In a year-end roundup of “Four Books That Deserved More Attention in 2017,” the New Yorker critic James Wood, who had placed Jenny Erpenbeck’s Go, Went, Gone at the top of that list, offhandedly referred to the moment “when Erpenbeck wins the Nobel prize in a few years.” The tension between the critic’s high expectations and the book’s low visibility tells you a good deal. On one, fairly banal, level, it points to a predictable disparity between the author’s popularity at home and her profile abroad. Erpenbeck, who was born in East Germany in 1967, into a family of distinguished writers and intellectuals going back several generations, is something of a celebrity in her native country; when she notes, in the tartly sardonic preface to her latest book, Not a Novel—a drastically pared-down English version of a fat 2018 collection of essays and speeches—that she “received another prize, then another,” she isn’t exaggerating. An impressive percentage of the pieces are acceptance speeches.
But as the title of Wood’s write-up makes clear, Erpenbeck has been something of a specialty act here: a critically esteemed foreign author whose small but fervent following among literati has not necessarily translated into exposure. Her marvelous novel End of Days (2012),* by any measure a significant work of recent European fiction and the book that introduced many of us to her oeuvre, was not reviewed by The New York Times.
To those familiar with Erpenbeck’s novels, the disequilibrium that characterizes her reception in America may well seem to mirror something in the nature of her work. (So far there have been four novels and a collection of stories, all published here by New Directions in crisply lucid translations by Susan Bernofsky.) On the one hand, there are the vast and weighty subjects: time and history; agency, power, and violence; memory. The moral and intellectual gravitas of these large themes, which of course have resonances specific to twentieth-century German history—the books are particularly haunted by World War II and reunification—have much to do with a growing consensus that Erpenbeck is (as Wood went on to say) “the most prominent and serious German novelist of her generation.”
And yet, in contrast to the large and roiling themes, there is Erpenbeck’s manner: coolly precise, leached of emotionality, almost disconcertingly austere. “It’s your defenselessness that arouses me, my lover says to me,” a woman in an early story blandly reports: both the sentiment and the tone are characteristic. This bleached abstractedness often lends her narratives a symbolic quality, as for instance in the early novella “The Old Child,” about an abandoned girl whose childishly blank mind stands in awkward contrast to her bizarrely large, adult body. “She had confused her own voice with the voice of the group,” Erpenbeck writes at one point, a sentence that makes it impossible not to think of certain well-known aspects of German history. The story irresistibly calls to mind Günter Grass’s The Tin Drum, another German work that uses the motif of stunted adulthood as a metaphor for that country’s tormented past.
That Erpenbeck has transformed Grass’s boy into a girl is not accidental: much of the force of her fiction flows from the way she situates her female characters in time and history. With the notable exception of Go, Went, Gone, her protagonists are women or girls whose unorthodox, even rebarbative points of view position them at an oblique angle to “History,” and thereby refresh the reader’s sense of how we might think about the intersection of events and individual will (a recurrent subject). The domestic spaces that these characters tend to occupy—orphanages, bedrooms, closets, houses—may seem hermetic, but always end up replicating the dangerous world outside, the histories that sweep us up no matter how safe we may think we are. The interactions between Erpenbeck’s female and male characters—often violent but always narrated in that unruffled voice—enhance the paradigmatic quality that her narratives often have. In one novel, a confrontation between a Red Army soldier and a German housewife who’s hiding in a closet could be a metaphor for the entire war—maybe for all wars.
The grandeur of Erpenbeck’s preoccupations and the glacial detachment of her tone make you curious (at least here in the US, where her public profile is virtually nonexistent) as to just who this author is and how she came to write like this. Hence the publication of a “memoir in pieces,” consisting wholly of nonfiction essays, promised to fill some gaps and thereby enhance her profile. But whatever satisfactions some of those pieces provide, Not a Novel is too uneven overall—partly by design, partly not—to do anything but raise more questions than it answers.
