Inescapable Smallness: On Jenny Erpenbeck

Inescapable Smallness: On Jenny Erpenbeck

Inescapable Smallness: On Jenny Erpenbeck

A young German novelist explores the logic of powerlessness.


To read the German author Jenny Erpenbeck at her best is to observe the process by which small things are made visible. As if on a microscope’s slide, the miniature comes into focus, but in her hands, magnification is a kind of diminution of the eye; we the readers are shrunk down, distorted and inserted into an alternate universe. Erpenbeck can summon the familiar horror of genre films and Gothic novels, and the abject and paralyzing fear instilled through powerlessness and careless brutality. Sometimes her stories take the shape of parables untethered to conventional logic or historical reference. Other times they are attached ambiguously to historical incidents and periods, where the horror takes on a grainy, documentary edge: the obscene ravages of World War II, both from within and from the vantage of retrospective cultural trauma; life in the GDR, with its paranoia, enforced silence and abrupt disappearances; torture in the Argentine dirty wars of the 1970s and ’80s, and the German presence in postwar South America.

Erpenbeck’s reputation in Germany as a writer of hypnotically sparse, even pointillistic lyricism is closely related to her acute sense of the horrific, in which human pain becomes insignificant against an indifferent cosmos. This indifference to pain, grief and destruction—as well as detachment from established grounds of right and wrong, the just and unjust—creates and sustains its own unpredictable, self-sufficient logic, and it is the motor that has powered the inventiveness of her prose, from The Old Child and Other Stories (1999) to Visitation (2008), translated elegantly by Susan Bernofsky into English in 2010.

Erpenbeck’s mode of storytelling is related to the cruel and wondrous logic of fairy tales, a cultural reservoir of myths both comic and horrific. Fairy tales crystallize movements and motives within a culture. They also generalize, casting toward the universal. Likewise, Erpenbeck’s fiction reveals, as if by accident, how individual anguish is everyone’s anguish. Deliberate violence against powerless victims exists, she reminds us, always in the shadow not just of a dark history of similar acts but in the shadow of human finitude—of mortality, blindness, accidental loss and the frailty of memory. Our powerlessness in individual scenarios, she shows, is a proxy for an essential, inescapable smallness.

* * *

In recent years, an internationally visible body of German writing has disturbed our understanding of how the most brutal episodes of the twentieth century influence and disrupt the present. The popularity of Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, the notoriety of Günter Grass’s Crabwalk and Peeling the Onion, the critical stir over W.G. Sebald’s and Herta Müller’s writings and the films of Michael Haneke: all can be understood as examples of this latest wave of Vergangenheitsbewältigung—the German word for the seemingly never-ending obligation to come to terms with the past. This literature relies on strange and uncomfortable layerings of fiction, nonfiction and historical fiction to slant and deepen accepted histories with alternate perspectives. The consequences are bleak and unsettling, as the writers dwell on the slippery nature of guilt and the insoluble remainder of history’s materials. Erpenbeck’s technique is comparable and, in her best efforts, perhaps closest in spirit to Müller’s, but her real object seems to be to come to terms with the present. Erpenbeck projects the grotesque excesses and accidents of a lingering past sideways into the local objects and events that preoccupy her; she does not offer lessons learned from history but rather uses history as a way to map the vicissitudes of the present, even as it transpires.

Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967 to the writer and physicist John Erpenbeck and translator Doris Kilias. Her paternal grandparents were also writers. After working for a decade or so as a theater and opera director, as well as a playwright, she turned to fiction in the late 1990s. Her first book, The Old Child, became a bestseller and brought her renown in Germany. A series of equally short and equally acclaimed works have followed, translated into more than a dozen languages, each bolstering her reputation at home and abroad. The most notable of these are Sand (2001), a collection of stories; the short novel Book of Words (2004); Visitation; and Things That Disappear (2009), a collection of short essays, many of them personal. She is working on a new novel.

The Old Child is a book of odd integrity, and it is most perspicuous and truest to itself when it drifts into apparently irrelevant distractions. The novella centers on a woman who passes herself off as a child at a home for orphans. (In preparation for writing the book, Erpenbeck, then 27, posed as a 17-year-old and enrolled in high school.) The enigma at the heart of the book is the unexplained will-to-smallness of its protagonist, whose exact numerical age is unknown but is suggested to be about twice that of her adolescent classmates. This “will” is in effect a parody of individual self-fulfillment, as the uncompromisingly narrated desire of a willing victim. The Old Child’s attempt to give reality the slip by standing in one place forever, by making as little impression as possible and occupying the “lowermost rung of the hierarchy,” fuels her elaborate deceit, as she works hard to deflect success and failure alike, indeed any attention whatsoever:

While the prospect of not being allowed to pass to the next grade might fill the others with terror, implying as it does an additional year of captivity, for the girl it would be a coup…. What a blessing it must be to be given up on.

