son sits by his dying mother contemplating the journey into – where? what? – upon she is about to embark:
Never has he known as little as he does now. The only thing he knows is that his not-knowing is as deep as a river on whose distant shore there must be a very different world than the one he lives in.
This moment seems to echo the epigraph from WG Sebald’s Austerlitz with which Erpenbeck prefaced the novel, which itself echoed Alain Robbe-Grillet’s film concerned with the workings of memory, Last Year at Marienbad:
We left here for Marienbad only last summer.
And now – where will be going now?
What follows, in the closing passage of The End of Days, is the best piece of writing in the whole book:
In this land to which his mother is crossing over, no longer able to understand anything she once understood, she will no longer need any words, this much he understands. For one brief, sharp, clear moment, he understands what it would be like if he could arrive there along with her: The wheat field would be there right from the start, just like the rustling of the leaves at his back, the silence would be filled to the brim-that deafening crack living only in his memory, absent now-and the memory that filled out this silence would be just as real as the footsteps of all the human beings walking upon the earth at this moment, along with their falling down, their jumping, crawling, and sleeping at this very moment, just as real as all that mutely lay or flowed within the earth: the springs, the roots, and the dead; the cry of the cuckoo of to one side would be just as real as the stones crunching beneath the sole of his shoe, as the coolness of the evening and the light falling through the leaves to the ground before him, as his hand that he is using to stroke his mother’s back, feeling her bones beneath her thin, old skin, bones that will soon be laid bare-briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it would 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 – a middle-aged man, with a wife, two children, a profession-because he still has some time ahead of him, time during which he can look up something he doesn’t know in an encyclopedia or ask one of his colleagues, this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it arrived. He’ll be prevented from seeing this other world with the eyes of his mother for a good earthly time, by the absence of the most crucial thing: the going away.
In a Guardian profile of Jenny Erpenbeck, Philip Oltermann made this interesting observation about this scene, noting an aspect of the book that had completely passed me by:
While The End of Days starts out as a portrait of a personality, it is, by the end, also a book about something much bigger: the disappearance of the faiths that help us to make sense of death. When the woman dies as a baby, her Jewish parents cover the mirrors, open the windows and sit with their silent grief for seven days. Even in socialist East Germany there are still rituals: the guards dip their flags in tribute at her state funeral, there is an elevated cushion presenting her medals. But when she dies for the final time, her son can only react to her death with despair: “As his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with.”
Earlier, in the Spring, I had read Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation, published in English in 2011. The central character of that book was a house, one which had witnessed, in microcosm, the complicated history of East Germany in the previous hundred years – and even beyond, through geological time.
From prehistoric times through to the Third Reich and the collapse of the GDR, a Brandenburg country estate and the mansion built on it witnesses the growth and death of systems, the rise and fall of dynasties. The elliptical narrative traces the lives those who live in the house which is throughout a sort of silent observer of the waves of human activity in the 20th century that lap at its gates.
In an interview with Quarterly Conversation, Jenny Erpenbeck explained that the house actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg, a summerhouse that belonged to her grandparents, where she spent holidays for eight weeks every year:
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.
The book features a mosaic of characters (as in The End of Days, few are given names) who all have connections to the property. Their stories are told in a dreamy, ethereal style, interwoven with glimpses of the seasonal labours of estate gardener:
After the Russians have pulled out, the gardener prunes the shrubs and bushes in the hope that they might bud a second time.
Although her prose is generally distancing, Erpenbeck embeds vivid descriptions of terrible events. In the chapter entitled ‘The Cloth Manufacturer’, she takes a small Jewish family tree and unsparingly chronicles its felling. These are the neighbours of the architect who owns the estate and he is a complicit bystander. The fate of the grandparents 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.
Later, the architect is also forced to flee his treasured home, having fallen foul of the post-war East German 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.
This is the sort of book I expected that I would really appreciate. But, in all honesty, it left me unmoved: an exercise in style, it seemed to me, rather than a real engagement with its characters or the events that affect them.