After being longlisted for the UK’s Independent Foreign Fiction Prize in 2008 for The Book of Words, and then shortlisted for the IFFP in 2011 for Visitation, Erpenbeck (along with her translator, Susan Bernofsky) finally took the prize in 2015 for her novel The End of Days. While her work is accessible, a sense of unease or wariness pervades her novels, forcing the reader to examine the light prose for the hard truths beneath. Both Visitation and The End of Days explore twentieth-century European history, with the two novels consisting of short sections starting before the wars and gradually moving closer to the present day. Where the novels differ, though, is in the way they examine the period. Where Visitation is rooted in space, allowing the reader to spy on the successive owners of a house in the east of Germany (a rather volatile place at times over the past century), the later book focuses on a character, imagining a variety of possible deaths for a woman born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each time her death is ‘rewritten’, the next section sees a later scene from her life, with new threats including Nazis, Communist officials and, eventually, old age. Erpenbeck’s latest novel, a longer affair, has also become her most timely. Gehen, ging, gegangen (Go, Went, Gone), a novel examining a retired academic’s interactions with a group of asylum seekers in Berlin, came out in German in August 2015 at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe. An entertaining, thought-provoking book, it can only increase Erpenebeck’s stocks in English; sadly, though, with her translator Susan Bernofsky otherwise occupied, it will be a while before this one appears in the UK.
A version of this appreciation of Jenny Erpenbeck first appeared in #RivetingReviews www.eurolitnetwork.com
Jenny Erpenbeck and her Reception in the German-speaking world
Jenny Erpenbeck and her Reception in the French-speaking world