Part of the reason you’re so eager to know more about Erpenbeck is that her career seems to be at a crossroads. The interesting arc that began with “The Old Child” continued through subsequent works in a more or less steady trajectory, reaching its climax in End of Days, in which the author’s entwining of matter and manner, of the world-historical and the domestic, of global and local, expressed itself most organically and persuasively. Then came Go, Went, Gone, in which—to my mind, at least—the threads seemed to separate. It is hard not to wonder what will come next.
Erpenbeck’s concerns and approach were already evident in her early short fiction, which was gathered in two German collections (1999 and 2001) and published here as The Old Child and Other Stories (2005). The long, fascinating, and slightly repellent title story begins with the discovery of the nameless, abandoned girl holding an empty bucket and “surrounded by nothingness.” She is immediately committed to an equally anonymous “home” for children; she has no discernible history, and her “implausible” life has “left no traces where it was being spent.” This points to another persistent theme: what you might call “decontextualization.” In the essays, the onetime East Berliner Erpenbeck has arresting things to say about what it feels like to have your country disappear overnight.
Socially awkward and emotionally thwarted (while watching a film she notices people “laughing at precisely those bits that make her cry”), the girl seems adept only at spying on the others, a talent that allows her to ingratiate herself with some of them—a dynamic described in terms that once again irresistibly evoke Germany’s dark history. (“She practically obeys commands before they are issued.”) At the end, the girl emerges as a grown-up, “as if her childhood were nothing but a joke.” All this heavily suggests a parable of East Germany. In one of the essays in Not a Novel, Erpenbeck remarks that after the wall fell, “the people finally wanted to grow up.”
A young girl’s evolution into consciousness of the adult world is used once again to treat themes of innocence, guilt, and complicity in the novella The Book of Words (2004), which was inspired by stories of the children of the Argentinian Dirty War and its desaparecidos (some of whom, Erpenbeck notes in one of the essays, were raised by their parents’ killers: the germ of this novel). The German title, Wörterbuch, is the word for “dictionary,” but Bernofsky was right to translate it literally: the novel takes the form of a primer on evil, its protagonist another nameless young girl, one who, as she learns the somehow disquieting meanings of ostensibly innocent words (“A father is a man who stays taller than you for a long time”), also learns the truth about her powerful South American family, about the darkness at the edges of her privileged life. Her father is a high official in the regime; there are also strong hints—never explicitly articulated—that the family has a Nazi past. “My grandmother is the only one in our family who can still remember snow.”
And so, just as the most ordinary words “had silent halves dragging them down from the start like lead weights around ankles,” so too does the reality that lurks just outside the walls of her family’s home, a reality punctuated by shots and other violent noises but about which silence—no words at all—is better. “When I ask my mother where [the housekeeper’s] husband is,” the narrator reports, “my mother says: One doesn’t ask such things, it’s none of our business.”
Again and again in this striking work, the quotidian slides irresistibly into the grotesque, the innocent into the depraved:
But when we are eating meat, I have to use my child’s knife, the handle of which has a cat’s face engraved in it…. The handle of my fork has a bear on it, and the spoon has a rabbit. If a knife is sharp enough, you can cut all the way around the soles of a man’s or even a woman’s feet and then peel back the skin.
The sense of a dimly evolving perception of evil, achieved by a constant and destabilizing juxtaposition of the narrator’s childlike observations (and voice) with the horrors that are pushing their way through the smooth shell of her ingenuousness, is extremely effective. Reading Erpenbeck’s elegantly smooth parables of violence can be like looking at a glassy sheet of water beneath which drowned bodies are just starting to be visible.
In fact, lakes—useful metaphors for submergence and emergence, of the ways that the hidden past can surface—feature prominently in Erpenbeck’s fiction. Visitation (2008) is a slender novel that traces the history of a single lakeside property outside Berlin from the National Socialist 1930s to the post-reunification present; in it, the proximity of the lake, at once a source of pleasure (and a possible means of escape) and of danger, is suggestive. Here again, the motif of namelessness, the sense of parabolic abstraction, hints at the way our stories, however small or local we may think them, are inevitably subsumed into—or perhaps drowned by—history.
