Black Leaves

The German novelist Jenny Erpenbeck is used to living in pieces. Born in East Berlin in 1967, she came of age in a bifurcated city. But even after German reunification, in 1990, the country she inhabited struck her as clumsily cobbled together. When she meditated on reunification years later, she eschewed talk of repair and opted instead for the counter-intuitive imagery of breakage. ‘What was I doing the night the wall fell?’ she asks in her new book, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces. ‘I slept. I literally slept through that moment of world history, and while I was asleep, the pot wasn’t just being stirred, it was being knocked over and smashed to bits.’ In many cases, the smashing was physical: the wall itself was torn down, while Erpenbeck’s erstwhile elementary school was reduced to rubble. But a form of life was also destroyed, and much of Not a Novel treats its author’s conviction that even now she remains riven, an occupant of both a place that no longer exists and its strange, shiny successor.

Though an uneasy inhabitant of present-day Germany, Erpenbeck is one of its most acclaimed authors. Thanks in large part to the efforts of Susan Bernofsky, the skilful translator of her five slim novels, she is now well on her way to prominence in the anglophone sphere as well. Not a Novel was released in Germany in 2019 as Kein Roman: Texte 1992 bis 2018 (literally, ‘Not a Novel: Writings from 1992–2018’). The translator Kurt Beals’s rendering of the book’s contents is elegant, but its original title might have been more accurate: it is in pieces, but it is not a memoir so much as a collection of essays. Alongside autobiographical sketches, there are lectures, prize acceptance speeches, literary critical musings, and feuilletons about everything from fairytales to the word ‘suction’. Though certain preoccupations (with ruins, with silence, with global injustice) emerge, what ties the disparate threads together is not their varied subjects but their common inflection. As in her fiction, Erpenbeck writes in an elegiac mode. Her sentences are long and sinuous, and she tends towards the incantatory repetition of phrases. She omits quotation marks and lapses into a present tense that smacks not of immediacy but of awareness that the past is eerily eternal, like a ghost flickering back to the site of its body’s death. Still, there are structural differences between Erpenbeck’s novels and her not-novel. Where the former are intricate contrapuntal constructions, the latter frays into straying strands.

In Erpenbeck’s The End of Days, which is very much a novel (and a good one at that), a woman in a nineteenth-century Galician village confesses to her husband that ‘as a child she had long been convinced the world was as flat as a palatschinke, and she herself—like all the other inhabitants of the border town she lived in—had been sprinkled on the outermost rim of this pancake like a grain of sugar’. When she neared the town’s outskirts, the woman recalls, she feared she would topple off into the abyss. Erpenbeck grew up as a grain of sugar on the edge of the East German pancake. Her family lived first in an apartment on a dead-end street cut off by the wall, later in a high-rise so close to the West that she could see its distinctive double-decker buses from her window. In Not a Novel she writes: ‘There is nothing better for a child than to grow up at the ends of the earth’, then repeats the sentence, then repeats it again. When the wall fell, she tumbled off. Her recollections reveal that she is still struggling to pick up the pieces.

* * *

All of Erpenbeck’s novels are, in some sense, in pieces. Indeed, as she explains in the preface to Not a Novel, she once crafted a college paper by chopping the pages up and reassembling them: ‘whenever I wanted to change some part of the text, I would take scissors and cut it up into individual paragraphs, shuffle them around on the floor until the collage was just right, and then reach for the glue’. Traces of this approach are palpable in her novels, all of which are made up of chunks of text separated by strips of space.

For the most part, each unit of an Erpenbeck novel – they might be best characterized as stanzas – is shorter than a traditional chapter but longer than the Tweet-adjacent blips that appear in contemporary ‘fragment novels’. Her stanzas are not stand-alone pronouncements so much as invocations of a clastic whole. Phrases and objects break away from their native contexts only to recur as refrains, and what seems at first like fragmentation later paves the way for more complex holism, as in operas in which strings of notes resurface as leitmotifs. Erpenbeck spent her college years studying to become an opera director, and she writes in Not a Novel that her training gave her an ‘education in the principle of collage’. In Don Giovanni, a key influence, ‘three different pieces of music, played by two small ensembles on stage and by the orchestra in the pit, begin to tumble into each other’.

