DECEMBER 5, 2014
JENNY ERPENBECK, born to an intellectual family in East Berlin in 1967, is a critically acclaimed and prizewinning author in her native Germany. She is less well known in the United States, although several of her books have appeared in English translation. Visitation (Heimsuchung), published here in 2010, concentrates its attention on one small patch of ground, a lake house in the Brandenburg countryside near Berlin. Owners and residents, mostly unnamed, come and go over the generations of the 20th century, united only in their wish to colonize this space, to make their mark on the house and its outbuildings and modest landscape. Each owner puts his own stamp on the house and its grounds, and each sets the gardener to work planting or felling fruit trees, sowing or razing flowerbeds, nurturing or ripping out shrubbery, pushing dirt this way and that.
The residents’ ability to impose order on this space is aided or denied according to the greater political landscape. Jewish owners are forced to sell for a low price and flee to Poland in a doomed attempt to survive. Later, an architect who has worked with West German clients is forced out of the property by the postwar East German socialist regime. The residents’ narratives accrete like layers of paint as each family arrives, makes a home, and departs. By the end of the novel, we hold a single image in mind, one of surprising depth. The residents of the lake house may be anonymous, but we glimpse enough of their desires to feel pain at their striving and loss; we feel bereft at the futility of their lives (and our own) against the merciless rhythms of time, of the earth. The rhythms themselves may be merciless, but their structure consoles — for the homestead’s gardener, as in Ecclesiastes, to everything there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven.
If Visitation is like a painting, The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend in German) is more like the view from a plane zigzagging through the skies over 20th-century Europe, creating a connect-the-dots puzzle. In 1902, as the novel opens, an eight-month-old girl is buried in the eastern precincts of the Austrian Empire. As her mother throws handfuls of dirt on the grave, she mourns not only her small child, but also the girl, young wife, and old woman the child will never become. Erpenbeck’s story takes back those stolen life stages, exploring what might have been. In an “intermezzo” between the first and second chapters, the narrator imagines how things could have happened differently: to rouse the impassive child in her crib, the mother may have “scooped a handful of snow from the sill and put it under the baby’s shirt,” so that the girl lived. Then each lost stage of her life is lived out; as we bear witness, the girl, then woman, moves from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin, through adolescence, adulthood, middle age, and at last old age near the end of the century. Throughout the novel runs the volatile seam of preordained fate, the fate that comes with any tale set among the upheavals of 20th-century Europe. The child may have survived the dangers of the cradle, but history will not leave her alone.
The earlier Visitation maintains a fairy tale-like feel throughout, a worthy descendant of the Brothers Grimm, who also trafficked in treacherous domiciles. In both the original and the English translation, the prose has a naïve style, which rubs up against insidious events to create a sinister friction, a style more easily translated to English. Aller Tage Abend was hailed by German critics for its highly rhythmic prose, but the translator, Susan Bernofsky, has opted for an unadorned style for The End of Days, though one that nonetheless retains the sense of menace integral to any tale of predestination.
Over the course of five long chapters and four intervening “intermezzo” sections, Erpenbeck explores five possible versions of the girl’s life. (The protagonist’s imagined biography overlaps in important ways with that of Hedda Zinner, the author’s paternal grandmother, who lived from 1905 to 1994 and wrote for left-wing political journals.) In the second chapter, the second of the versions, the girl escapes early crib death through her mother’s quick thinking. Her parents have a second daughter and the family moves from provincial Galicia to Vienna, where the father becomes an employee of the Meteorological Institution. But the family struggles, and when the Great War comes, they nearly starve. Then, in one of the book’s occasional swerves into melodrama, the girl, in a moment of heartbreak, “allows” herself to be killed by a stranger she meets one night while wandering the icy streets.
The unconvincing motivation of this event signals the novel’s unsatisfying treatment of character. The girl dies now because she must do so to fit into the established schema. It’s the kind of plot development meted out regularly in historical fiction — everyone knows before cracking the spine of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies that Anne Boleyn is beheaded by the book’s end. The real disappointment of The End of Days is what feels like a devaluing of individual experience, the girl little more than a marionette, and it is difficult to be moved by the fate of a puppet.
