Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

Jenny Erpenbeck is one of those names that I frequently catch glimpses of in my peripheral vision.  She was longlisted for the 2008 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for The Book of Words, but I didn’t read it or even read much about it.  Other than that, I knew New Directions had published some of her earlier works, but I had never read anything by her — not even a short story — and I really only knew was a young writer brought up in East Berlin, who, over the past decade, has won several prizes in her native country.  I was anxious to get to know her, but I’m not sure I would have now were it not for her translator Susan Bernofsky, whose work on Robert Walser was brilliant.  Based on Bernofsky’s ability to rather than on Erpenbeck’s I read Visitation (Heimsuchung2008; tr. from the German by Susan Bernofsky 2010).

Review copy courtesy of New Directions.

Visitation will remind some people of Simon Mawer’s 2009 Booker shortlisted The Glass Room.  Both take place in the tumultuous world of twentieth century Europe, particularly around World War II, and both use a central location — a home — to explore a variety of people and a variety of themes from the time period.  I read about half of The Glass Roomearlier this year, but it just wasn’t holding me (there was nothing wrong with it; I just wasn’t in it at the time, but I hope sometime to have another go).  Erpenbeck’s book is much shorter (and much less conventional a novel) and, to me, much more successful at drawing the reader into a world of impressions as time drifts by a home in which various visitors spend some time, and this worked well for me. 

The book begins like a fairy tale with the chapter “The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters.”  Here we get to know the land (which was briefly introduced in geological terms in the prologue), a home built upon the land, and a widowed farmer and — well — his four daughters.  There’s familial peace, some scandal, and the location is imbued with a sense of human life.  The language is repetitious, as if it is oral and speaking in refrains.  Even time tends to go in and out. 

This isn’t to suggest that the work isn’t cohesive.  It is disorientating at first, but eventually it settles down, or we learn to read it.  Soon a family of Jews is given “a full half” of market value for the land.  The family is going to be lost that had such thoughts as this:

When the willow tree has grown up tall and can tickle the fish with its hair, you’ll still be coming here to visit your cousins, and you’ll remember the day you helped plant it, grandmother Hermine says to little Doris.

The story goes from World War II to its aftermath when “The Red Army Officer” comes to spend a night.  This was the chapter, incidentally, which really pulled me into the book.  It was powerful to watch the land go in and out of possession in the years after World War II, until those trying to escape to the West weren’t Jews trying to escape but rather East Germans trying to escape East Berlin.  As I said above, the story manages to run cohesive, despite its impressionism — it doesn’t feel episodic.  The characters relate in more ways than location, though that one spot brings their perspective to us.  The attempts to own or to divest property, or just to find solace there for a while, brings the characters together.

And, as with Robert Walser, Susan Bernovsky shows her skill as a translator.  She picks up on wordplay that simply could not have been easy to translate. 

Now, the impressionism will put off some people.  Not only is it impressionistic as it blurs time and space, but Erpenbeck also has a few spells of technical writing (such as city ordinances and the like) which are important to the feel but sometimes difficult to read.  It is not always a pleasant read in the sense that one can derive joy out of vibrant passages, but it is genuinely interesting.  And there is a lot of joy to be gained in piecing it together and seeing the place enhance the feel of its people.

9 thoughts on “Jenny Erpenbeck: Visitation

  1. Lee Monks says:

    ‘Now, the impressionism will put off some people.’

    Not me! Looks interesting, and a great cover.

  2. John Self says:

    I too am interested in this, as I have Erpenbeck’s The Book of Words and The Old Child (published in one volume in the UK) on my shelves. I get the impression you were a little disappointed, Trevor. Is that so, and if so, is it because you were so excited about the book? (I remember you getting all anticipatory about it on Facebook!)

  3. Trevor says:

    I get the impression you were a little disappointed, Trevor.

    Perhaps my shorter than usual review led to that impression, John. Or perhaps I was disappointed in part. The book, as short as it is, has its longeurs, mainly due to the technical parts (which aren’t that numerous) and the repetition. However, it is effective.

    I put this book in the same place as I put Khoury’s White Masks — interesting, unique, important, but not pleasurable in the way we often hope when we begin a book. Still, it was pleasurable to soak in the language and to see how Erpenbeck gives the lay of the land in twentieth-century Germany. I do recommend it, hoping readers will approach it with the right frame of mind. This does not have the strong narrative of The Glass Room, the characters are there to do other business and not to be fully developed individuals, and the variety of styles can be disorienting — but all of this is very rewarding when the book is taken as a whole.

    Does that ellaboration help at all?

    Incidentally, I was very excited about this book, and it turned out to be quite different than I expected. It challenged me much more than I was anticipating, which is a great thing.

  4. Stujallen says:

    I enjoyed her old child when I read it earlier this year she has a gift with language ,I do wonder if her particular style of deutcch roman ,translates well in to english,the impression from a good german friend of mine is she is highly thought of due to her use of language and metaphor etc and like Khoury wonder if delicate prose like hers suffer badly in translation ,all the best stu

  5. A very interesting bit of serendipity here — we have both posted reviews of books with reminders of The Glass Room on the same day. I’m hoping the one that I reviewed, Far to Go by Alison Pick, will find its way on to the Giller shortlist (yes, I think it is that good) and you will get to it eventually. (Link to review is here. ) It is much more the “family” side of Mawer’s story, whereas this book (which I definitely will be reading) seems to repeat the “location” and its various occupiers as the central theme. As someone who loved The Glass Room, I think those two divergent themes are a testimony to its value.

    Your review also suggests that this novel could be compared to Christoph Hein’s Settlement, my favorite on this year’s IMPAC shortlist (and another translated work). It is an exploration of the tensions present in Germany, post the fall of the Soviet Union. I know your pile is high, but mark it down — Hein has also written a novel featuring a used-car dealer in post-Soviet Union Germany that I can’t wait to get to.

  6. Trevor says:

    Stu, I thought this one was very well translated, but not knowing the original German, I am certainly not a good judge. That said, it is still delicate and rich and full of wordplay. Bernovsky’s work on The Tanners made me a pretty devoted fan of her work — if only I could test it against the original!

    Kevin, I read your review and Far to Go sounds excellent. I think reading Visitation with it in mind would be a good way to get into this book. I am curious about how you’ll like the impressionism. I remember you didn’t much like Salter’s Light Years and I couldn’t but help draw comparisons while reading this. Of course, regardless, I’d love your thoughts on it as I’m still trying to work out the effect the whole work had on me.

    As for Settlement I seem to remember it had the best cover on the IMPAC shortlist, though I was attracted to it for other reasons. I do need to get a bigger space for my pile of books — that and a paid sabbatical to read and afford them all!

  7. Trevor says:

    M.A. Orthofer at The Complete Review ended his review of Visitation (he gives the book an A-) this way:

    Admirable rather than truly likeable, Visitation is a very fine literary work.

    This very much echos my feelings toward the book.

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