Thursday 13 January 2011

'one day is always followed by another'

by Jenny Erpenbeck
(translated by Susan Bernofsky)

Sometimes when keeping an eye out for books to read something of a perfect storm develops. Michel Faber, author of the best-selling, neo-Victoriana tome The Crimson Petal And The White, wrote a glowing review of the work of Jenny Erpenbeck at the end of October that first caught my eye. The publishers of her latest novella are Portobello Books who also published one of my chance finds at the end of 2009, Madame Verona Comes Down The Hill by Dimitri Verhulst (and who also acquired rights to translate works by Herta Müller just before she was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature at about the same time). Faber's review also drew comparisons with Simon Mawer's The Glass Room, another favourite from last year, as both books use a fixed location and the characters that pass through it over a period of great change. All of which amounted to several flashing arrows and a big sign that said 'This book is right up your strasse.'

It may only be 150 pages long but Erpenbeck manages to cram German history from the early twentieth century and then Hitler's stranglehold on power through to the reunification in 1990 with short chapters that look at the varying inhabitants of a house that stands on the shore of the Märkisches Meer in Brandenberg. It isn't the fact that she crams so much in that makes it a tough read, I am amazed at how she pushes what we might think the novella capable of with some bold techniques and bolder ambitions, but there is something very disorientating about it as a reading experience. Perhaps this is something that would be settled by a second read but as this is something that I seldom do I can only give you my impressions on this first visit.

A prologue first tells us of the geological forces that have created the lake on which the property stands; let there be no mistake that however tumultuous the period of history we are about to enter might be, it is but a blip on the far longer timeline that has seen a glacier flatten all before it and alter the landscape irrevocably. That land has a long history of legacy and changing ownership as an almost fairy-tale like early chapter sets out. Change and ownership are two major themes that run through the book and when we meet The Architect who has been the householder for many years he is burying his valuables in the gardens that surround it, his ownership challenged by the changing political landscape of the Iron Curtain, forced out after having done business with the West.

His profession used to encompass three dimensions, height, width and depth, it was always his business to build things high, wide and deep, but now the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.

Lest we have too much sympathy for him we will learn later that he himself has profited from the shifting sands, having bought the neighbouring property from his Jewish neighbours for half the market value when they could no longer remain there with any safety. Like Mawer's book there are some lovely descriptions of details of the house, the special pulleys, secret spaces, and special carvings that have been put there by the Architect in many ways as a token of his love for his wife. But this is a much less straightforward narrative with chapters coming non-chronologically and I found it took a fair bit of concentration, and even re-reading, to keep track of where exactly I was.

One constant is The Gardener (forgive me John Le Carre) whose short chapters, often only a page, come as regularly as the seasons, detailing his labour. He has been there since the first holiday homes went up around the lake, thatching roofs and helping to coax healthy plants to life in the blue clay and sandy soil that lies around the shore. What could be rather boring descriptions of pruning, planting and the like are actually poetic meditations, another reminder of the survival of nature in the face of adversity and its place as the central character with all of the lakeshore's inhabitants merely walk-ons.

Some of those walk-ons are outstanding though. The ten page section entitled The Girl is one in which we are hidden with one of the few characters to be graced with a name (Erpenbeck keeps most of her characters identified simply by their profession but significantly gives name to the Jewish characters - repeatedly, like a mantra, for the two families in The Cloth Manufacturer - in order to humanise those who will be de-humanised and erased by the Nazi era). We cannot help but think of Anne Frank as we read the story of Doris and her terrifying solitude and the impact that those few pages have quite incredible. For, having given this girl a name it will be taken away again.

For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.

A Writer character gives voice I think to some of Erpenbeck's process, the sifting of historical material and presentation of personal loss (the book has its roots in her own family's history apparently).

These letter's she's been tapping out have allowed her to draw to the surface many things that seemed worthy of preserving, while pushing other things, painful ones, back into obscurity. Now, later, she no longer knows whether it wasn't a mistake to pick and chose, since this thing she'd been envisioning all her life was supposed to be a whole world, not a half one.
If that does give voice to any concern on her part then she needn't worry. In fact the problem for me if anything is that the book felt a bit leaden in places. Structure, prose and import all combine to weigh down the reading experience so that it felt like a much longer book than it actually is (this is no fault of the translation from Bernofsky which is excellent on a particularly challenging text). But as I've said, further reads would probably be rewarded with the richness and complexity obviously contained within in the same way that the house itself has little details that only a discerning eye would spot - a singular carving here, a hidden doorway there.

The episodic nature of the chapters and the dislocation of each of the character's stories also link into other themes. The way in which the land around the house is divided, appropriated, re-assigned is a microcosm of what is happening to Germany herself. The old diary of the mayor shows his realisation that '...home had been transformed into a time that now lay behind him, Germany had been irrevocably transformed into something disembodied, a lost spirit...' and in many ways the disparate characters have a very temporary feel in the wider story of the land around them. But as The Childhood Friend muses, that doesn't mean we should underestimate the significance of any of them.

...it strikes him as strange that, independent of what is happening, one day is always followed by another, and to this day he doesn't know what it actually is that is continuing. Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different from what we're hoping for - something that transcends everything that's ever happened - since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it.


Anonymous,  16 January 2011 at 12:26  

I always feel she deals with german history so well ,Will he writing style is always a pleasure to read this is on my to get list ,all the best stu

William Rycroft 17 January 2011 at 09:46  

This is the first of hers I've read Stu but I know John Self recently read a couple of her others and found them to be similarly dense. I may well read more but after a little break.

Graham 19 January 2011 at 17:37  

It is certainly a dense novel/novella, but I think that is part of what gives it so much power. So much packed into a short book.

You can read my thoughts here: Visitation review

By the way, love it: "One constant is The Gardener" :)

William Rycroft 19 January 2011 at 21:49  

Thanks for the link Graham, good to read your thoughts. There's certainly a lot packed in there, plenty of detail. And the Constant Gardener joke is just too tempting, isn't it. Do you think you'll read something more of hers?

Graham 20 January 2011 at 11:03  

Hi William, I don't think I will rush to read another of her books, but maybe after a while I will try another. I did enjoy Visitation, but it is so dense that you don't want to read too much at once.

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