Saturday, June 6, 2015

Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck translated by Sarah Bernofsky

Sometimes contact with a place transforms us. Erpenbeck traces for us German history in the last century through the lives and loves of people involved with a piece of land by a lake on which sits a summer house with an eyebrow window and a roof of thatch. This slim, quiet, extremely powerful novel carries with it the weight of change and allows us to inhabit history. There is a stillness, reserve, and lack of sentimentality about the story which paradoxically fills us with emotion. The house and gardens on the land by the lake are designed with love in mind, the windows framing the view. “A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing.” But when the second war came, “one could only pity a person who owned a piece of land and not a flying carpet.”

WWII books are so common that it takes something unusual to yank me from the torpor that descends upon me as I contemplate another trip through that wasted landscape. The last book which was able to do that for me was Imre Kertész’s Fatelessness. And now, Erpenbeck’s Visitation. I fear I have used all my superlatives when it comes to talking about books so that when I say "extraordinary" it doesn’t convey the truly astonishing clarity and craft the author exhibits.

Erpenbeck brings Americans something new: the war from the view of German citizens, broken as a citizenry when the Jews were removed, or, as in the case of ‘the architect and his wife’ living in the house they built by the lake, without a full understanding. It hadn’t all been the architect’s land, to begin with. He’d acquired a large piece which included the boat house ("paid a full half of market value") from the cloth merchants who had owned the parcel next door, allowing them to leave the country.
Hermine and Arthur, his parents.
He himself, Ludwig, the firstborn.
His sister Elizabeth, married to Ernst.
Their daughter, his neice, Doris.
Then his wife Anna.
And now the children: Elliot and baby Elizabeth, named for his own sister.
Most never made it out. The war intruded finally, on the land by the lake, in the form of invading Russians, at least one of whom left his seed to grow on the land by the lake.

But this book is not just about war. We move from the Weimar Republic through the Second World War to the Fall of the Wall. This book is about that fourth dimension in architecture, time, and how that adds to height, width, length to make something enduring, or perhaps, not so much.

Any book of this quality must have a translator who can keep pace and give the work its intended gravitas. Sarah Bernofsky, the translator of this novel and three of Erpenbeck’s others, is Co-Chair of the PEN Translation Committee and has won several awards for her work. Most recently she shared the 2014 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize with Erpenbeck for her latest novel, The End of Days, a novel which takes on the theme "what if." Sometimes a life can change direction on the smallest incident.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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