Like strains of music that become intelligible only as they twine together, individual snatches of Erpenbeck’s novels are often confusing in isolation. In her first two books, the revelation of a central secret prompts both her characters and her readers to re-interpret everything that came before. The Old Child (1999) treats a mysterious and apparently amnesiac girl who turns out to be an adult in disguise, while The Book of Words (2004) follows a character who discovers that her seemingly loving father is in fact a torturer. In much of Erpenbeck’s fiction, the idea that the end can alter the beginning plays out not just at the level of substance but also at the level of form. In The End of Days, her fourth (and in my view, best) novel, the characters are not named but defined relationally, for instance as ‘the mother’ or ‘the grandmother’, so that they are not fully comprehensible until their children or grandchildren are introduced. The book opens with the burial of a baby, yet her death is presented as an obliteration of her future selves – as meaningful only in the context of the whole of her prospective life:

Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs even farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred.

These various iterations of the baby survive in four extended re-imaginings of her biography (each succeeded by short sections that Erpenbeck, ever musical, calls ‘intermezzos’). In the second iteration of the story, the girl moves to Vienna with her family and survives to adolescence, only to kill herself during the Depression; in the third, she decides against suicide but perishes in a labour camp in the Soviet Union as a young adult; in the fourth, she makes it to middle age in East Germany but trips down the stairs and breaks her neck before the fall of the wall; and in the fifth, she dies peacefully in a nursing home after reunification. Locutions, images, and objects carry over from each of these parallel worlds to the next. A clock and the complete works of Goethe are lugged from one place to another, until at last they end up in a pawnshop in the final version of the story. When the adult son of the protagonist glimpses these heirlooms on the shelves, he does not even recognize them, for an object uprooted from its context is no more meaningful than a sentence torn out of a book or a note yanked out of an opera.

Erpenbeck is intent on preserving the connections that so often threaten to fade into invisibility, for which reason her novels are all in the business of demonstrating how the ostensibly disparate pieces in fact hang together. Visitation, her third novel, is about a lake house near Berlin that changes hands over and over, passing from an agrarian homesteader at the turn of the century to a Jewish family in the thirties to a Nazi architect during World War II, and so on and on until its demolition in the present day. Each chapter is devoted to one of the house’s visitors or inhabitants, and in each there is a slogan that is repeated.  (‘I-a-m-g-o-i-n-g-h-o-m-e’, types an East German writer over and over; ‘humour is when you laugh all the same’ is the motto of the architect’s jocular wife, at least until the Red Army closes in.) Only one character remains in the orbit of the property as the others rotate in and out: the subject of every other chapter is the quiet, unassuming gardener, who performs the same tasks in the employ of various owners. For decades, he ‘waters shrubs and flowers twice a day, once early in the morning and again when dusk arrives’. Every time he plants something new, he digs all the way down to the ‘blue clay found everywhere in this region’.

Like the gardener, Erpenbeck digs until she reaches the substratum that underlies the shifting surface. She is after ‘what remains’, as another East German writer, Christa Wolf, titled one of her novellas. In Visitation, what remains is a house and the gardener who tends to it; in The End of Days, what remains is the single character who thwarts death in four different ways. What, if anything, remains in Not a Novel?

* * *

‘Many different eras are collected in this volume’, the book begins. Like Erpenbeck’s harrowingly historical fiction, Not a Novel ranges over decades, gathering Erpenbeck’s reflections on her youth in East Germany, the baroque music and Romantic fairytales she loves, the recent death of her mother, and the ongoing refugee crisis. Its contents are arranged into sections titled ‘Life’, ‘Literature and Music’, and ‘Society’.

