Shelfari: Book reviews on your book blog

November 2, 2011

Visitation (Jenny Erpenbeck)

The visitation is of ghosts. Early in the book, they appear matter-of-factly. It must be said that the term 'ghosts' could be applied here to both the dead and the living. Sometimes it's hard to distinguish between the two. Throughout the novel, the haunting of both is persistent.

The unknown fisherman holds out his hand and she helps him climb out of the rocking boat and then lets his hand go again. Only when he holds out his hand to her a second time does she understand that he wants her to lead him further. Halfway up the slope where the earth is no longer quite so dark and the grass is drier, there will surely be a place for her and the fisherman, whose hair is so wet that the water is dripping to his shoulders and running down his arms all the way to where his fingers are intertwined with hers. Only now, when she is looking for a good spot to sit down with him, does it strike her how many people there are all around her in this bit of woods, and everywhere there might be an attractive spot to rest, someone is already sitting or standing, some are reclining in the shade, asleep, others are having their evening meal, and yet others are leaning against a tree, smoking and blowing rings in the air. It's no doubt because all these people are so quiet that she didn't notice them before. In a sunny spot under the big oak tree the kind of grass she likes is growing, tall, dry grass, tuft after tuft of it, and when she kneels down there and draws the fisherman down beside her, the others finally begin to move, they put their sandwiches, apples and hard-boiled eggs back in their baskets, fold up their blankets and calmly rise to their feet, while the ones who are leaning against the tree trunks now toss their cigarettes on the ground and crush the stubs beneath the soles of their shoes. One at a time, all of them turn to walk back up the slope, leaving behind this place without addressing a single word or even a wave to Klara and her fisherman. The fisherman lays his head in the lap of the mayor's youngest and as yet unmarried daughter, and she begins to dry his wet lock of hair with her skirt. On the far side of the oak tree directly behind her, two last silent visitors to this bit of woods whom she had overlooked now rise to their feet and leave as well. [9-10]

The novel is a tale of a house by the lake in a German woodland area. The main character is Time, who moonlights as Death. Other characters include History and Memory. The page count is small, but the writing is dense with innovative manipulations of language. The story – there's no story – covers a century of racial abuses and prejudices. The plot is linear enough but the delivery is sophisticated. It drives home the point that all human beings are dispensable. If the poet Wisława Szymborska is to write a novel, I would imagine she will produce something like Jenny Erpenbeck's. In Susan Bernofsky's translation, Erpenbeck's prose has the clarity and cadence of a poem. The theme and style also reminds one of the midsection of Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the cruel chapter called "Time Passes". That is precisely what the main character does in the novel. He passes. The narrative proceeds in bursts of prose poetry. It holds a candle to the accumulation of private and public memories. I read this in speed read mode – a bad idea. I could have read slowly and listened hard to the music and differentiated the notes soaring above the words. The music is playing the whole time in the background. The musical translation reads and flows well. It's very good, awesome even, but I imagine the original is a nasty beast. It is recommended for those interested in poetry and German history (or just history) and great original writing.

I read Visitation for the German Literature Month hosted by Caroline of Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy of Lizzy's Literary Life. An excerpt of Visitation can be seen here. Other links: interviews with the writer and translator. Also, Bernofsky's blog, Translationista, is a great resource on translation, of German literature and otherwise.


  1. Sounds like a winner, Rise! All of a sudden there are a million German language novels I'd like to read right now, so maybe I should reconsider my reading plans for the month. Yep, two days into November and chaos has already descended, ha ha!

  2. This one's been on my list for some time, but your comparison to the central section of "To The Lighthouse" clinches it (I was completely obsessed with that midsection when I read the novel at age 16, and it probably shares a good portion of the blame for all of my subsequent interest in literature).

  3. Yes, this one is a winner. It's a cold book, highly conceptual, suffused with German literature, but still, I thought quite moving in places.

  4. I bought the German hardback and have still not read it. I've never seen it compared to woolf but that makes a lot of sense. Also what you write about it's sound.
    Richard I'm with you... Temptations everywhere

  5. Can't wait to read this - even though some reviews have been a little more lukewarm than yours ;)

  6. Richard, it's making havoc on my reading plans too. In a good way. For sure all the German books I want to read will spill over the other months. I've been meaning to read this book. The German Lit Month is perfect timing.

    Scott, that part of To the Lighthouse is indeed unforgettable. I think this book approaches that power of writing in its own way.

  7. Tom, yes, all of what you said. It can move one despite the apparent cold tone.

    Caroline, the book's sound and rhythm are part of the charm. I presume the translation caught them well, even the difficulty. I suppose though that the original German is more tricky.

    Tony, the book made me angry at times, so I guess I know where the lukewarm came from. :p It's a book to polarize, that's for sure.

  8. this does seem to have an interesting premise & I've not long finished a book in which Death featured as a character & I enjoyed that one.

  9. Gary, it does. I suppose books with Death are fun, especially when she's on holiday. :p