What if Jenny Erpenbeck’s main character had not died, not died, that is, once but four times: as a baby, as an alienated young woman, facing Stalin’s firing squad or falling down the stairs? One answer is that she will die in the end, an old woman of 90 suffering from dementia in a care home in newly reunified Germany.
In her 2015 novel, The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck explores the life of a woman in twentieth century Europe. Or perhaps it’s twentieth century Europe explored through the lives of a woman?
November is German Literature Month so here is my contribution (see below).
The End of Days
Every person alive today is having a sharp lesson from the Coronavirus pandemic: you cannot escape the brush of history. You cannot escape, she seems to suggest, however often she rewinds and allows her main character to live a little longer. And our own deaths do not end our lives as we, in turn, have influenced other people’s lives. In this novel there is the father who emigrated to the US (or didn’t), the discussion and writing with comrades (who might betray you), the children to whom you give birth (and who may never know their fathers) and the things you treasured such as the works of Goethe, a clock, brass buttons, a letter …
The German title for this novel was Aller Tage Abend. It comes from the German phrase: Noch ist nicht aller Tage Abend, it is not yet the evening of all days, which means something like it’s not finished until the end of all days.
So what if the child had died in her cradle in Poland, born to a Jewish mother and a lowly railway clerk in 1902? Her father would have emigrated to the US, and the family would not have moved to Vienna at the start of the First World War.
The family were hardly better off in Vienna as the father’s wages did not cover enough to eat, and the city was gripped by shortages of everything as a result of the war. What if the girl had not crossed the road at that point to avoid the ice and met the boy with whom she made a suicide pact? She would not have joined the Communist Party, become a writer and emigrated to Russia.
And in Russia, if her file had not been placed for random reasons in one pile rather than another, she would not have been a victim of Stalin’s purges. She would not have gone to live in East Berlin and become an esteemed writer in the GDR, a noted anti-fascist.
What if she had not fallen on the stairs? She would have gone on to live to her 90th birthday, losing her connection to the world, but loved by her son.
We see anti-Semitism at work, the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the rise of the Nazi party and the Anschluss destabilising inter-war Europe, the internecine battles within the Communist Party (he said, she said, I cannot affirm, I attest …) and the whole sorry history of 20th century Europe.
So much for the individual in history, then. This character hardly has a name, until the last book in which she is referred to only as Frau Hoffman. It may not even be her family name at birth. Children are born at random and absent fathers are everywhere. No political system can adequately protect or provide for all its citizens.
This is not a shrug of the shoulders, ‘what if …?’ Our lives have meaning to ourselves and to others. And this we are shown between the start and close of this profound novel.
The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up. (5)
Many mornings he [her son] will get up at this early hour that belongs only to him and go into the kitchen, and there he will weep bitterly as he has never wept before, and still, as his nose runs and he swallows his own tears, he will ask himself whether these strange sounds and spasms are really all that humankind has been given to mourn with. (238)
But it is not yet the end of days.
The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck, published in Germany as Alle Tage Abend in 2012, and published in English by Granta in 2014. The translation from the German is by Susan Bernofsky.
In October 2017 I enthusiastically reviewed another novel by Jenny Erpenbeck: Go, Went, Gone. It was definitely one of the best books I read that year. I recommended it to my Book Group and they too thought it was excellent.
For more on German Literature Month 2020 see the blog called Beauty is a Sleeping Cat.