Ford Madox Ford characterized the novel as exercising a “profoundly serious investigation into the human case.” While The End of Days is duly serious, it is ambivalent about the human case. The protagonist suffers and dies five times, but her interior life and struggles are accorded little weight. The manners of death are instructive. Of the five deaths, four are unconnected from her will and desires: she stops breathing in her crib, she randomly crosses paths with a violent young man, she slips and falls down the stairs, and she dies of old age at a nursing home. The recitation is reminiscent of Gorey’s The Gashlycrumb Tinies — “A is for Amy who fell down the stairs; B is for Basil assaulted by bears” — without the grim humor.
In the third iteration of her life, the protagonist ends her days as a prisoner in Stalin’s gulag, despite her careful efforts to win her freedom, energetically demonstrating her loyalty to the Soviet state. This chapter, set largely in the pre-World War II Soviet Union, is the most compelling section of the book. It’s the only version of her life where the protagonist is permitted any true agency, where she is granted motive and goal, a narrative animated by clear stakes rather than attenuated by accidents or pure biology. In it the young woman leaves her parents’ home determined to support herself by becoming a writer. Frustrated by the older generation’s passivity, she is seduced by the empowering rhetoric of the Austrian Communist Party. She joins a group of young people who feel themselves part of the great sweep of history as it marches toward progress. She marries a fellow writer, Comrade H. (H. is for Hoffmann, we eventually learn), and they flee to the Soviet Union as conditions grow dangerous for communists in Austria in the interwar years.
Comrade H., as she is also now known, finds herself, after several years of faithful service and politically expedient writing, engaged in composing the most crucial text of her life: her autobiography. Through it she hopes to show her ideological purity and fealty to the Soviet state; her husband has just been arrested, and she fears for his life and her own. Sitting at her desk in her Moscow apartment, she considers the urgency of her task.
It’s entirely possible that this written account will be the end of her actual life, possible that this piece of writing will be transformed, if you will, into a weapon to be used against her. It’s also possible that it will be kept in reserve, and that from the moment she turns it in she’ll be obliged to live up to it, or to prove herself worthy of it, or else confirm the darkest suppositions that might arise from it. In the last case, the words she’s writing here would also — with a smaller or greater delay — be something like a misdiagnosed illness that eventually, inevitably, would kill her … There’s only one thing she doesn’t assume: that this piece of writing will be nothing more than a sheet of paper with ink on it, slipped into a folder and forgotten.
In fact, this is what happens. The novel’s most absurd and powerful scene, deftly sketched, reveals two alternate versions of Comrade H.’s fate. In the bureaucratic warren of the Secret Police, her autobiography, its pages slipped into a folder, is passed around as if by invisible hands. Comrade ö., who thinks of Comrade H. as a “narrow-lipped hysteric,” places her file on the left-hand side of his desk, rather than the right. The pile from the left “is forwarded to Comrade B.” Comrade B. remembers having eaten a fine strudel made by Comrade H., but finds that insufficient reason for “sparing a counterrevolutionary element.” So he assigns her dossier to the stack on the left-hand side of his desk, and it is forwarded to Comrade S. Comrade S. cannot anticipate Comrade H.’s saying anything incriminating about him if she were arrested, so he too places her file on the left-hand side of his desk, to be forwarded to Comrade L. And on it goes. Her file eventually lands with an officer who is required to order a certain quota of arrests by the end of the month. He goes about his selection process alphabetically, and Comrade H.’s fate is sealed. Still, it could have been worse, for she is at the end of the list — the first 10 people in her group are assigned to the firing squad. Or — perhaps — as the intermezzo suggests, one comrade along the chain might have made a different judgment, and placed her folder on the right, so that Comrade H. survives. The book’s final two chapters find her in East Berlin, where she has achieved prominence as a writer whose works provide intellectual cover and support for the socialist government. Comrade H.’s trajectory, as traced in these sections, provides a fascinating study of the circumstances surrounding the founding and operation of the East German state.
The sweep of history may be the most prominent force circumscribing human fate, but a brief passage in the middle of the novel invokes the less culpable yet more powerful force of geologic time, which, as in Visitation, dwarfs all lives, and all species, equally.
