A World Beyond Our Skin: Jenny Erpenbeck and the Potential of Fiction

Robert Rubsam on the Author’s Allegiance to the Human

When the Berlin Wall fell, Jenny Erpenbeck was sleeping. “I spent that evening with friends,” the acclaimed German writer remembers in an essay from Not a Novel: A Memoir in Pieces (translated by Kurt Beals), “just a few blocks from where world history was being made, and then: I slept.” This sense of being present for but ultimately a bystander to history seeped into the groundwater from which the writer’s five prize-winning novels have drawn.

Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967 to a family of writers. She spent her childhood in a series of apartment buildings just down the street from the wall dividing West Germany from the Deutsche Demokratische Republik. In a 2013 essay, she remembers looking west to the elevated train, the double-decker buses, the glowing clock from the Springer publishing company building. “The whole time that I’m in school,” she writes, “I read the time for my socialist life from this clock in the other world.”

She grew up in a world scarred by dual voids: the ruins of the previous utopian world and the constant construction of the next. “I learned to live with unfinished things,” she notes, “and with the knowledge that houses built for eternity aren’t really eternal.” And yet, because it was the setting for her childhood, Erpenbeck’s DDR isn’t suffused with melancholy, but warmth. “I remember,” she writes, the “strong impression that I was at home.” As she observes the ploughed-up ruins of her old elementary school, a glint of blue bath tile brings to mind days spent playing jump-rope with waistband elastic; elsewhere, she reflects again and again on riding in her father’s two-door Trabant, swimming backstroke in a lake, a tryst with a boyfriend in the ruins of the New Museum, roller-skating in a street that dead-ended at the Wall. “Seen from the outside, our everyday life under socialism might have seemed exotic, but we weren’t monsters to ourselves.”

Though guaranteeing religious freedom in theory, the DDR was an officially atheistic state, and even today the former East German states routinely poll as among the most irreligious in the world. Where the lives of her ancestors were structured by the constancies of church and synagogue, Erpenbeck the “heathen” found her own swelling out toward the future, the long, eschatological struggle for socialism, Brecht’s “struggle of the plain.” Speaking before the Berlin Academy of the Arts in 2015, she expressed a metaphysical conception of time as “a reality we can’t see and can’t hear and can’t touch,” a sense of individual contingency that she calls “the grace of late birth.” Old spirituality has been transmuted into new forms.

“But the plain,” she writes, “proved too wide.” The Wall fell in November 1989, and within a year this separate childhood world, with its “almost small-town sense of calm,” merged into that other of which she had only ever received hints when the bricked-off subway passed underneath, shooting jets of hot air up through the vents. While for her neighbor, who after the war had found the neighborhood bakery in another country altogether, this might have been something like a homecoming, for Erpenbeck it felt as if she were being set adrift. The border is still there, haunting the city and splitting her life in two. As she noted in a 2018 talk at the University of Oklahoma, this event proved pivotal to her life: “Without this experience of transition, from one world to a very other one,” she notes, “I probably would never have started writing.”

Erpenbeck studied theatrical directing at the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory and worked for many years as an opera director in various houses throughout Austria and Germany. She wrote her first novel while in Graz and her second in Berlin. Both 1999’s The Old Child and 2004’s The Book of Words (translated, like all of her fiction, by Susan Bernofsky) follow (seemingly) young protagonists in fraught circumstances: an East German children’s school, an unnamed South American dictatorship. Both characters have uncertain origins, and each book culminates in a surprising revelation.

Both novels are slim, oblique reads. They take place in a dreamy, slightly dissociated unreality and combine a focus on repeated details—playing in the schoolyard, the story of a saint—with sparing, sudden intrusions of a broader reality. And yet, read in light of her later work, there’s an undeniable insufficiency to these first two novels. They affect slightness, and their excessively literary style constantly interposes itself between reader and subject. Like a plant enclosed in a terrarium, they’re too brittle to face the outside air.

*

History and its traumas hang obliquely behind these first works. In 2008’s Visitation Erpenbeck brings them to the fore. It is set on a single plot of land on the shore of the Wannsee, outside Berlin, as it passes through various hands over the course of the twentieth century. There are the Weimar mayor with his four daughters, the family of the Jewish cloth manufacturer, the Nazi architect who purchases the property for nothing, the Red Army soldiers, the writer whose family takes over the property after the war, and then finally the granddaughter of that writer, who makes one final trip to the house before it is returned to the Jewish family to whom it still belongs.