Her digging in against the passage of time bespeaks “a certain contempt for the natural course of things, even a challenge to God.” Yet the plot of the book is largely mundane, as Erpenbeck deftly explores grade school rituals and playground bullying. This parallel world is nasty and familiar, unpredictable and yet somehow unquestionable, precisely in the manner of a fairy tale or dream.

“The girl knows she is bigger than she should be, and so she hunches her shoulders and keeps her head down,” writes Erpenbeck: the discomfort of human finitude is felt here, as in much of her work, in the small, the childlike. The child’s point of view, reliving or outgrowing childhood, observing one’s own child—these frames provide Erpenbeck with a potent idiom through which to explore the nightmarish quality of powerlessness. In Visitation, a chapter called “The Girl”—which has attracted considerable attention in reviews of the book—is devoted to a Jewish child hiding from the Nazis during World War II. In Erpenbeck’s telling, the children’s game of hide-and-seek turns deadly; the exhilarating prospect of being found is replaced with profound impotence in the face of elemental terror: “While the girl sits in her dark chamber and turns her knees now to the right, now to the left, while beyond the chamber everything in the apartment is still, and beyond the apartment everything down in the street is still, and even beyond this street in all the other streets of the district everything is completely still, the girl hears everything that ever was: The rustling of leaves, the splashing of waves.”

* * *

This rustling and splashing carries us back, through the girl’s memory, to the cabin by the lake whose centrality domesticates Visitation’s restless narrative. The novel was published in German under the title Heimsuchung, which could be translated as “home-seeking,” although in common usage it denotes various involuntary ways of being visited: “infestation,” “affliction,” “holy visitation.” An inhuman presence lurks at the margins of the property, as at the edges of the novel. “Approximately twenty-four thousand years ago,” the book begins, “a glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of rock that now is nothing more than a gentle hill above where the house stands.” With this novel, something vast shifts underfoot in Erpenbeck’s miniature worlds: the tectonic undertow of geologic time. Visitation adds to her compact scenarios something intangible and enormous, which works on them from outside their modest frames with a force eroding human history and its claims to establish durable meaning.

Visitation is a panoramic review of twentieth-century German history through the experiences of a sequence of inhabitants of this house: the mayor of a village, an architect, a woman writer. The house itself is also a fictionalized version of the Erpenbecks’ family lake house in Brandenburg, East Germany, which belonged to the author’s grandparents, and later to her. (Erpenbeck has spoken of this autobiographical dimension in interviews, and has taken Bernofsky, among others, to see the house.) The novel is divided into short chapterlike segments that carry the narrative mostly forward, sometimes backward, winding up at a time like the present, when the house is occupied by a stand-in for Erpenbeck. Having spent her childhood at the house, she then, in adulthood, has it briefly returned to her before the land is reclaimed by the heirs of its former, dispossessed owners.

The reader is privy to the thoughts of the numerous and mostly nameless cast of characters who people the house and its grounds. The exception is the Gardener, an enigmatic figure whose tenure at the cottage is unrelated to ownership, and who thus remains with the property each time it changes hands. (A sort of workmanlike epiphenomenon of nature’s labors, the Gardener falls somewhere between Wordsworth’s “Lucy,” Nature’s child who “seem’d a thing that could not feel/The touch of earthly years,” and one of those gruff, handy, docile props of pastoral myth.) His episodes correspondingly appear most often. Short, simple and beautifully written, the Gardener’s scenes ground the novel as it jumps around among characters, decades and political regimes.

Because in Visitation Erpenbeck flits between so many stories and perspectives, there is as much room for confusion as mystery. It is in the nature of Visitation’s experiment to replace central characters with a physical location, but this attempt brings, of course, certain risks with it. From the novel’s broad, outside-in perspective, the human lives Erpenbeck takes as her material can grow insectlike, their activities as insignificant as flies in summer. The diminution of the characters places them at a distance from the reader, who cannot at this critical remove feel the causes of their laughter and pleasure, cannot empathize with their physical and emotional pain.

