Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck

Purchased at Chapters.ca

Translated by Susan Bernofsky

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation first came to my attention with a positive review from my fellow Shadow Giller judge Trevor at theMookseandtheGripes when this translation was released last summer — more than a quarter of Trevor’s reviews are of translated fiction and when he likes one I pay attention.

I have also had positive experiences with translations of contemporary German works (see my review of Christoph Hein’s Settlement from last year’s IMPAC shortlist). So when Lizzy Siddal at Lizzy’s Literary Life gave this four stars I paid even more attention — Lizzy knows her German literature and a recommendation from her is definitely worth notice.

Both those evaluations have since been confirmed with Visitation being included on every 2011 translation prize longlist that I have seen. I thought I would sneak my thoughts in before the shortlists for those prizes come out.

I also have to admit that a feature of every review of this novel that I have seen (and which I am about to repeat) had a lot of influence. Visitation centres not on characters, but a summer house built on a property just outside Berlin in the early 1930s and what happens to that property over the rest of the century. If that reminds you of Simon Mawer’s The Glass Room (based on the real story of the Villa Tugendhat and my choice for the 2009 Booker Prize), then you are hearing the same echoes that those reviewers and I did.

Erpenbeck actually goes back much further than the 1930s to set her story. A prologue explores the geological history of the area and the glacial action that created the lake which is a feature of the property. The opening chapter (The Wealthy Farmer and His Four Daughters) is a fable-like story that sets the ownership of the land which is in place when the actual novel opens:

Old Wurrach sells the first third of Klara’s Wood to a coffee and tea importer from Frankfurt en der Oder, the second third to a cloth manufacturer from Guben, who enters his son’s name in the contract of sale in order to arrange for his inheritance, and finally Wurrach sells the third third, the part where the big oak tree stands, to an architect from Berlin who discovered this sloping shoreline with its trees and bushes while out for a steamboat ride and wishes to build a summer cottage there for himself and his fiancee.

While the author follows the story of all three of those parcels of land, it is the architect and the cottage he builds that will form the central structural theme of the novel. The reader is introduced to the conflict-driven world of the novel’s characters — and the property — when she first brings the architect into the book:

How bitter it is that he is having to bury everything. The porcelain from Meissen, his pewter pitchers and the silver. As if it were wartime. He himself doesn’t know whether he is burying something or simply laying in provisions for his return. He doesn’t even know if there’s any real difference between the two. In general he knows far less now than he used to. Just before the Russians marched in, his wife had packed up these very plates, these tankards and this silverware in crates and lowered everything into the water on the shoal of the Nackliger which she knew from swimming. That was the place in the middle of the lake that was so shallow when she was swimming far from shore in summer her feet would suddenly get tangled in the water plants and then she would start laughing and pretend to be drowning.

We soon discover that the architect is about to flee East Germany (a dangerous indiscretion has been discovered) and head to the West — and Erpenbeck has completed erecting the superstructure of her story in the first 30 pages. An idyllic property is subdivided and a beautiful cottage is built pre-War; Nazism, Russian invasion and a brutal East German republic are all to come. While the three properties will continue to change as slowly as they have over time, each change of human power will dramatically effect those who own it at the time; and somehow the original architect of the summer house will always remain a participant.

There is another human theme that is as strong as the story of the architect. The cloth manufacturer from Guben who bought one of the parcels was Jewish. We meet the family through the eyes of their 12-year-old daughter Doris who is introduced hidden in a closet of the cottage just days before her death during the war (the protectors who hid her have fled):

As the girl sits there in her dark chamber and from time to time tries to straighten her head against the ceiling of her hiding place, as she opens her eyes wide but nevertheless cannot even see the walls of her chamber, as the darkness is so great that the girl cannot even recognize where her body stops, her head is visited by memories of the days on which her entire field of vision was overflowing with colors. Clouds, sky and leaves, the leaves of oak trees, leaves of the willow hanging down like hair, black dirt between her toes, dry pine needles and grass, pine cones, scaly bark, clouds, sky and leaves, sand, dirt, water and the boards of the dock, clouds, sky and gleaming water in which the sun is reflected, shady water beneath the dock, she can see it through the cracks when she lies on her belly to dry off after a swim. After the departure of her uncle, her grandfather continued to take her sailing for another two summers. Surely her grandfather’s boat is still in the village shipyard. Four years in winter quarters.