At various points, Erpenbeck inhabits parents and children, fascists and communists, her grandmother and her own self at many ages. She punctuates each section with a brief incursion from a local man, a gardener, who keeps the property throughout much of the long century, planting bushes and trees for one family, digging them up for the next, setting roots down into deep clay and filling in the beds. His ritual appearances in the novel provide a constancy that the social world around him lacks, and like the seasons, like the geological movement of time, he provides a bridge from each era to the next.

These sorts of slow-building mundanities matter because they are the very stuff of life, the chaff that gets threshed out of more traditional narratives.

But if the novel were simply an evocation of the grand passage of time and the fallibility of all human endeavors, it would have nothing approaching its current power. This is a book of routine and ritual, but also familiarity, banality, and comfort. The gardener’s work is described in simple, tedious detail: “He prunes the willow tree beside the shore whose twigs have grown down so low over the edge of the dock that they get in your way when you step out onto it. He places new frames in the beehives. He pulls out the weeds growing between the roses and in the flowerbed in front of the house.”

In that 2015 Berlin Academy of the Arts speech, Erpenbeck asked: “What should I say when I’m asked to say who I am?” Is her life defined by the traumas of her parents, the museum-ready photographs of Young Pioneers, the grass-grown trenches in which she played as a child? Or by less significant things: the price of shoes, the hand of a friend who has since died. These sorts of slow-building mundanities matter because they are the very stuff of life, the chaff that gets threshed out of more traditional narratives.

Her defense of the small against the large, the insignificant against the totalizing, comes to the fore at the center of the book, in which a Jewish girl, granddaughter of the cloth manufacturer, is shot to death over a pit in the Warsaw ghetto:

For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crayfish taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all 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.

It is a horrible, wrenching, annihilating sentence. Erpenbeck, in all her unsentimental moral rigor, refuses to look away from the moment of absolute horror. But it is so focused on this girl, on the things of her life, that it somehow protects her true self from the act of her killing, “taking back” all of these things that her killers cannot imagine and are unable to see. She isn’t a device but a girl, and hers is the life that is ending. Her murderers don’t get the final say.

In a 2017 essay on Ovid, Erpenbeck notes that, for the poet, “every static state preserves within itself the process of its own becoming…in his stories, possibility and memory find a refuge alongside each other.” Visitation encourages a similar reading. Each section of the novel centers around a certain experience or memory, drifting and returning with mesmeric consistency. Doris spends most of the above chapter hidden in a small hole within the ghetto, allowing time both to approach her—through memories of her family by the lake, as well as the final clearing of the ghetto—and to lead her away, toward the pit. The hiding, the memory, the murder: all are equally present in the moment of her telling. Something must exist in order to be destroyed, Erpenbeck insists: and here it is, all of it.

*

The at-once porous and stubborn nature of borders—between life and death, present and past, and even within the self—is the main preoccupation of Erpenbeck’s fiction. Like the protagonists in the films of her contemporary Christian Petzold, her characters are rarely where they came from, and yet they can never quite return.

This is made most explicit in possibly her greatest book, 2015’s Go, Went, Gone. The novel centers around Richard, an elderly widower and recently retired professor who has lived the greater part of his life in East Germany. Then the Wall fell, and the country he had been raised in ceased to exist. “Each time a new crossing point was opened,” he remembers, “a crowd of emotional West Berliners punctually gathered, eager to bid a warm welcome to their brothers and sisters from the East.” One morning, he tries to take advantage of one such gap, to get to work early. His new countrymen and women tearfully welcome him, “crossing over on his way to freedom,” but he only butts his way through on the way to a newly accessible S-Bahn station. There is fighting and cursing. “But for the very first time, Richard got to school in under twenty minutes.”

Something must exist in order to be destroyed, Erpenbeck insists: and here it is, all of it.

