I know Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel Visitation has got under my skin – perhaps a little too far under my skin – when I take my first bite out of a particularly delicious old breed of apple I have just bought in a cafe in Berlin and find myself getting all mystical about its heritage and the generations of Germans who would have shared my pleasure through the ages.
Visitation (2008) is the story of a lakeside house in a village in the former East Germany outside Berlin and of the land it is built on, beginning some 24,000 years ago (as the land starts to shape itself into the form it takes today), but concentrating mostly on the vicissitudes of 20th-century German history visited on the house and its owners and neighbours: from the Third Reich and World War II, through Soviet occupation and the GDR, to reunification and beyond.
Only 150 pages long, the book is testimony to how a great writer requires only a few brushstrokes to convey the fullest picture of humanity. It has been admired by writers as varied as Michel Faber and Deborah Moggach. The Financial Times called it a “minimalist masterpiece”.
The novel records both the constancies of the house’s life (most notably through its grounds and the archetypally named Gardener tending them – hence my apple reverie) and the changes as its passes from owner to owner. It is a novel where the present is written over the past like a palimpsest, unable to erase its shadows. This is true of every country, of course, but never more keenly felt than in Germany.
After leaving Berlin, I travel to Hamburg, where someone recommends I visit the “old Jewish quarter” and there is a fraction of a second’s pause filled at my end if not hers by the thought, “Yes, and why is it the old Jewish quarter?” Later, on a train to Frankfurt, I am haunted by thoughts of what past journeys may have taken place on these railway lines and of what may have occurred in the landscape beyond.
I tell Erpenbeck this when we meet in a cafe during the Frankfurt Book Fair, where she is promoting her new novel (not, frustratingly, due an English translation and publication until 2014).
“All my life, I have been living in Berlin, and Berlin, of course, is full of history,” she says. “But for me it took some time to see all those things in the very places where they happened. It was a slow process. It was like looking at the streets and after a while, ‘This was where Nazis were marching or people were taken’, or whatever. Nowadays, they put down all these golden metal plates with the names of people who were deported. So you get a feeling while walking that here was living a family of five people and they were deported to Auschwitz on this or that day.
And you all of a sudden realise this was the house where people should still live. “It took me some time but I realised they are still missing. There are thousands of people missing in Berlin. In the intellectual life and in the daily life and everywhere. The children and the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren – all of them are missing. But I think not everyone wants to see it. If you are interested, you can find those places and you can ask questions. But if you are not interested, you can see a house like mine in Visitation and you can see a house, you can see a lake, you can see a garden, and if you don’t want to see more you can just spend your time there and have a nice day.”
The house in Visitation is based on Erpenbeck’s family’s former summer house, about which she asked many questions as she researched it for the novel. The house, which the family had from 1954, was in 2002 returned to the heirs of its wartime owners. More recently, Erpenbeck and her husband looked at buying a plot of land in the village for a weekend getaway.
“We found a nice meadow without any house. We asked a peasant who the owner was, to whom it belonged years ago, and he said, ‘Ah, this was a Jewish place.’ He was a very nice person so far, until this moment. Then I had the feeling there was a certain dislike, that he still wouldn’t like the Jews. The prejudice has not gone. The Jews are gone, the prejudice stays.”
So they didn’t buy the property, then? Because of its history? Because of him? “Nah, because of the money,” says Erpenbeck, laughing.
Erpenbeck’s feel for change in Visitation comes, she thinks, from a sensibility that is quintessentially East German. “The coming and going, that you have to leave things behind – this is an experience a West German wouldn’t have. Of course, some things changed also for the West Germans, but the main system stayed, so the believing in democracy, believing in freedom and such words, this is very stable and they didn’t lose it. But also this could be lost. I know this.”
One also detects in her writing – with its repetitions, motifs and precise rhythms – a musical sensibility born surely of her other career as an opera director (with a conductor for a husband). Writer Nicole Krauss, praising Visitation, described it as having voices “that ping off and swallow each other like in a score by Meredith Monk”.
The musicality of her writing “was not a decision I made rationally”, says Erpenbeck. “It just happens. Maybe it is inside me somewhere. Because I was always playing the piano and singing. So it comes out of me like this.”
What was a rational decision was to make Visitation a more accessible book than her only other stories currently available in English, The Old Child (1999) and The Book of Words (2005), novellas published together in one volume. The latter especially – a fable about the unreliability of language, memory and identity, set in an unnamed imagined dictatorship and narrated by a girl whose horrific background is only slowly revealed as the story unfolds – is as dense and opaque as it is rewarding.
“There was a friend of mine – not a critic but a friend – who told me The Book of Words is very hermetic, like a block of stone. And of course it was an experiment. It’s like a building made by words, and the words look at each other and answer themselves, maybe in a house of stone. Made of stone and without windows.”
Erpenbeck stops and laughs before going on. “In a sense, I felt like I had put myself in some corner, and I could stay there, of course. It’s a question of technique or art of language, etc, and of course you can continue in this way if you are able to write in this way, and probably I would. I could stay in the corner forever.”
She laughs again. “But what interested me more was, ‘So, you can make a piece of art just with the words and inside of the language or you could simply tell a story.’ The untold things that interest me come out of the story that can be told. This interested me more at a certain point. I thought, ‘Okay, I can make a piece of art and another piece of art and another piece of art, and for me it would be interesting enough, but if nobody can follow and nobody can get a feeling where the silence comes from, I would have been very lonely in this corner.”
No doubt there were fans of those earlier stories that saw her as selling out? “Some people were disappointed – reading The Book of Words and then Visitation. But if you look carefully into Visitation you will find the same things inside … I still like to open up rooms where things cannot be described in a very real way and the rooms are still also in Visitation. But they are put in other places.”
Erpenbeck’s new novel finds her out of the corner again, once more traversing the 20th century, this time telling the life story of a woman protagonist. Or, rather, life stories. “My idea was – it sounds funny; it’s not funny but I have to laugh – I let her die five times. In every chapter, she will die one death. In the first, she will die the death of an infant. In the second, she will die the death of a girl unhappily in love with somebody (it’s like a suicide). In the third, she will die in the gulag. Then she will die as a well-honoured person, a famous writer in the GDR who falls down the stairs. In the last chapter, she dies in an old people’s home. In between each chapter, I wrote an intermezzo, in which I say, ‘If this hadn’t happened in this way and that happened in that way, everything would be different and 20 years later we would be more or less here.’”
We are back with that sense of the missing – showing what goes missing when someone dies. As well as how our lives can be defined by death and ruled by chance.
“It’s not only that a life leads to a certain death,” says Erpenbeck, “but it’s like the death looks back to the life also. Maybe in the middle of life it could be a certain death is waiting for you, but it could be another story that is waiting for you around the next corner, and this so-called ‘by chance’ has so many levels on which it takes place. So it can be the decision of you yourself, it can be the decision of other people, it can be a sound or something, or it can be an accident, a crossing of ways or whatever. It can be a political decision, it can be a private decision, it can be love. It’s very complex.”
Incalculable, even. “What I’ve done is try to calculate the incalculable.”
As good a description of a novelist as any. As, I suggest, is her description of architecture in Visitation: “Four walls around a block of air, wresting a block of air from amid all that burgeoning, billowing matter with claws of stone, pinning it down.”
“Life is very complex,” says Erpenbeck, “and if you look carefully it’s a hard piece of work.”
VISITATION, by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello, $24.99); THE OLD CHILD and THE BOOK OF WORDS, by Jenny Erpenbeck (Portobello, $24.99).
Guy Somerset visited Germany courtesy of the Goethe-Institut.