Like some kind of shibboleth, the name ‘Jenny Erpenbeck’ can, when spoken to the initiated, trigger sighs of pleasure and exchanges of knowing literary looks. And this is how I first discovered her – as the ignorant bystander to someone else’s enthusiasm. I was a book-loving Germanist, surely, I knew her – surely?
Jenny Erpenbeck (I discovered) was born on 12 March 1967 in East Berlin and trained and worked as an opera director for many years. Her success as a novelist began with her 1999 debut, Geschichte vom alten Kind (‘The Old Child’). She has since written six books and two plays, winning great acclaim as well as numerous literary prizes, including the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize and the 2016 Thomas Mann Prize.
Discovering her novels and elegant, economic and moving prose myself, I can now share the enthusiasm of Erpenbeck fans. What makes her work so memorable is the dexterity with which a simple conceit leads to a complex, nuanced, intimate and unflinching depiction of German society – be that contemporary, as in Erpenbeck’s 2017 novel Gehen, ging, gegangen (‘Go, Went, Gone’), or historical, as in my favourite Heimsuchung (‘Visitation’), originally published in 2008 and translated with superb and subtle bite by Susan Bernofsky.
At the heart of the action in Visitation is not a person or a family, but a place: a house by the lake near Berlin. Inhabiting only those walls, that land, those trees. The narrative tells the stories of all the people who live there over one hundred years, from the early twentieth to early twenty-first centuries. Through a series of twelve chapters, each told from a different character’s perspective, we see the house lovingly built by an architect forced to flee to West Germany, the persecution of a neighbouring Jewish family, the quashed idealism of a socialist author in the GDR, and finally the house reclaimed by former exiles, emptied and demolished. The book may be slim, but as the fences, furniture and fashions change, the reader encounters a lived, intimate version of all the ‘-isms’ that German society passes through in that time: liberalism, capitalism, fascism and communism.
Visitation is about Big History, yes, and is told with an operatic chorus of characters. What makes it really sing, though, is the lyrical way in which the mundane routines of life recur. On finishing Visitation, we are as familiar as the house’s inhabitants with its creaking steps (the second, seventh and second-to-last); we understand the significance of the fruit trees being cut down, of the buried cutlery and the secret wardrobe that once hid the architect’s wife from the invading Red Army.
The only character we meet more than once is The Gardener. His story is a gentle refrain of weeding, pruning, mowing and planting in between each resident’s tale, tying the book together. And, since the tales do not appear in chronological order, the reader learns to use the presence of trees, bees, potatoes and roses to read the land, as The Gardener does. This quiet revelation is where Erpenbeck’s understated writing fails to deliver for some readers. But if you give up too soon you miss the slow growth unfolding through the novel.
The subject matter of Erpenbeck’s novels qualifies them as valuable reads in the process of Vergangenheitsbewältigung (‘coming to terms with the past’) but also for lovers of Ostalgie (‘nostalgia for the lost East Germany’). Visitation is these things, true, but above all Jenny Erpenbeck is a great storyteller with the ability to help us experience what it is to inhabit a place, to build a life, to have a Heimat, but to leave only the shell behind. And this is where the original German title reveals its true cunning. For while ‘Heimsuchung’ can translate as ‘visitation’ or ‘plague’, it is composed of both ‘Heim’ (‘home’) and ‘Suchung’ (‘search’) and therefore also means the search for the home her characters have lost.
Reviewed by Susannah Stevenson
Written by Jenny Erpenbeck
Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Published by Portobello Books (2010)
Read The German Riveter in its entirety here.
Find the books from The German Riveter on the Goethe-Institut page.
Susannah Stevenson is a literary programmer and arts producer (British Library, Southbank Centre) and has recently been appointed Artistic Director at the Charleston Festival. She founded the European Literature Focus at the British Library and is a reviewer, editor and researcher.