Visitation, Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky)
Recommended by Ruth Martin. Ruth is a translator (if you need any German translating, you can find her here) who was my first wife. I’m so glad that we still keep in touch every now and then, and there was no way I was going to undertake a literary challenge without asking for her input. Her recommending comment was that she obviously had to recommend something in translation, but not one of her own, as that would be weird!
This is an extraordinary book. It may well be the shortest on the list (I haven’t checked), but its 150 pages feel like 3 times that. I had never heard of Erpenbeck before, but I will definitely be looking for more by her once I’ve finished off this list. The book tells the story of the epic events that took place in Eastern Germany through most of the 20th century, narrating its way through these times by relating the life of a house on a Brandenburg lake.
The vignettes of the 12 characters studied is interposed with a brief chapter about the gardener – the one constant throughout the book, and this device really grounds the book – I really felt that the moment of repose given by reading about the tasks he undertook helped relax the brain before embarking on the next new character.
The twelve main chapters deal, in historical order, with different owners, visitors or tenants of the house, but also take us through the dramatic events of 20th century Germany. The first chapter begins with a passage that dwells on marriage customs at the turn of the century, with a melodic, poetic feel to the prose, almost like a litany:
“When a woman gets married, she must not sew her own dress. The dress may not even be made in the house where she lives. It must be sewn elsewhere, and during the sewing a needle must not be broken. The fabric for a wedding dress may not be ripped, it must be cut with scissors…”
and so on for a page and half, but then we are suddenly thrust into the family history of the first owners of the land. Erpenbeck jumps back and forth between the chanting litany and enough information to piece together what happens to the family, and this sparse use of information is maintained throughout the book. Each new character is clearly related to the previous ones, although it often takes concentration (and sometimes a bit of rereading) to keep the timeline clear.
My own historical knowledge of Germany is not fantastic, apart from around the second world war where I have read enough novels and memoirs to have a decent grasp of the main events (I’m sorry, Mr Colville, for not paying enough attention before I gave up history to do extra music practice!). There were a couple of moments where I had to quickly research what was being referenced, and that really helped my reading of the book.
I found myself actively choosing to take this book slowly, despite the slight time pressure that this task has put me under – most nights I read one chapter about a new character and then the palate-cleansing gardener chapter that followed, as I found that it was definitely one of those books that benefited from time to let the ideas percolate. I found Erpenbeck’s prose, or at least Bernofsky’s translation, utterly compelling – I particularly enjoyed her way of focusing on minute detail to draw out the characters – she leaves the historical events to speak for themselves in a stark, sometimes brutal way. How’s this for one of the most devastating descriptions of the death camps I remember reading?
“For two minutes, a pale, partly cloudy sky arches above her just the way it would look down by the lake just before it rained. For two minutes she inhales the scent of the pine trees she knows so well, but she cannot see the pine trees themselves because of the tall fence. Has she really come home? For two minutes she can feel the sand beneath her shoes along with a few pieces of flint and pebbles made of quartz or granite; then she takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot.
…. all of 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.”
There are other moments of horror, but also moments of great joy, each encapsulated with a piercing brevity, punctuated with repetitive choruses and always soothed by the ever careful and caring gardener. An inspirational novel – please read it.