The prologue, as it happens, is set long before Brandenburg even existed—“twenty-four thousand years ago,” when a glacier first created the terrain on which this house would later be built. This rather startling evocation of the vastness of time is a powerful reminder of a favorite theme: that we are all tiny players on a gigantic stage. Each of the brief chapters is named after its anonymous protagonist—“The Gardener,” “The Cloth Manufacturer,” “The Red Army Officer”—and these figures are paraded through that single set like figures in a series of tableaux vivants enacting the entire anguished history of the twentieth century. (In addition to her literary activities, Erpenbeck is well known in Germany for her busy career as a stage and opera director; theatrical metaphors are hard to resist.)
These characters are not, however, silent: and as they speak, always in the en passant, eerily detached tone you come to expect from this author, their words say more—about themselves and the world outside—than they perhaps intend to give away, as in a chapter called “The Architect”:
Still, he’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land. And this was by no means a paltry sum. They’d never have managed to find another buyer in so short a time. Oakum. His father’s mother’s mother. Yes and no. By buying the property, he’d helped the Jews leave the country. No doubt they went to Africa. Or Shanghai. For better or for worse.
In one of the lectures collected in Not a Novel, Erpenbeck writes of a preoccupation, at once intellectual and ethical, that lurks behind this and other works: the relation between the unsaid and the said, the way “that which is kept silent takes up just as much space as that which is spoken of openly.”
The sense that with each work Erpenbeck was figuring out how to twine speech and silence, subject and structure ever more tightly together was confirmed by End of Days (2012). It is her best book by far, one in which so many of her consuming interests—in particular, the intersection of story and history—are made beautifully and organically to cohere.
The novel recounts the life story of one woman, from her birth at the turn of the last century in a Galician shtetl to her political awakening as a Communist in post–World War I Vienna, through her years as a German exile in the Soviet Union during World War II, and then as an esteemed writer in East Germany, all ending with her death, one day after her ninetieth birthday, in a reunified Germany. But an ingenious narrative device disrupts the flow of this highly symbolic biography—and hence of the apparently inevitable historical arc it seems to chart. Each section ends with the death of the heroine, and each subsequent section reimagines the direction her life would have taken had she lived—which is to say, had the factors contributing to that death been only slightly different. (A similar device has been used elsewhere to great effect in recent years; Anglophone readers might think of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.)
This obsession with historical contingency has haunted Erpenbeck’s fiction from the start. In the early story “Hale and Hallowed” we meet a character who, by chance, “joined together the lives of” two women; in Visitation, one of the nameless figures parading through the lake house “asks himself whether, if their two fathers had not acted as if in cahoots that day to make them playmates, his life would still have become his life.” But the sprawling historical canvas and the ingenious narrative structure of End of Days combine to make the questions about contingency—Why does history happen the way it does? What is the proportion of accident to intent? To what extent does history act on us, and we on history? How might things have turned out differently?—at once intellectually provocative, ethically challenging, and aesthetically satisfying.
To these already difficult questions the novel adds some final, poignant ones: What do all these what-ifs add up to, and how, anyway, would we know one outcome from another? In the closing pages, the once-famous writer and broadcaster, now in a nursing home where she is losing her memory—losing all the what-ifs of which her life consisted—frets that “everything will be lost—that the trace will be lost.” To this melancholy remark, her son offhandedly responds with a question that demonstrates how valid her fears are: “What trace?”
