Jenny Erpenbeck’s third novel, Visitation, is a masterpiece. No less than an account of the 20th century, the narrative follows the lives and deaths of the inhabitants of a house in Germany. The property (which, I learnt from Erpenbeck, actually stands on a lake in Bradenburg) is a silent observer of many intimate and horrific moments of the 20th century. Erpenbeck’s precise prose gently weaves through history telling a narrative that at times reads like fable, at others like music. The slim spines of Visitation, The Old Child and The Book of Words (her first two novels) are an intimidating testament to Erpenbeck’s skill. Here is a writer incapable of wasting words.
Unusually, I came to Jenny Erpenbeck’s work via her translator Susan Bernofsky. I interviewed Bernofsky for Higher Arc, a publication I edit in Melbourne, earlier this year, and when we struck on the topic of Erpenbeck’s writing, Bernofsky commented that, “every single sentence has been ‘gone over’ with a nail file and a sledgehammer.” Having sought out and loved her novels, I made inquiries about an interview when I discovered that Erpenbeck would be in Australia in 2012 to attend the Adelaide Writer’s Festival. She was generous with her time, and the following interview was conducted in English over the telephone and via email.
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.
MC: Did you live in the house in Visitation?
JE: I didn’t live in it, but it was the summerhouse of my grandparents, and I spent my holidays there, which were for eight weeks of every year. In East Germany it wasn’t so common to travel around. We could travel to some socialist countries but not really anywhere else. I was completely content to travel every summer holidays to this house. I didn’t feel like I was missing anything. I’m very happy that I had such a stable childhood in this regard.
MC: Judging by your book, and what you’ve just told me, it sounds like it was a very special place?
JE: It was perfect: you could swim, you could walk through the forest, and do what you wanted to do. Nobody told us what to do. Except there was a rule, we had to come back there for lunch and dinner, but the rest of the day was completely free—and this was perfect.
MC: Were your summers at the house very different from your daily life throughout the year? I really can’t imagine what it would have been like to grow up in East Germany.
JE: It wasn’t so bad. It wasn’t as bad as people always think it was. I grew up in the middle of Berlin, the very centre. I attended school, I took piano lessons, I was in an arts club where I could learn how to draw and paint. I never had problems with anything political. I think I was too harmless.
I come from a family of communist immigrants, of communists who immigrated to the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After the war, they came back and organised the cultural life of Berlin. For instance, my grandfather founded some magazines. He dug out the machines to print the first newspaper of Berlin. In a way, my family was on the side of the government because it was mostly made up of communists who had returned after immigrating to the Soviet Union. I was probably a little bit safer. No, safer is not the right word, there was no danger. It was very clear to us that the DDR [German Democratic Republic] were supposed to try to do things in a better way than Hitler.
MC: It sounds like your family were always very interested in writing?
JE: They were all writers. My grandparents were writers. My father wrote several novels, short stories and poetry as well until the wall came down. My mother was a literary translator of Arabic literature into German. Everybody in our family sat at desks. I even described this in Visitation; the sound of typewriters was very common during my holidays. My grandmother wrote the whole day in her studio.
MC: You have a character in Visitation who carries her typewriter with her everywhere.
JE: This was my grandmother.
MC: It seems like a very fitting symbolic burden for needing to write wherever you go.
JE: Probably it gives the feeling of being at home no matter where you are as long you have your own device to tell stories or to make sense of what happens around you.
MC: Both The Old Child and The Book of Words are in a way written from the perspective of a young girl. Why do you write about girls?
JE: Actually, both characters are not children and are not young girls. They are adults looking back or trying to invent a childhood. I think that the woman in The Book of Words is looking back and searching for traces of lies in what her parents told her. She tries to make sense of her childhood, to see if she can find where her parents’ lying began, and to find out the things that were never told to her. I always think it’s a little bit misunderstood because, of course, they do seem to be girls but they are not girls. I think the interest for me was in recognizing that it’s always a hard task to figure out retrospectively what was “you,” and what was “you made by others.” There are so many people putting education into you, and giving you meanings and ideas and stories. You never know if the stories are true. This is the first thing. And there are so many emotions that come from other people. Later on you may tell people: “This is my emotion, my feeling, or my memory of something,” and it’s probably not really yours, it’s your mother’s or father’s or someone else’s altogether. This interested me and I think it’s a very complex thing to be brought up; so many people are needed to form a person and to give them an identity. Then all of a sudden you say “I” or “me,” and this, this makes me wonder.
MC: How do you research your novels?
JE: It started I think with the Jewish family from Visitation. I wanted to find out who they were. I went to an archive in Berlin, I found some family members who had survived, and who are still living close to Berlin. There were a lot of archives. I found out something about the architect. Then I found an old lady who had the same type of memories that I have because she spent her childhood there as well. She learned to swim there, and she picked berries from the same bushes as I did. This was a kind of research that was very moving for me. It’s very strange to meet someone who is eighty years old and tells the same personal childhood stories as you. I went to Warsaw to have a look at the place where the Jewish girl died. I went to Treblinka, the death camp where she was probably taken. I found the girl’s letters in a Jewish institute, and lists written by the girl’s parents, which they had written in order to travel to Brazil. I found the same items on another list when the things were sold. I would find a children’s bed on the list, which her parents made in order to immigrate, then I would find the same children’s bed on a list from when it was later sold by the Nazis. It was strange.