The centrality of the house in Visitation is a nod to the Gothic, a genre related to fairy tales. Gothic stories feature domestic settings animated by uncanny forces that spook, unsettle and snuff out, from Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto and Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher” to horror cinema’s lively real estate—houses possessed, made of wax, dripping blood. Something lingers in the molding, unfinished business lurks in inchoate and uncertain shapes. But in Visitation, the Gothic is stripped of its fantastic elements; Erpenbeck’s Gothic miniature is grounded in the mundane horror of history. This partly explains how her prose remains unsentimental.

When this technique works, it is chilling. In one of the few scenes set away from the lake house, Doris, the 12-year-old girl hiding in a Warsaw closet, is discovered by the SS when her urine trickles out from behind the chamber’s door. She nears her death in a daze, as though it is happening to someone else:

For two minutes, a pale, partly cloudy sky arches above her just the way it would look down by the lake right 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.

Though far from the house, Doris still senses its presence in the pine smell and the sand underfoot, so much so that for a moment she feels as though she has returned home. The reference to the composition of the sand on which Doris once trod harks back to the prologue’s geological prelude, and to the Gardener’s dogged groundskeeping, but more immediately forward to her own imminent burial. Our distance from Doris is balanced by the visceral closeness of her death (and Doris haunts the story from outside, as well: Visitation is dedicated to the “Doris Kaplan” whose letters inspired this chapter).

But the balance is off—almost caricatured—in the fleetingly glimpsed but ghastly death of Doris’s grandparents, some pages earlier:

Two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized.

The repulsive juxtaposition of an inhuman death with the distribution of finances is deliberate and pointed, but the scene’s shocking brevity misfires. Such events carry too much emotional weight to be picked up and dropped so quickly in the context of a novel. The horrors, disappointments and innocent pleasures that befall these and the fifteen or so other characters—the experiences they are made to watch or take part in—are too often rushed through, shortchanged, sometimes even exploited. There are good reasons why we should be made to take in our own ugliness, but perhaps not merely to glance at it, which may be all that is possible when incontrovertible evil is pointed out in passing. In such scenes, Erpenbeck’s gift for the miniature is misused: where her unusual talent lies in wringing immense quantities from the small, here immensity is simply reduced. We are too distant, back behind the microscope’s lens.

To find ourselves made small again in the presence of small things, we need only to leaf through Things That Disappear, the author’s collection of quietly personal reflections both humorous and bleak. Here Erpenbeck writes wryly of disappearances due to death, destruction or simple negligence, with an intimate attentiveness to the transformative moments where significance swells and swerves against routine banalities. She modestly documents the negative residues of the past in the present, from the lingering smell of a mysteriously vanished cheese to the ruin in bustling central Berlin left by the demolition of a communist landmark (the Palast der Republik, currently an empty lot), to an unoccupied baby carriage being wheeled through the Warsaw ghetto. Erpenbeck doesn’t so much come to terms with the past as continue to feel its presence, not through cataloging what’s missing but through dwelling on the feeling that something has changed, that something is off.

The “dwelling” of Visitation is similarly and perhaps more luminously evoked in Erpenbeck’s early story “Sand,” an obvious precursor to the later, quasi-autobiographical sections of Visitation. In “Sand,” a young woman gives an impressionistic account of her grandmother and herself as a young girl, spending summers together in a cottage by a lake. The story consists of twelve remarkable pages of short, sharp notes on the aging of bodies, and how time takes things apart—language, memory, silver cutlery. It clarifies Erpenbeck’s preoccupation with our various doorstops against death—our traction of pretense that what matters really does matter, as our worlds grow and shrink with age. “How tedious,” says the grandmother, nearing death. “It’s always the same thing, you put it in above and then it comes out below. Must I eat?”

In the final scenes of Visitation, Erpenbeck’s stand-in visits the house in its dilapidated state, taming the ravages of time for no particular reason after its restitution to its former owners. She has become a squatter; inexplicably she dusts, mops, waxes the floors, closes the shutters, all despite knowing this shell of a house will soon be demolished. Like Erpenbeck, this woman gives loving order to the ephemeral, attending to details precisely because she knows they are doomed to disappear. These small acts return to her a power even in her resignation. She has become, like the indefatigable Gardener, a caretaker: a servant of the house and the wild universe that will watch it fall.

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