A distinct interest in traces is also one that dates to Erpenbeck’s early work. In The Book of Words, one of the words about whose meaning the young girl gets a lesson is “trace”: “What is a track, I ask my father. A trace that is left behind, something that cannot be caused by chance, my father replies.” But in The End of Days, the traces of the past are wrenchingly erased by the same accidents of chance that created them. In an earlier scene, we see the son stopping in an antiques shop, hoping to find a gift for his mother; after considering a beautifully preserved nineteenth-century edition of the complete works of Goethe (that great symbol of German Geist), he decides it’s too heavy to lug back to Berlin. And so he chooses something else for her—not aware, as the reader is, that this very set once belonged to his mother’s grandmother, a Galician Jew who went to extraordinary lengths to preserve it through pogroms and two world wars, the second of which sees her murdered. The casualness with which he tosses aside the relic his ancestor had so furiously tried to rescue—the “trace” she had sought to preserve, now neglected and decontextualized into triviality—sums up this remarkable novel’s rich engagement with the ironies of accident and intent, time and history.
At once far more substantial than its predecessors and more perfectly achieved, End of Days augured great things. And so it was disappointing to see it followed by Go, Went, Gone (2015). Here again we begin with a lake, this one with a patently sinister history. The novel opens with the protagonist—Richard, a retired classics professor, who will soon experience a crisis of political conscience after encountering a group of African refugees protesting their stateless status in Berlin’s Alexanderplatz—uneasily wondering when the body of a man who drowned in a local lake might surface. The spectral memory, constantly pushed down and yet constantly rising again to the surface, is meant to evoke how even well-meaning citizens of developed nations often avoid thinking about the grim realities that their countries’ interventions abroad have created. This hypocrisy is the object of fierce indictment in the novel, much of which recreates the wrenching case histories of a number of refugees whom Erpenbeck interviewed.
I did not share most critics’ and readers’ enthusiasm for Go, Went, Gone, in which I sensed the author’s politics overwhelming her art. The moral outrage, however admirable, felt undigested, unintegrated; the boorishness of nearly all the Westerners, from gleefully unhelpful lawyers to indifferent officials to Richard’s clueless circle of friends (“Nigeria has a coast?”), was a too easy way of stacking the moral deck. In comparison with the depictions of the refugees’ histories, which smolder with barely contained indignance, the evocation of Richard’s life and East German past—meant to suggest that he, too, is something of a stranger in this land—comes off not so much as understated as wan and unrealized, an afterthought.
Among other things, I expected—given Richard’s apparent predilection for the Odyssey—that there would be more of an attempt to entwine that epic’s themes consistently and rigorously with those of the novel, which has a similar investment in troubling confrontations between cultures, and in the question of Western self-positioning with respect to foreign “others.” But the classics stuff is just a convenient marker of Richard’s, and Germany’s, culpable Westernness. In the end, the narrative of his moral awakening seemed merely a container for the harrowing tales of refugee suffering and the impatient enumerations of bureaucratic ineptitude; more than once, I had the impression of reading an NGO report rather than a novel. It was hard not to feel lectured at. The intricate and effective braiding of subject and style had come undone.
In the closing pages of End of Days, you learn that the elderly woman had received the GDR’s “National Prize First Class for her life’s work”—a recognition made ironic by the fact that it was given “four weeks before the Berlin Wall fell.” (What can such honors mean once the country that bestowed them ceases to exist?) This detail, along with many others, points to an uncanny resemblance between the fictional character’s career and that of Hedda Zinner, the distinguished East German writer who was born in Lemberg, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, in 1905, experienced a political awakening after World War I, lived in Vienna and then Berlin, fled Hitler for the Soviet Union, returned to (East) Germany after the war, and was awarded the Order of Karl Marx in 1980.
The fact is that Zinner’s story, on which the character is so obviously modeled, was well known to Erpenbeck: she was Erpenbeck’s grandmother. This, it turns out, is one of several ways that Erpenbeck’s biography haunts her work. But the fact that you learn about the biography from Wikipedia and not from Not a Novel says a lot.