‘Life’ is the most memoirist, the least in pieces, and by far the best. Its contents examine lives and deaths with reference to the orphaned objects they leave in their wake. In ‘Open Bookkeeping’, Erpenbeck makes an unsentimental but never unfeeling inventory of the items she finds in her dead mother’s apartment: ‘I inherit hundreds of slides and 3 projectors, inherit 8 ashtrays, 3 cartons of cigarettes, 1 old cassette recorder, 2 mirrors…’ and so on and on.  She discovers ‘10 bottles of shampoo and 10 tubes of conditioner’, which she uses for ‘the next year and a half’. In a later piece, Erpenbeck takes her mother’s pressure cooker to her country house to bury it. She ends up using it to melt dirty snow into water hot enough to thaw the pipes. Her parting observation is bleakly and guttingly funny: ‘my mother’s pressure cooker has become a pot once again: I am cooking – a soup of black leaves’.

But most of what Erpenbeck mourns has not left such tangible traces. The landscape of the German Democratic Republic has been razed, and in ‘Homesick for Sadness’, probably the richest piece in Not a Novel, she grasps at the few remaining remnants of the country she grew up in and, despite everything, cannot help but miss. She glimpses the ‘small blue tiles that covered the girl’s bathroom’ in the pile of concrete that was once her elementary school and recollects ‘the mechanical pencils that we unscrewed to make blowguns for spitballs’.

These images are conjured with novelistic vividness, and indeed, devotees of Erpenbeck’s fiction will recognize many of the details that crop up in Not a Novel from her other books: she recalls ‘a lacquered wooden clock with golden numbers’ that ticked throughout her ‘entire childhood’, an artifact reminiscent of the clock in The End of Days; she notes that her father was enthralled by a catacomb unearthed beneath a Berlin church, a discovery that delights enthusiasts in both Visitation and her most recent book, Go, Went, Gone; she relates that a Red Army soldier shoved her infant mother through the window of a departing train when her family fled East Prussia, an anecdote also included, in slightly altered form, in Go, Went, Gone.

But Erpenbeck’s oracular register is much better suited to fiction and autobiography, with their necessary forays into material reality, than it is to flights of theoretical fancy, which can so easily bloat into phatic imprecision. Many of the more philosophical meditations in the ‘Literature and Music’ and ‘Society’ sections of Not a Novel lapse into cliché by way of rhetorical questions. In a lecture about The Book of Words, Erpenbeck muses, ‘Can we exchange our history for another? Discard it? Retract it? … Can we unlearn what we have learned, unfeel what we have felt?’ Later, she asks, ‘Is forgetting our only salvation? Or are our stories the only baggage that no one can take from us? Are we our stories?’

Questions so baggy are unanswerable, and Erpenbeck’s half-hearted attempts to answer them are predictably unsatisfying. ‘Time has the power to separate us, not only from others, but also from ourselves’, she ventures. Later, she reflects, ‘When we read – and when we write, too – we have to live with the fact that the world can’t be divided into good and evil, into wins and losses’. This is about as pat a commendation for complexity as I can imagine. But no matter: Erpenbeck defies her own injunction seventy pages later in a decidedly moralistic lecture about the plight of refugees in Europe (a topic treated with more nuance and less sanctimony in Go, Went, Gone, in which a retired professor becomes enraged by Germany’s unjust asylum policies when he befriends a number of displaced African men). That her largely leftist diagnosis of the situation is, by my lights, correct is not enough to reconcile me to maudlin and meaningless talk of how ‘much we can lose without losing ourselves’.

In the end, Not a Novel is worth reading more because it sheds light on Erpenbeck’s ornate novels than because it coheres in its own right. It does not do justice to Erpenbeck at her most majestic. Sometimes it is sharp, and sometimes it is cloying, but the shattered pieces never quite come together.

Read on: Perry Anderson, ‘A New Germany?’, NLR 57.