Issue 16 — By the Waters We Wept
Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck
Due to the recent heat wave, our peonies and the first flush of roses have raced along and are almost done. I made this little bouquet for a friend.
It’s been a week for looking at family photos. Here’s my dad with his pony (I think his name was Cherry) in about 1930.
My dad grew up on a farm with his parents and grandparents. Like the house described in this week’s issue, my great-grandparents’ house did not survive the twentieth century, but part of the farm has been conserved and now it is wild again.
Translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky
There is nothing wrong with the quotidian. We all, or almost all, must dwell in that realm. But to have authority, a literary work must be able to turn the quotidian into something strange.
So writes Wendy Lesser, writer and editor of The Threepenny Review, in her book, Why I Read.
Jenny Erpenbeck found everything about the quotidian strange after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the not so friendly takeover of her native country, East Germany by their capitalist neighbors to the west. Erpenbeck, born in 1967, grew up in a family of distinguished writers in the GDR. She, however, chose to pursue dramaturgy and opera direction. And then a sequence of events took place that can only be described as operatic as historical events slammed into the personal lives of 290 million people in the USSR.
Erpenbeck’s father stopped writing; he had lost his subject: reform of the East German system. Erpenbeck, however, started writing, and has since become an essential voice in German language literature. In a recent interview with David Naimon, she describes the experience of seeing East Berlin like a piece of film that’s been exposed twice, a new reality superimposed on the old. Her subjects include the wild impermanence of the human experience, the cruelty and folly of our relations with each other, and the thrumming rhythms of the non-human world. Her novel, Visitation, recounts the life and death of a summer cottage, and its human occupants, on a lake east of Berlin. The book, which springs from her experience of such a place and her research into its history, is a kind of attar, a pungent and haunting distillate of human experience.
Wendy Lesser again: “A writer’s own special kind of authority may pervade every sentence of her work, but it is often most noticeable at the very beginning, where we are deciding whether or not to trust that voice, whether or not to enter that world into which we are being invited.” Here is the beginning of Visitation, as translated from the German by Susan Bernofsky.
Approximately twenty-four thousand years ago, 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. The enormous pressure exerted by the ice snapped and crushed the frozen trunks of the oaks, alders and pines that grew there, sections of rock broke away, splintered and were ground to bits, and lions, cheetahs, and saber-toothed cats fled to more southerly climes. But the ice did not advance beyond this rocky crag. Gradually silence set in, and the ice began its labor, a labor of sleep.
As readers we are placed not in medias res in a human situation but find ourselves in geologic time at an edge place on a planet characterized by cycles of rapid change and relative stability. Certain individuals of certain species have been crushed. Others must flee for their lives. Others will have the good fortune to adapt. And slowly, slowly the glacier will create the lake and its sandy bottom.
Home. When it rains you can smell the leaves in the forest and the sand. It’s all so small and mild, the landscape surrounding the lake, so manageable. The leaves and the sand are so close, it’s as if you might , if you wanted, pull them on over your head. And the lake always laps at the shore so gently, licking the hand you dip into it like a young dog and the water is soft and shallow.
This is how Ludwig, the son of a Jewish cloth merchant, describes the lake. He has been given a house lot here by his parents as his inheritance in the mid-1930s. This verdant and peaceful place, tended by one gardener for decades, becomes a place visited upon and afflicted by the forces of history. It becomes a place to hide in and to flee from, a place of childhood joys and terrors, of family love and of wartime violence, a place to bury treasure and to find it.
Ludwig’s family will undergo the crushing force of the Nazi regime; some will flee, some will survive, others will be crushed. Erpenbeck dedicated Visitation to Doris Kaplan, who was Ludwig’s niece in real life and died as a child at the hands of the Nazis. The architect and his wife, who will profit from Ludwig’s distress, have their own cycles of trauma and displacement ahead. After the war, a family of writers who fled east, will return in search of a stability that will prove fragile under the corruption of the communist regime and then the greedy and grasping forces of reunification.
