Portobello, £10.99, 151pp. £9.89 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Visitation, By Jenny Erpenbeck, trans. Susan Bernofsky
Friday 19 November 2010
That short fiction can be potent is no secret. From Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea to Paul Gallico's The Snow Goose, John Steinbeck's The Moon is Down (possession of which was punishable by death in parts of occupied Europe) to Sagan's Bonjour Tristesse and Thomas Mann's oeuvre, the special qualities of the form are acknowledged. Publishers such as Melville House in Brooklyn, or London's Peirene Press, have made the genre their sole focus, while the Left Bank establishment Shakespeare and Co celebrates it through the newly-launched Paris Literary Prize. Vive the novella.
That Germany has a new expert in the genre became evident in The Old Child and The Book of Words. That Jenny Erpenbeck remains true to the form in her latest, albeit slightly longer work, is a joy: Visitation is a master-class in the craft and power of short fiction.
She takes as her subject, and vehicle with which to examine recent German history, a house by a lake in Brandenburg and its inhabitants from the mid-19th century to the present day. While exploring the wider repercussions of her themes – silence, memory, time – Erpenbeck is unflinching in looking beneath the surface; just as the gardener, who acts as gentle refrain in a landscape where people otherwise come and go, delves into the earth "through a thin layer of humus, hits bedrock... uncovering a layer of sand with a wave-like pattern", down to "the blue clay found everywhere in this region." She weaves a restrained, never indulgent, tapestry of individual stories laced with folklore, her descriptive riffs saved for appreciation of the shimmering lake and surrounding woodland.
With a nod to the Brothers Grimm through the "Klara's Woods" of an early owner, the reader encounters the architect and his wife who create the house – with its surprises of coloured glass, a small bird carved into the balcony, a hidden closet and panels depicting the Garden of Eden. We meet the subsequent generations, seldom of the same family, for this is 20th-century Germany and "ownership" is a hazy matter, interpreted by various regimes.
A Jewish family comes, a Communist writer, a student who tried to swim the Elbe to the West, an orphan from Silesia, children who listen to the adults' promises of "forever", as always the gardener marks time. In the autumn, "he chops wood and smokes out the moles, at the beginning of winter he empties out the water pipes in the house" – until he, like the house in the days of post-Wall restitution, falls into disrepair and disappears. Occasional forays into the characters' fates (the simplicity of the Warsaw Ghetto section is heartbreaking) could dilute the narrative, but do not.
Erpenbeck's language is of a pared-back poetry. Simple sentences build in power when reappearing refrain-like ("While outside the cuckoo is calling, her fingers rest upon the typewriter keys") and colours reverberate to effect: the green of hope in the horses' ribbons, the towels in the bathing-house, and the flaking paint of the fishing stools.
Susan Bernofsky's translation beautifully conveys the author's response to Hölderlin's opening quote: "If I came to you, /O woods of my youth, could you /Promise me peace again?" The evocative and the relentless rub shoulders in this showcase of how substantial brevity can be.
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