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).
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.