Jenny Erpenbeck Is Keeping TimeHistorians in the News
tags: BERLIN WALL, literature, German history, material culture
very time I spoke with the German author Jenny Erpenbeck over Zoom, the conversation began with her cheerfully noting the fun, biographically scene-setting activity we could have done together if I had been permitted to travel to Germany. We could have gone for a swim at her small lake house, about an hour’s drive southeast of Berlin. We could have eaten dinner at the big kitchen table at her apartment, in the city, and looked through her “private archive” of ephemera from the German Democratic Republic, or G.D.R. We could have gone on a bike tour of all the places she lived, studied, and “practiced kissing” while growing up in East Berlin, just steps from the Wall. Sitting in her parked car, smiling into her phone camera, Erpenbeck told me that she got her bicycle forty years ago, as a gift for her Jugendweihe, a coming-of-age ceremony particularly popular in the G.D.R. “The mechanic sometimes gets a bit desperate when I’m coming,” she said as she began to show me around her past on foot, the camera occasionally giving me a closeup of her nose or ear. “He knows that I really like this bike.”
Erpenbeck, now fifty-four, is a practiced guide to her life, even when narrating from a shaky smartphone. She is naturally open, and she brings the same intelligent lightness to cynical observations about capitalism that she does to showing off the East German toys she used to play with. She sometimes preëmpted my questions by showing me objects I didn’t know to ask about—for example, a polite letter from Thomas Mann to her grandfather, telling him that he would read his new book when he had the time. When I did ask about something specific, her response might be to pleasantly suggest that it was coming a bit later on the tour.
At first, I assumed that this was because she’s done a lot of interviews. Erpenbeck is one of the most celebrated authors in Germany, the winner of many prizes, and is occasionally discussed as a deserving candidate for the Nobel. (Consider this another such discussion.) Five of her works of fiction have been published in English; her most recent book, “Not a Novel” (New Directions), translated by Kurt Beals, is a collection of meditations, essays, and speeches that often overlap—the kind of thing that appears when it’s relatively certain people will read anything you’ve written. For an author in translation, a rare species in the United States, it’s especially significant.
But Erpenbeck’s enthusiasm for collecting stories, objects, and her own memories is less an indication of professionalism, or of East German Ostalgie, than of something fundamental about her understanding of time. The Guardian’s Philip Oltermann called her the “weaver bird of German fiction”; she fills her novels with research and detail, as well as anecdotes from her family history, as though trying to save them from disappearing. Her work is especially concerned with parallel worlds and conflicting truths, and its great achievement is its ability to imply the sweep of history in the stories of who and what gets lost in transition. In “Visitation” (2010), a German lake house changes hands over the course of the twentieth century, its occupants in varying states of awareness, or denial, of their predecessors; in “The End of Days” (2014), the same woman dies five times, with each death (except the last) followed by a set of circumstances that would have kept her alive. For Erpenbeck, the past is layered under the present; its shape, if nothing else, always comes through, and attempts to cover it up only make it more obvious.
The English subtitle of “Not a Novel,” “A Memoir in Pieces,” suggests the way a life coheres through unexpected moments, which place an individual within history. “I was told that in order to introduce myself, I should briefly tell you how I became the person I am, and why I write, in roughly five minutes,” Erpenbeck jokes at the beginning of “I Become Me,” a speech in the book, before listing a series of details that might meet the challenge. “Should I say, must I say, that the tenement building where my grandmother lived together with my great-grandmother, in an apartment off of the third courtyard back from the street, always smelled like cold ashes from the heating stoves? . . . That I’m happiest when wandering through the brush with bare legs? . . . Did I already mention that my relatives gave me permission to flop down on the rug and suddenly fall asleep during our East-West reunions?” Over and over, she emphasizes the way a narrative is never as solid as the pieces that compose it; her own stories, although written with an almost unbearable sensitivity, shift swiftly and brutally, the way life does. “The times change, and sometimes it’s nice to watch it happen, but sometimes it’s not as nice,” she writes.
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