But this is history for Richard. It is not 1990, but 2014, and those seeking freedom across borders are being welcomed with more curses than open arms. Throughout the novel, he finds himself connected ever more closely to a group of refugees who have been relocated to a shuttered East German school near his house. But Richard is not their savior; instead, he increasingly takes on the role of interpreter. Through long conversations, his most elementary questions—What’s your name? Where are you from?—become progressively more complex: Do you think about your future? What would you do if given a chance at a new life? Sometimes Richard comes to an understanding. At others, he falls short. “But his failure isn’t what matters here. He’s not what matters.”

In an essay from July 2005, Erpenbeck writes of singing in a church choir. “I do believe, but in what?” The forest wind, friendship, love, and ultimately music, “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard,” which transports us to “another world, beyond the world.” But as with her reflections on time, this is a world of sensation, the collision of sound waves with flesh. The hymns may be beautiful, but that’s all. Form has superseded content.

Throughout Go, Went, Gone, Richard is made to contrast his purely formal attachment to German Christian tradition with the deeply felt, living, constantly tested beliefs of the refugee men. At one point, Richard invites a Nigerian man named Rashid to spend Christmas with him. As “the atheist with a Protestant mother stands with his Muslim guest before the illuminated, heathen Christmas tree,” Richard explains the star on the tree, the Advent wreath, the flame-powered Weihnachtspyramide that rotates by the TV. Rashid remarks that Jesus, after all, was a prophet in the Quran, and that the Magus Caspar, rotating on the pyramid, is Black.

At another point, Richard helps a Ghanaian man named Karon purchase land back in Ghana. They enter a smoke-filled storefront and come upon an African woman seated before an altar piled high with fruit. In his own country but beyond his own traditions, Richard doesn’t know what to do, so Karon guides him through the entire transaction, handing the woman an envelope filled with Euros and receiving a note on a gum wrapper in exchange. In surrendering his own norms, Richard allows Karon to inhabit his own. “For a moment,” Erpenbeck writes, “he’s no longer a refugee, but a man like any other.”

In the book’s acknowledgments, she thanks thirteen men for “many good conversations.” In October 2016, she had to write an obituary for one of them, a Nigerian by the name of Bashir Zakaryau. Bashir survived the murder of his own father, his virtual enslavement in Libya, and the capsizing of his boat to Europe, during which both of his children drowned. Prevented from working by the Dublin II Regulation, he joined a refugee camp on Oranienplatz, where he lived in protest for two years, “a statesman without a state,” quoted in the media but ultimately ignored by the government officials in an actual position to do something about his plight. “In the end,” she writes, “survival was more than Bashir Zakaryau could survive.”

This is the novel’s fundamental fissure. Though all might find themselves adrift, there is a profound inequality when it comes to who can stay afloat. When Richard’s country ended, he received one hundred Westmarks; when Bashir fled civil war, his children drowned, and he was forced into dependence and poverty. “Richard has read Foucault and Baudrillard, and also Hegel and Nietzsche,” he realizes, “but he doesn’t know what you can eat when you have no money to buy food.” Whom the law protects and whom it excludes is a fraught question.

*

During a September Zoom conversation promoting Not a Novel, the novelist Neel Mukherjee made an offhand comment to Erpenbeck about “this horrible thing afflicting the Anglophone world: autofiction.” As practiced by writers like Ben Lerner and Lauren Oyler, this genre has risen in popularity in response, partially, to a claim that writers should not imagine outside of their own experiences. Because true communication is impossible, the argument goes, we can only, at best, approximate the experiences of others; at worst, we colonize other lives with our own. Autofiction escapes this trap by transforming the entire fictional world into an antechamber of the writer’s own head. If we can’t understand others, why even bother communicating?

Erpenbeck’s writing strikes me as a thorough rebuke of such myopia. Though the refugees in Go, Went, Gone have often struggled to make themselves understood, they, too, are in search of understanding. In its final scene, the novel brings many of them together at a barbecue, during which the conversation turns to love. The men remember many things: the way one man’s wife used to kiss him on the eyelids, how another’s licked at his ear, a third, “how well the woman he loves always fit in his embrace.”

Eventually Richard’s turn comes, and as he remembers his wife, whom he cheated on and disappointed and forced to get an abortion:

I think that’s when I realized, says Richard, that the things I can
endure are only just the surface of what I can’t possibly endure.

Like the surface of the sea? asks Khalil.

