Sunday, December 14, 2014

Our December Author: Jenny Erpenbeck

This month we are reading a short but rich novel, Visitation, by the German writer Jenny Erpenbeck. The video above attempts to visualize the impressionistic style of the novel in which ordinary domesticity is repeatedly swept away by historical events as the author chronicles the life of a vacation home.  (I'm a bit murky on the film's origins, but I love when novels inspire artistic responses.)

As with many of the works in translation that we read, it's a bit difficult to find supplemental material in English. She has a new novel out in translation, The End of Days, so as she becomes better known we may be able to find additional resources.

A couple of video interviews are available, one from Boston University with her translator Susan Bernofsky  Start around the 30 minute mark to hear her discuss how much historical research went into the work as well as some biographical details. In a panel discussion from the Center for Fiction she also gives a good overview of the relationship between the intimacy of the places we call home and the sweep of history.

Here are some print interviews worth exploring to learn more: 

The Jenny Erpenbeck Interview | Quarterly Conversation
Mieke Chew: In a review of Visitation, Alfred Hickling said that your novel had attempted to compress the trauma of the 20th century into a single address. To start then, a big question: how has history affected your writing?  
Jenny Erpenbeck: I think I always start with a very personal issue. Then, once I start to look at it closely, it becomes historical. Things become historical, just by looking at how they came about. It’s not that I start with the idea of telling a “historic” story. I think history infects the lives, the very private lives, of people, so you cannot remove something from history, even if you just want to tell a story. It gets in here and there. I think that this was what happened when I started to write Visitation. I started with my own story about the house, and then I saw that there were so many stories involved. Stories that occurred long before I came to the place that I write about. All of a sudden I was in the middle of the German history without having thought about it.
Focus on Literature - Goethe-Institut
If in the course of your life you’ve spent a lot of time in a place, in a street, in a city, at some point that tilts and time itself becomes something like home. At some instant it suddenly gains a great deal of weight and this weight then holds you fast to the place.
Finally, this Paris Review essay, Homesick for Sadness, seems to throw light on the inspiration for this book as well as Erpenbeck's experience of the fall of the Berlin Wall. 
When my son and I are in the country in the summer, sometimes we roam around, crawling under fences that have been blown over and knocked full of holes to access vacant lots once used for company holidays. We open the doors of empty bungalows; they aren’t even locked. We gaze at the carefully folded wool blankets at the foot of the bunk beds, the curtains that were neatly drawn shut before some long-ago departure, and the Mitropa coffee cups that someone washed and put away in the kitchen cabinet twenty-five years ago. Without saying anything, he and I gaze at all these things that have been preserved unchanged, as if by a magic spell, ever since the last Socialist vacationers spent their holidays here—just before their companies were phased out at the beginning of the nineties, transforming an absence that was to last only two days into an absence forever.
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