The pieces collected here are divided among three sections—“Life,” “Literature and Music,” and “Society”—comprising a miscellany of lectures and previously published articles from various stages of Erpenbeck’s career. It’s worth noting that the New Directions edition doesn’t include three entire sections—one on travel, another on opera and music, a third on painting and art—that appeared in the 2018 German original; their inclusion here would have made for a richer and more coherent volume and filled in some of the biographical blanks. A number of pieces that originally appeared under “Life” have been transplanted to “Literature and Music” (because they were originally speeches given upon receiving literary prizes?), with the result that Not a Novel is literally as well as figuratively uneven. “Life” is unsatisfyingly scant, while “Literature and Music” makes up more than two thirds of the book; “Society,” which comprised seven essays in the original, is reduced to just two pieces. One of these is an obituary Erpenbeck wrote for Bashir Zakaryau, a refugee on whom one of the characters in Go, Went, Gone was based—an incisive and affecting piece of short-form writing.
Some of this reshuffling was no doubt done out of a desire to eliminate material too specific to a German readership. (Still, it might have been nice to have, say, the 2016 essay “Einstein war Flüchtling”—“Einstein Was a Refugee.”) But the resultant unevenness, the casual, occasionally sketchy quality of some of the work—to say nothing of the irritating verbatim repetitions of entire passages from piece to piece, from one magazine article or prize acceptance speech to another—suggests that the process of compilation was not as meticulous as you’d expect from Erpenbeck. When you’re a busy writer in midcareer, it’s easy to assemble enough material for a collection like this one; but a good collection is much more than a grab bag.
Still, there is much here of great interest and high quality. In her brisk preface, Erpenbeck gives an account of the genesis of some of the pieces. To her credit, she seems impatient with the sometimes rather mortifying business of being a successful author—the business that results in the production of just such pieces:
Now people were asking me if I’d like to write about an East German word that had been forgotten, if perhaps I’d like to write a travelogue, if I’d like to write about what literary associations I had with the word “suction.” Yes, I would…. I received another prize, then another. Often the prizes have names…I pack suitcases. Who will take care of the guinea pigs? What hotel am I staying in, anyway? Am I interested in the topic “Landscapes of Childhood”? Yes, very much so. I receive a prize, and another, and another…. One of the refugees I wrote about dies. I write an obituary. I receive a prize.
Given the austerity of her fiction, such flashes of personality and temperament are gratifying. (These qualities are nicely conveyed in Kurt Beals’s translation; if the prose here doesn’t have the diamantine crispness familiar from the novels, it’s not his fault.) The essays in “Life” are, indeed, inflected by an appealing mixture of sentimentality and wit. In one, Erpenbeck recalls driving around Berlin trying to figure out what to do with her dead mother’s housewares: “I don’t want anyone to know that I’m the kind of person who holds a funeral for a pressure cooker.” (As I read this, I suddenly wished that Richard in Go, Went, Gone had been a woman; the novel would have benefited from a more fully realized protagonist, one for whom Erpenbeck had as much sympathy as she does for her odd heroines.)
The most affecting of the autobiographical pieces are a series of evocations of the author’s East Berlin girlhood, a childhood that now, because of the very vagaries of history and chance she writes about so powerfully elsewhere, “belonged in a museum.” In an essay called “Literary Role Models,” Erpenbeck writes about how some history-laden places “are cursed” and have to “wait to be seen from the right angle”: when she observes from that angle in her nonfiction, the result is as strong as the novels. Many American readers will be surprised to learn, in “Homesick for Sadness,” how “safe” East Berlin felt in the 1970s: “But what I remember most of all, gray or not, was an almost small-town sense of calm, as a child it gave me a strong impression that I was at home—in a world that was closed off, and thus completely and utterly safe.” In the same essay, she describes how, as a twenty-two-year-old, she missed the fall of the Berlin Wall: “I literally slept through that moment of world history.” More traces getting lost in the shuffle.
Erpenbeck’s treatment of the realities of reunification, both material and ideological, make for some of the best reading here. A tonic tartness emerges when she ponders what the West’s “victory” in the cold war meant to those experiencing it, rather than those reading about it in London, Paris, or New York:
There was suddenly a lot of talk of freedom, but I couldn’t make much of this word freedom, which floated freely in all sorts of sentences. Freedom to travel? (But will we be able to afford it?) Or freedom of opinion? (What if no one cares about my opinion?)… Freedom wasn’t given freely, it came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point.