Actually, yes, exactly like the surface of the sea.

In her novel’s climactic moment, Erpenbeck finds not only the possibility of understanding, but she universalizes it, reminding the (western) reader that in order for there to be an other there must also be a self, and that this transaction has multiple participants. The former East German professor and the stateless refugee possess significant differences—of citizenship, of access to their rights—but also profound and inalienable similarities. In her 2018 lecture, Erpenbeck makes the comparison even blunter:

What is the difference between these two groups of people who
aspire to a new life, to this thing we call “freedom”?

The answer is: nothing.

Erpenbeck prefaces Not a Novel with a memory. The writer is in her mid-twenties, at the house featured in Visitation, cooking with her friends, swimming in the evening, and, in between, writing a paper. “I hadn’t even chosen the topic myself. It was my professor’s suggestion,” she writes, and though it is on “a fairly obscure topic,” she nonetheless finds herself “provoked to intensive reflection and obsessive writing.” She concludes: “That was the first time that I experienced how someone else could open a door for me into my own reflections.”

[pulluqote]Rather than shrinking the vastness of European history to the size of her life, Erpenbeck allows her own experiences—of dislocation, chaos, and domesticity—to illuminate the lives of others.[/pullquote]

I was surprised to discover just how much of her own biography Erpenbeck has sifted in amongst her fiction. Her family really did have a vacation home on the Wannsee, she really did grow up swimming in the lake, and the land was in fact restored to its original owners under article 985 of Germany’s civil code. Her mother’s family was forcibly removed from East Prussia at the end of World War II, and her paternal grandmother, the acclaimed writer and actress Hedda Zinner, is fairly similar to the protagonist of The End of Days. Though Richard’s experiences are not Erpenbeck’s, they contain many details that crop up throughout the essays, and the refugees at the center of Go, Went, Gone are very much based on real men.

But rather than shrinking the vastness of European history to the size of her life, Erpenbeck allows her own experiences—of dislocation, chaos, and domesticity—to illuminate the lives of others. And they, in turn, enlighten her own self-understanding, like an image shuttled between mirrors, gaining new facets with every reflection.

In his digressive, melancholy travelogue Danube, the Italian writer and professor Claudio Magris notes that Martin Heidegger’s incredible capacity for believing himself rooted in place and possessed of genuine experience completely eliminated his ability to imagine such a thing for other people. But this is precisely the leap that we have to take, as writers and citizens and humans: to recognize the full humanity of other people in ways that are often divorced from any shared relationship. We begin with ourselves, but we can’t end there.

Every time I read Erpenbeck, I am struck by her enactment of this profound moral vision. Her allegiance isn’t to nation, race, treaty, or ideology, but to the individual and the human. Though she is at best ambivalent about religion, her engagement with history, time, art, and individual experience strikes me as deeply spiritual, privileging the individual over the inhuman, the particular over the abstract. She picks sides. The “iron law” of the state has no priority over the humans who find themselves subjected to it. As she knows well enough, borders dissolve while their captives live on.

Toward the end of Go, Went, Gone, Richard considers the qualities that divide humans from one another: Black versus white, rich versus poor, “fufu” versus “stew,” casual dress versus formal. Gradually, he ascends to the natural and the cosmic: “Between one day and the next? Or between frogs and birds? Water and earth?” Every being, he reflects, possesses its own internal cosmos, its own complexity and particularity. “When taking all these possible borders into consideration,” he concludes, “the difference between one person and another is in fact ridiculously small.”

Richard’s discovery mirrors Erpenbeck’s experience with her university assignment, as well as the conclusion of her 2015 Berlin Academy of the Arts speech that “it is more important that beyond the borders of our own skin, beyond the borders of language, and beyond the various individual branches of the arts, we are engaged in a collective attempt” to make visible a shared reality. Encounter with the other instigates new insight into ourselves, but also much more: it invites us into another world beyond ourselves, which, after all, is the only world there is.

____________________________________________

This essay was published in Image issue 109.

Robert Rubsam
Robert Rubsam
Robert Rubsam is a writer and critic from New York’s Hudson Valley. His writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, Commonweal, The Baffler, and America, among others. He is currently at work on this first novel. He's on Twitter at @rob_rubsam.





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