MC: So you could trace almost everything?
JE: This was like an adventure. If I didn’t have to write the novel maybe I would still be sitting in the archives. Archives are places full of treasures, you can always find it if you look carefully enough.
MC: Do you think you’ll keep working this way? Starting with an idea and then moving to research?
JE: The book I am working on now is also a novel and it has a lot to do with history. I read a lot, a lot of books.
MC: What kind of books?
JE: Autobiographies and memoirs, some historic books about this or that time. I read parts of the Talmud, just to know what it is. I had to get an idea, because one chapter takes place at the beginning of the twentieth century in Galicia, which is nowadays Ukraine and Poland. I wanted to get an idea of what was important in this time, and, of course, the Talmud was very important for the daily life of every person back then. I read books about Stalin. For one of the last chapters I went to an archive and read some letters written by my grandparents that are stored there, to get an idea of their daily life. It’s not an autobiographical thing that I am writing now. I am trying to follow the way of my grandparents but I have invented stories. I use the way my grandparents travelled from Galicia to Vienna to Moscow to Berlin to write them.
MC: When will that be published?
JE: In Germany it will be published in autumn. In Great Britain and the U.S. probably in 2013.
MC: Will Susan Bernofsky be translating it?
JE: Absolutely! She has translated all of my books. She has become a good friend to me. We will hold on.
MC: I spoke with Susan last month and she said you were something like sisters when it comes to writing and translating.
JE: She is an absolutely wonderful translator and a nice person as well.
MC: Do you read your translations?
JE: From time to time. For instance, here in Adelaide I had to do a reading. I don’t read my translated books from the beginning to the end. I am kind of afraid of that. I can’t explain why but it’s strange to read your book in someone else’s words. But every time I have read it, or have had to read it for an audience, I did feel that it was really my book. It was perfectly done. Sometimes her translation is so perfect that I don’t even know the vocabulary she has used. Once I asked someone about a word and he said, “This word exists, but it is a very delicate word.” This I liked a lot because she really thought about what words to use, as it is the same for me in German. I love to use old, almost forgotten words because they can express so much more than the daily used words—and I think she does the same for English.
MC: I think you might have similar reading taste as well. I have read that you admire the work of Robert Walser?
JE: He is one of the greatest. He is very good.
MC: What is it about Walser?
JE: He writes very slowly. One of my favourite pieces is The Walk. He is just walking, maybe for one hour or so. He has the whole world in this walk. He describes all the places where he stops for this or that reason. He has to go to the bank to see to his money affairs, then he sees a young girl and wonders about her, whether she will be a great singer or not. Step-by-step he opens up a whole world. The storyteller himself is not always a perfect person: sometimes he’s mean or afraid of something, he has doubts, preferences or aversions. Sometimes it gets almost surreal, but it’s just a walk. Walser is very exact, and he goes into great detail. He’s not fast: he’s just a slow walker.
MC: I understand that you have worked in theatre and drama?
JE: I actually studied opera directing. I started as an assistant director and then I directed myself. I think I’ve done about fifteen productions or so. Only when my child started attending school did I completely switch to writing. It’s too hard to balance school duties with rehearsing for six weeks. It’s not possible.
MC: I have been told that you went to school yourself not so long ago, as research for The Old Child.
JE: This was just a funny idea in the beginning, it was September and I thought I could try it myself and pretend to be new in some class and make myself ten years younger. It worked somehow. I had a talk to the director of the school: she knew, and some of the teachers knew, but the students didn’t. They accepted me, probably because I look a little bit younger than I am anyway. They didn’t doubt that I was a student.
MC: Did you become friends with your fellow students?
JE: I had one friend and I still meet her from time to time. It was wonderful because I was allowed to be a bad student, which I wasn’t allowed before when I really attended school. I was in a God-like position. I could help someone out and be bad myself in a test or whatever. So I would help her with mathematics and I would get a five, which was the worst score. I didn’t care and I didn’t have to care. It was a nice feeling to know that I could leave school after a couple of weeks—just go away. A feeling I had never had before of course.
MC: How old were you?
JE: I was twenty-seven and I pretended to be seventeen. Of course, I had to invent a biography, so I tried my best to make it very similar to my real biography so that I wouldn’t make a mistake if someone asked me something. It was strange, and not as hard as you would think. In my book, the girl goes back to fourteen, this is a different age, seventeen is not as far from twenty-seven as you might think.
MC: So you stayed for just a few weeks and then left again?
JE: Then I left. I told a story, I said that I had to change schools because of my parents. But I told this friend of mine the truth. She was the only one to know the real story, she was laughing and crying at the same time. She was laughing because it was a kind of adventure that she was part of, but she was sad as well because she thought she had found a friend and then I left again. So this was not so funny. But I think that the good outweighed the bad.
MC: Susan said to me that you are not researching facts you are researching feelings.
JE: What I try to do with this research is to put myself in former times. To get a feeling for how things were: daily life, true details, for instance where the light came from in this or that place and moment, how something smelled, if there was already electricity in some city. How it feels, for instance, to be in a cupboard like the girl in Visitation. I put myself in a cupboard for a while.
Mieke Chew is an editor of Higher Arc.
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