The cottage and the lake are not the only continuing, slowly-evolving elements of the novel — they are personified by a gardener who is present throughout the ever-changing political landscape (and in alternating chapters in the novel) and whose work, for the most part, doesn’t change:

In the spring he puts in a flowerbed along the side of the house that faces the road, filling it at the householder’s request with poppies, peonies and yellow coneflowers, with a big angel’s trumpet in the middle. For the border, he just pokes a few box twigs into the earth all around the flowers, they’ll put down roots and grow. In summer he sets out sprinklers on both lawns, twice each day they will bow to one side and then the other for half an hour, once early in the morning and once at dusk, meanwhile he waters the flowerbed, roses and shrubs.

I have included more and longer quotes in this review than I usually do because the flat, almost hypnotic, tone of the author’s prose is what distinguishes this novel (both Trevor’s and Lizzy’s reviews will give you a much better idea of the “story” than this review does). Erpenbeck and Mawer may use similar elements to establish a similar story, but they tell it in very different ways. The strength of Visitation is the way that Erpenbeck continually builds a tension between the slowly evolving (the lake and cottage) and the momentous, life-threatening changes in the human world surrounding them — both have their impact on the characters of the story. The introspective way that the characters of the novel experience those two aspects of change, rather than the drama and upheaval that produce them, is the beauty of the novel.

That strategy of story-telling has its risks and probably will not appeal to some — but it certainly worked for me. Erpenbeck deserves all the praise that she is getting for this ambitious piece of writing.

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13 Responses to “Visitation, by Jenny Erpenbeck”

  1. Trevor Says:

    I’m glad you liked this one, Kevin. I wasn’t exactly sure how I felt when I finished it. Or, rather, I knew that I was impressed, but I was unsure how much I actually enjoyed it (though I certainly enjoyed it in parts). However, the biggest enjoyment has come since finishing it. Thinking about it and having chances to revisit it through reviews like yours has been, for me, more enjoyable than some of the longer technical passages. In fact, going back to my first comment to my review, I wrote:

    I put this book in the same place as I put Khoury’s White Masks — interesting, unique, important, but not pleasurable in the way we often hope when we begin a book. Still, it was pleasurable to soak in the language and to see how Erpenbeck gives the lay of the land in twentieth-century Germany. I do recommend it, hoping readers will approach it with the right frame of mind.

    Since then my estimation for the book has continued to grow.

  2. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Trevor: An interesting observation, that I can only second. I finished the book about two weeks ago and was somewhat ambiguous about it. It was only when I got into writing the review today that I realized how impressive the book actually is. I fully expect my impression to become even more positive as time goes on. I put that down to the very distinctive style of the prose — it does not create an immediate impact but does sow the seeds for one.

  3. Graham Says:

    I found Visitation to be extremely powerful. It isn’t the kind of book to make me rush and read everything else by Erpenbeck, but I have found that it stays with you. It is amazing how dense a story it is – so much is packed in to a brief book.
    You can see what I thought of it here: http://mybookyear.co.uk/visitation-by-jenny-erpenbeck

  4. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Graham: Thanks for the link. I agree with you about the “abruptness” of Erpenbeck’s prose. As I indicated in a previous comment, I think that one result of that is a certain emotional distancing for the reader as the book is being read — but the images are so firmly established by it that they do stay with you and become more robust with time. You, Trevor and I have all had the same experience that way.

  5. Tom Cunliffe Says:

    Sounds just up my street so thanks for bringing it to your readers’ attention. I greatly enjoyed the Simon Mawer book and like you though it should have won the Booker in 2009. I wonder if translations of German novels are going to be the next literary trend – after all those Scandinavian crime novels. There are certainly some fine writers – may I refer you to this fascinating list of German books which readers of the British newspaper the Guardian came up with.