A wind rises up far away on a bit of steppe, 45.61404 degrees latitude north, 70.75195 degrees longitude east […] A beetle, emerging from nowhere, on its way nowhere, passes the time by creeping up one of the grass blades, where, having reached the top, it turns around again and goes on its way facing down. The blade of grass bent a little beneath the weight of the beetle when it reached the tip — bent almost imperceptibly, since the beetle’s weight was so slight, but still it was something. Now that the six-legged visitor has returned to earth and is once more making its laborious way among the other stalks belonging to this tuft of grass, the stalk is standing erect again, trembling ever so slightly from time to time in the tranquil air we describe as a lull.
Erpenbeck uses geographic coordinates throughout to emphasize the tininess of human life; those who people the book are equivalent to entomological specimens mounted and pinned, their one-time fluttering among the sun and leaves irrelevant. But they don’t know any better.
The metaphor of the beetle, “coming from nowhere, on its way to nowhere,” barely moving the blade of grass despite its steady efforts, complements the novel’s title. The original title, Aller Tage Abend, comes from the German saying Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend (literally: “It is not yet the evening of all days,” meaning: “It isn’t over till it’s over,” or, “Life goes on”). The phrase “the end of days” recurs throughout the book, first appearing in the first chapter, conveyed by the mother of the young woman whose baby (our protagonist) dies in the crib: “For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.” The day her daughter thinks, knows, is all-important will recede in weight as she is forced to go on — and the child’s death is already comparable in effect to the trace of a beetle clinging to a stalk. By the book’s conclusion, the protagonist has reached her final end of days, expiring in a Berlin nursing home in the years just after the fall of communism, the cause to which she devoted her life and writing now vanished, irrelevant.
Her son, in his mourning, is engulfed in sensations that mimic the spiritual, something the book does not endorse but can’t seem to wholly forsake:
Briefly, sharply, clearly, he knows for one instant what it will feel like if the audible and the inaudible, things distant and near, the inner and outer, the dead and the living were simultaneously there, nothing would be above anything else, and this moment when everything was simultaneously there would last forever. But because he is a human being […] this knowing free of language passes from him just as suddenly as it has beset him.
It’s a problem for writers who don’t have faith in a higher being: how to affirm and express those moments of connection to another that feel like catching sight of something ineffable — or those times gazing at the sunlight in the trees or the light falling through the window in a Rembrandt, or reading a fine passage of prose in a novel — moments that feel like we are transcending some sort of everyday limit on our consciousness, when the ordinary suddenly seems numinous. Even the most fervent unbeliever hesitates to discount such moments, and Erpenbeck tries to give them their due, though they fit uneasily in this novel. Her experiments with the lives of the writer Frau Hoffmann enact a sort of oscillation. Our lives and deaths are completely arbitrary and without meaning, except when, as in the book’s powerful USSR section, they are not —Comrade H. may, ultimately, be powerless, but her fate is something she is able to recognize and struggle against, decidedly unlike the clueless beetle. Our connections and actions give our lives meaning — they sustain us — or they don’t.
In the novel’s second section, though, Erpenbeck touches on a middle way. The father of the future Frau Hoffmann spends his late evenings in their Vienna flat studying his wife’s sleeping face, in an effort to trace how external forces have made their mark on her. He wants to understand “how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature — such as war [or] famine … can infiltrate a private face.” He notes
a constant translation between far outside and deep within, it’s just that a different vocabulary exists for each of us, which no doubt explains why it’s never been noticed that this is a language in the first place — and in fact, the only language valid all over the world and for all time.
The ephemeral, inconsequential entity that is a human life may be caught in a skein of impersonal forces, borne down on by historical and geologic time, but each in a private and distinct way. Perhaps the imprinting that results is the locus of dignity and compassion.
Frau Hoffman dies her last death around age 90. The dead woman’s son carries on with his life in Berlin, “at 52.58867 degrees latitude north, 13.39529 degrees longitude east.” Every morning he rises early, before the birds, to mourn free from the scrutiny of his wife and children. Choking on his tears, he wonders if this is all there is.