Logo The Fabulist

Jenny Erpenbeck

  • Interview by Claudia Steinberg
  • Issue 10
  • Free Radical

From a very young age, Jenny Erpenbeck possessed a powerful sense of foreboding—seeing a teenager with an old, lined face; picturing a department store turned to rubble; or predicting that the office building across the street would explode into flames.

Growing up in East Germany in the 1970s and 80s, she lived through the painful loss of an imperfect world. The socialist vocabulary she’d imbibed as a child fell into disuse. This firsthand experience of a failed utopia informs her work as an opera director, playwright, and novelist. Erpenbeck has a keen sense of how the collapse of political systems infiltrates social life and the life of the mind. In her novel Visitation (2008), Erpenbeck captures a span of time reaching from the last ice age to the present by focusing on a tiny plot of land at a lake in Brandenburg. Her latest novel, The End of Days, imagines five deaths of a single person, a woman who remains unnamed. Four times the writer resurrects her protagonist—who dies as an infant in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then as a young woman in interwar Vienna, then as a committed communist writer in Stalin’s Russia, and later as a celebrated GDR author. Each chapter is followed by an “intermezzo” that reverses crib death, suicide, murder, and the fatal fall down a staircase. In this way, Erpenbeck rewinds the film and gives it a different ending—until the novel concludes with a more peaceful departure: death in an old-age home. Reading this book of farewells—to people, places, ideas, and objects—is like putting one’s hand into a cold stream of history.

Claudia Steinberg

Each of your protagonist’s five deaths is also the death of an empire. Has the dissolution of the country you grew up in contributed to your interest in exploring memory and places?

Jenny Erpenbeck

For a writer, there is nothing better than to witness the collapse of a system, of a society, at least once. It increases the distance, widens the perspective, and sharpens the awareness of the relativity of human ideas of progress. If you’re lucky, the experience of toppling and failure bestows the instruments to recognize and to describe those situations when something topples and fails.

Your novels’ protagonists always remain nameless. However, they are drawn in a very detailed manner; they become intimate strangers.

It seemed to me that I didn’t need any names—isn’t it much better if the reader’s mind keeps moving, following, for example, the protagonist of The End of Days through her different ages, from daughter to woman to mother to grandmother? The question of identity is not answered through a name.

You have said that, looked at from up close, the historical becomes the personal. How does that perspective affect your thoughts and feelings about yourself and your own times?

Viewed up close, history can sometimes look so very small. On TV you watch the big drama that may have taken place two streets away and which you didn’t even notice. Or the other way around: one displays an impulse publicly—out of acute anger, or boredom, or vanity, of sentimentality—and later it is said: History was written in that very moment. But when you compare Germany’s two halves, you can see very clearly that over the years a different kind of history has an effect on gestures, choice of words, body language. Like in the golden mean, the large relationships are found again in the small ones—and vice versa.

To me, each death in The End of Days has the same weight. Is this part of what you wanted to convey about death?

I was interested in dealing with death a different way in each chapter, in the very different ircumstances of its occurrence. In the first chapter, death is accompanied by religious rites, in the second it is a love-death, followed by a political, very lonely death, then a sudden one, which ends a whole, fulfilled life with a single cut, and then there is the last death, which contains all the others. But each time, death allows for a radical view on life.

The motif of falling appears several times, a sudden stumble that can change or end everything.

Falling means the loss of control over one’s life from one moment to another. Heiner Müller talks about “the consent with the laws of gravity, which we are used to referring to as death.” In that sense our entire life would be a counter-effort, and death, falling, would be the most natural state.

You often pull back from an intricate psychological narrative to bring up facts and dates: geographical data on one hand, but also less objective measurements: the weight of life, the time to go from life to death, the 903 deaths counted in the Talmud.

We can measure as much as we like but we cannot measure the border that is death. In this fissure all measure disappears. There the absolute suddenly appears in every single life, in the midst of the mundane.

Parallel to the life of people, there exists the life of objects, their travels, their disappearances, and sometimes their almost mystical reappearances. The girl drops the vase she carried to America all the way from Vienna…

Following the path of objects is always interesting. That I did it so explicitly in this book might have something to do with the fact that I worked as a prop manager when I was very young. I always knew why and when the sword would end up covered with stage blood behind the curtain, or at which moment the glass would be broken in the third act, or when exactly an eagle had to fall down from the rafters after it was “shot” onstage.

A book is always a bit of a museum. But a museum more of feelings and thoughts than of objects. I often think about how time is tied up in objects and places. I’m interested in the invisibility of this kind of meaning, and writing is closely connected to the silence of things and spaces. The only private prop I have actually “immortalized” in the book is the footrest. It sits in my hallway and supposedly was owned by my great-grandmother. But maybe that story was just invented by my mother.

You have studied opera direction, and over the years you have staged numerous musical productions. With its movements and leitmotifs, The End of Days has been praised for its musical structure. How does music influence your writing?

Of course—since I have only one head—music is with me when I´m writing. But it goes beyond the question of structuring a novel in five chapters separated by intermezzi. The novel’s language allows me to “use” music for the expression of something which goes beyond the bare plot. Even when reading quietly, the letters form an imagined sound. Language is music. It has melody, rhythm, sound.

Claudia Steinberg is a contributor to numerous German and U.S. publications and the author, with the photographer Bärbel Miebach, of The Art of Living (Monacelli Press).

"Untitled #2" © Marianna Rothen, from the series E.k.t.i.n., produced for the film "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere," directed by Gregory Perano