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/table/2011/mar/21/1

  6. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Tom: Given your interest in European fiction, I think you will like this one Tom. I am not one of those who thinks that we are suffering from a lack of translated works — there may be a delay of a few years, but there seems to be quite a choice. And I have found novels that explore post-1989 Germany to be of particular interest.

    I was aware of that Guardian discussion. Leroyhunter, a regular visitor here, was kind enough to link to my review of Settlement and I noticed a number of incoming visitors from the Guardian, which was much appreciated.

  7. Max Cairnduff Says:

    This is very strongly on my radar. Michael Faber did a piece in the Guardian on it comparing it to The Glass Room (which he didn’t really rate) and I noted Trevor’s review too of course.

    Frankly, it sounds exactly my sort of thing so it’s not like I needed selling on it. It’s good to see though how much your view dovetails with Trevor’s and it’s distinctly interesting how it’s grown for both of you with time.

    For me a great novella continues to unpack in the mind after it’s been finished. The end result is often greater than just the act of reading it – there’s a continuation beyond the text. This sounds like it’s in that sort of territory.

  8. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Max: I do think this fits your interests. If I can add to my hype, while Erpenbeck takes the same circumstances that Mawer does, she addresses them in a fashion that bears more comparison with John Berger, in both circumstance and tone. Since the reader knows the global circumstances in advance (and the author sketches the present day outcomes in the early pages) there is weary inevitableness (which did remind me of Berger) as she fills out the story. I don’t mean that “weary” in a negative sense — rather it reflects the portrayal of powerlessness that is accomplished in the novel.

  9. Kerry Says:

    I love novellas and novels with a slow burn. This sounds excellent. I am putting it on the TBR. As soon as my book buying ban is over, I am ordering it. A recommendation from you, Trevor, and Lizzy is damn near a command to me.

  10. leroyhunter Says:

    I’m not much interested in the Mawer, but I mentally have this down alongside Hein’s Settlement that you reviewed so strongly last year Kevin. I’d like to get to them both.

  11. John Self Says:

    I’m grateful to see Kevin’s thoughts on this book, as I read and enjoyed Erpenbeck’s earlier books The Old Child / The Book of Words last year, but also found them challenging (so much so that I initially gave up, and restarted a few weeks or months after my first attempt). As Trevor says, her books seem to deny us the expected pleasures but give us different, perhaps more enduring pleasures that only become apparent as the book settles in the mind after reading. That, I suppose, is the risk and benefit of any book which is truly sui generis – we want all our books to be unique, but few of them are, and it can be a jolt and an effort when we do find one. (I might say the same of Walter Abish’s How German Is It, which I’m currently reading. I have been tempted to give up on it a couple of times, but now feel I will persist, because the pleasures require patience but do come.)

  12. KevinfromCanada Says:

    Kerry, Leroy: I think the novel is good enough that it will be available for a while, so there is no need to rush. And it does require the right kind of mood when you get to it.

    Which segues into my response to John: I have not read any of her previous work and won’t be rushing out to get them (but will probably add them into an order sometime). For me, the “challenge” to Erpenbeck’s style in this novel is not the conventional kind of “difficult” reading — if anything, it is the opposite. While she does move impressionisticly from one era to another, there is an attention to detail at all times that can become wearing — I think that is what produces the delayed response that both Trevor and I had. It is also why I compare her to Berger who, in his best books, has a similar relentlessness to his narrative, at least in my mind.

  13. vivek tejuja Says:

    Descriptive and passionate writing like this – in the chapters that focus on the gardener and on the Jewish family – is interspersed with the mundane elements and ritualsof life, for example: “Present exigency: The property that is the subject of the proceedings. Pending determination of ownership. Registration number 654.”

    The language, in many cases, is like lyrical poetry. I must acknowledge the outstanding translator, Susan Bernofsky, who expertly translated this masterwork from German to English. For literary readers, all I can say is, this is why we read.

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