Jenny Erpenbeck Is Keeping Time


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But Erpenbeck’s enthusiasm for collecting stories, objects, and her own memories is less an indication of professionalism, or of East German Ostalgie, than of something fundamental about her understanding of time. The Guardian’s Philip Oltermann called her the “weaver bird of German fiction”; she fills her novels with research and detail, as well as anecdotes from her family history, as though trying to save them from disappearing. Her work is especially concerned with parallel worlds and conflicting truths, and its great achievement is its ability to imply the sweep of history in the stories of who and what gets lost in transition. In “Visitation” (2010), a German lake house changes hands over the course of the twentieth century, its occupants in varying states of awareness, or denial, of their predecessors; in “The End of Days” (2014), the same woman dies five times, with each death (except the last) followed by a set of circumstances that would have kept her alive. For Erpenbeck, the past is layered under the present; its shape, if nothing else, always comes through, and attempts to cover it up only make it more obvious.

The English subtitle of “Not a Novel,” “A Memoir in Pieces,” suggests the way a life coheres through unexpected moments, which place an individual within history. “I was told that in order to introduce myself, I should briefly tell you how I became the person I am, and why I write, in roughly five minutes,” Erpenbeck jokes at the beginning of “I Become Me,” a speech in the book, before listing a series of details that might meet the challenge. “Should I say, must I say, that the tenement building where my grandmother lived together with my great-grandmother, in an apartment off of the third courtyard back from the street, always smelled like cold ashes from the heating stoves? . . . That I’m happiest when wandering through the brush with bare legs? . . . Did I already mention that my relatives gave me permission to flop down on the rug and suddenly fall asleep during our East-West reunions?” Over and over, she emphasizes the way a narrative is never as solid as the pieces that compose it; her own stories, although written with an almost unbearable sensitivity, shift swiftly and brutally, the way life does. “The times change, and sometimes it’s nice to watch it happen, but sometimes it’s not as nice,” she writes.

Currently, we’re in a “not as nice” period. I brought up the pandemic during our first interview, last summer; Erpenbeck was at her lake property, where she writes from a tiny hut with weak Internet. She has little hope that the crisis will transform the world: big business will expand, low-wage workers will continue to lose their jobs, and the rest of us will fail to adopt the “more modest way of our parents and grandparents,” which had its advantages. “But that’s how it is, in fact,” she writes, “and so it makes sense to brace yourself for…

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