Visitation’s incantatory lyricism commingles the utterly quotidian (a towel in the boathouse, the brand of a lock, the price of a bedsheet) with the shocking and the terrible. Jenny Erpenbeck’s way of writing brings in a myriad of genres (fable, family history, official registries, legalese, demolition codes) without losing cohesion or propulsion. Her use of repeated phrases and of partial abstraction for some of the characters (The Architect, The Writer) takes us to the plane of epic and legend even as we shudder at the fresh and inescapable recognition of our mortal vulnerability and failings. Visitation could make an extraordinary opera.
Erpenbeck’s life experience and chosen themes made her acutely sensitive to the recent migration crisis in Europe. She followed Visitation with the critically-acclaimed novel Go, Went, Gone (translated by Susan Bernofsky) which tells the tragic stories of a number of refugees in Germany based on relationships she developed with migrants and has continued over the years. More recently she has published a collection of non-fiction pieces, Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (translated by Kurt Beals). Both of these books are spell-binding in their own ways. You can hear Erpenbeck read a miraculous prose piece about inheriting her mother’s pressure cooker in the David Naimon interview. Again, the quotidian shifts shape into the strange.
Wendy Lesser asserts that “Literature is, among other things, an undermining of the coherent worldview. . . . The truths in literature are incidental and cumulative, not global and permanent. In some moods I think those are the only kinds of truths that matter.” In a 2018 speech, Erpenbeck seems to agree. “My writing began with reflections on borders, reflections on how we change over the course of our lives, voluntarily or involuntarily, reflections on what identity is, and how much we can lose without losing ourselves.” In Jenny Erpenbeck we have a great poet of the swirling flux and an authority on cultivating our humanity in an unstable world, the kinds of truths that matter.
Other Voices, Other Forms
We need more operas about the 20th and 21st centuries and about the Anthropocene. I’m grateful to one of my sisters for telling me about the chamber opera, Der Kaiser von Atlantis. Composer Viktor Ullman and librettist Pieter Kien wrote the piece while they were prisoners at Teresienstadt. In this satire of Hitler and Eva Braun, the Kaiser embarks on a campaign of total extermination, but his partner Death gets fed up and goes on strike. There are several productions on YouTube. This one from the Shepherd School of Music at Rice has informative context and English subtitles. When he learned he was being deported again, Ullman gave the manuscript to a friend who survived the war. The piece didn’t receive its premiere until the 1970s.
Poem of the Week
The great poet Lisel Mueller died in 2020. Her family fled Germany for the United States in the late 1930s. This is her from her poem, “Curriculum Vitae.”
For Your Reading Radar
Economist William Nordhaus has a new book out making the case that we can learn from our response to the Covid-19 crisis, in thinking about the role of governments in mitigating climate change. The Spirit of Green: The Economics of Collisions and Contagions in a Crowded World aims to frame an expanded role for government as the only way to achieve collective action on such as pervasive threat. He suggest that we reframe a carbon tax as a price on carbon that will attempt to capture its negative effects. These may not be new ideas, but let’s hope it’s their time.
For Your Calendar
Another translation from the German that has been highly praised recently is Jackie Smith’s rendering of Judith Schalansky’s Inventory of Losses. The Goethe Institut in New York is hosting a celebration of Smith’s translation, which was awarded the Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize. This book, like Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, is published by the venerable and vibrant New Directions. The event is June 24th at 1 PM Eastern. Register here.
Bookstore of the Week
Ocelot in Berlin is on my list to visit someday. One of their bookseller’s Magda Birkman is active on Twitter and a super source of insight on both German and English literature and publishing. You can follow Magda at @magdarine, and read her newsletter, Magda Liest, here on Substack.
A programming note. I think I will be taking next week off to go sailing. Paid subscribers will receive some notes from our voyage. You may wish to convert to paid if you want to hear about efforts to keep our boat off the rocks in the archipelagoes of Penobscot Bay. Otherwise, back in 2 weeks! xo Nicie