In contrast to this bracing spikiness, too many other observations about “life” feel tossed off, generic: “And that’s probably always the case: It takes us an entire lifetime to unravel the mysteries of our own lives.”
I, for one, would have happily traded the podium platitudes for a fully fleshed out account of how Erpenbeck came to her career in theater and music—references to which peep through now and then, but never enough to give you a coherent sense of the whole. (Here is where the inclusion of material cut from the original might have helped.) The gaps, which you suspect are meant to be alluring—just a glimpse behind the curtain—are sometimes merely frustrating. At one point in a reminiscence about her musical training, she wistfully recalls that she had once wanted to study voice, only to find that hers was the “light, bright soprano” of the soubrette: “but of course I would have preferred to sing Isolde.” Why “of course,” you wonder? Is Erpenbeck a drama queen in real life? Is there a Maria Callas lurking behind all that Elisabeth Schwarzkopf–like polish and control? There’s no way to know.
A lot of the essays on literature and music give you a similar feeling of skating on the surface rather than plumbing the depths: you often run across the kind of aperçu that sounds good coming from a lectern but comes off as hollow on the page. (“We ourselves are the other.”) Accepting the Thomas Mann Prize, she talks a little about Mann (who, she rightly observes elsewhere, is funnier than people tend to acknowledge) and his politics, which allows her to segue to the question of “borders,” a favorite subject: “Not only the borders between one country and another, or between one continent and another, but above all the borders within ourselves.” In Rome to pick up the Premio Strega, she speaks about Ovid, who
shows us how all things, all substances, all creatures, are intertwined with one another. In the very moment when we lose ourselves as human beings, he sees us as the beginning of something else that lies outside of us and yet contains us.
I could have done with more of this. Some of these speeches are no more than two or three pages; they would have had far more impact had Erpenbeck taken the trouble to dust them off and expand them into the profound reflections they might have been.
Of the longer essays, it is odd to report that, apart from a superb introduction to Walter Kempowski’s All for Nothing—by far the most disciplined and detailed piece of criticism in this section—the most extensive writing about literature you’ll find in Not a Novel is devoted to Erpenbeck’s own work (the three lengthy Bamberg lectures, which she gave in the spring of 2013). Between that and the recurrent references to the many prizes she’s won—however self-deprecatingly they may have been meant—there is a whiff of self-regard here that stands in bewildering contrast to the impressive, self-effacing control you get in the fiction.
These lengthy reflections on her own art and interests do finally give you a lingering and meaningful glimpse behind the curtain. In the final Bamberg lecture, “Speech and Silence,” she articulates the connections between her theatrical and musical career and her writing in a way that sheds an intriguing light on her distinctive style:
My work with opera strongly encouraged me to allow myself more freedom in formal terms as well: freedom from the compulsion of realism, freedom to posit a different reality, an affirmation of a sort of artificiality, which—if it is radical enough—can come much closer to life than any “lifelike” depiction or retelling.
Later it becomes fascinatingly clear how the writer’s musical training would come to express itself in the structure of novels like Visitation and End of Days, in which
each individual chapter unfolds more or less chronologically, but the work as a whole consists of multiple planes nested within one another across the chronological divides, and yet all encompassed within a single arc—all of that surely has its roots in my engagement with music, which gave me a different view of how things can be placed in relation to one another. After all, music is fundamentally made of two things: air—and time. Music cannot exist except in the division of time and in its audible passing—this thing that we call time, though we know that in its nature it is never anything but a small piece of eternity. This thing that we call time, although by now we have at least some sense that it doesn’t really run chronologically, let alone toward a goal.
So a piece of music that we listen to, like a text, can never be more than an intersection.
Here, at last, you feel you’ve penetrated the interior: a space where, in the best essays, as in the best fiction, things are illuminated from unexpected angles. It’s a wonderful passage—one that, even as it deftly knits together two of the “fragments” that make up this writer’s life, leaves you wishing there had been more.