The Perspective Is the Story

Jenny Erpenbeck’s fiction is an attempt to grasp the underlying precariousness of our sense of identity and belonging.

Public Books and the Sydney Review of Books have partnered to exchange a series of articles with international concerns. Today’s article, “The Perspective Is the Story,” by James Ley, was originally published by the SRB on March 15, 2021.

Jenny Erpenbeck prefaces Not a Novel with a four-page summary of her literary career to date. She begins in her mid-20s, with the memory of writing a seminar paper on an obscure topic suggested by her professor, using an old electric typewriter and editing by cutting up the pages with scissors and rearranging the text. “That was,” she recalls, “the first time that I experienced how someone else could open a door for me into my own reflections.”

Then she buys a computer and uses it to write her first novel, The Old Child. The novel is published; the reviews are favorable. People ask her to write some short stories. Sure, why not? The stories become her second book, Trinkets. She receives requests to write other things, essays on topics she would not have thought to write about, so she does. Life goes on. Her child is growing up; her writing routine stabilizes. She publishes a short novel, The Book of Words. Her mother dies not long after the publication of her fourth book, Visitation, which wins a prize, so she is obliged to write an acceptance speech. She publishes two more well-received novels, The End of Days and Go, Went, Gone. She hangs out the laundry, unpacks the dishwasher, bakes a birthday cake. She wins more prizes, goes on reading tours. The requests keep coming in. Would she like to write more essays, give a series of lectures, deliver a keynote address? She is inducted into a prestigious academy, says a few words to acknowledge the honor. She wins yet another prize, requiring yet another acceptance speech.

Pity the poor writer whose fate is to be harried with opportunities and accolades. Erpenbeck’s deadpan portrayal of herself as a passive yet accommodating figure, somewhat nonplussed by the attention, makes a substantial claim. Not a Novel is a collection of those occasional writings, the kinds of odds and ends that accumulate over the course of a writing life, and the very fact that such work is incidental grants the book a particular significance as a disjointed intellectual autobiography. Each essay is an encapsulation of the author’s thinking at a particular point in her life, composed with the concentrated precision that Erpenbeck brings to everything she writes. Collectively, they are a measure of her responsiveness, evidence of her willingness to be drawn out of herself.

That Erpenbeck has been prompted to reflection is very much the point. Her work is fascinated with the way that lives are shaped by contingencies, large and small. Life, for Erpenbeck, is something that happens to us, however much we might imagine ourselves to be in control of our destinies. “There is an element of disorder, something intractable, in every order,” she writes; “things have a life of their own even if they appear predictable. The same data won’t always produce the same results.” History is present in her novels as a disruptive force, capable of sweeping away one reality and replacing it with another. Visitation and The End of Days are both concise novels that span the 20th century, their narratives buffeted by the great catastrophes of German history. Yet they are also attuned to the fateful influence of small decisions and random occurrences. The ingenious conceit of The End of Days is to structure the story of its protagonist’s long life around her many potential deaths. Each moment at which her life might have ended is shown to be a matter of chance. Every time she evades death and moves on to a new stage of her life, she is reborn into a new historical context that alters the tenor of her existence; every extension of her life demands a recalibration of its overall meaning.

Erpenbeck sees something mysterious and definitive in this. “The moment at which his entire life changed,” a character marvels in The End of Days, “did not look any different from all the other moments before or after it.” Elsewhere in the novel, the same character gazes at his sleeping wife and reflects on “the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature—such as war, famine, or even a civil servant’s salary that fails to increase along with galloping inflation—can infiltrate a private face.” Erpenbeck’s fiction is ultimately an attempt to grasp the elusive nature of such transformations and the underlying precariousness of our sense of identity and belonging. “It takes an entire lifetime to unravel the mysteries of our own lives,” she observes in Not a Novel. “Layer upon layer of knowledge accumulates upon the past, revealing it anew each time as a past that we certainly lived through, but couldn’t even begin to understand.”

The impulse to write is paradoxical. It arises from a feeling of inarticulateness, a sense that language is inadequate.

Erpenbeck has a personal reason for her preoccupation with impermanence. She grew up at the tail end of the Cold War in the German Democratic Republic, not far from the Berlin Wall. The window of her family’s 13th-floor apartment afforded her a tantalizing view of the inaccessible world of West Berlin. In Not a Novel, she reminisces about roller-skating in a nearby street, which the Wall had conveniently transformed into a quiet cul-de-sac. She was 22 when the Wall came down in 1989, though she went to bed early that night, so she missed the history that was being made only a few blocks away. She simply woke up the next morning to discover that the border had been breached and the country of her childhood no longer existed.

For Erpenbeck, the moment of reunification was experienced as a moment of profound disorientation. She confesses in Not a Novel that sometimes it still feels strange to her that Berlin is one city—a sentiment echoed by Richard, the retired classics professor in Go, Went, Gone. Liberation from an oppressive regime came with its own disconcerting ambivalence, as many East Germans who had their lives upended discovered they were now second-class citizens, treated with condescension by their West German compatriots. “Freedom wasn’t given freely,” Erpenbeck writes in a passage that appears almost word-for-word in two essays:

It came at a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point. The price was that everything that had been called the present until then was now called the past. Our everyday lives weren’t everyday lives anymore, they were an adventure that we had survived, our customs were suddenly an attraction. In the course of just a few weeks, what had been self-evident ceased to be self-evident. A door that opens once a century had opened, but now the century was also gone forever. From that moment on, my childhood belonged in a museum.

As Not a Novel makes clear, the sense of dislocation is intrinsic to Erpenbeck’s conception of literature. “Without this experience of transition,” she states, “I probably would never have started writing.” The longest and most revealing essays in the volume are the texts of three Bramburg Lectures, in which she discusses the genesis of her early novels The Old Child and The Book of Words, and a psychogeographic reflection titled “Homesick for Sadness,” in which she meditates on the redevelopment of Berlin in the years after reunification and the resulting effacement of the physical traces of her early life. These essays locate the impetus for her work in the divided perspective that is created by a sense of loss. There are moments in life, she observes, when one becomes conscious of what she calls a “second truth”—which is merely to say, moments when one becomes aware of facts that were concealed. Such revelations are conventionally characterized as a loss of innocence, a fall into knowledge. But the essential point for Erpenbeck is that the new understanding compels us to interpret the past differently. It wrenches us out of one reality and into another, forces the realization that continuity and stability are illusions. In doing so, it relativizes our individual experiences. The irruption of new information cannot help but make us conscious of the disconcerting fact that, as Goethe wrote, We only see what we know.

Erpenbeck does not take this as grounds for a complacent relativism, but as a starting point. The power of literature, she proposes, is precisely that it provides a formal means to observe parallel truths. It is “indiscreet” and “intimate” in ways that allow us to perceive more than we would normally perceive; it makes us conscious of the limits of our understanding by gesturing beyond those limits. “Literature tells us that what we know is never the whole truth,” Erpenbeck argues, “but literature also tells us that the whole truth is waiting for us, if only we could read. And with that it begins to teach us to read, even if that lesson requires more time to learn than we have in our lifetimes.”

The argument is notable for its qualified idealism and its implicit moral imperative, both of which resist certain contemporary assumptions. The proposition that literature might have some kind of edifying or instructive dimension tends to be regarded as naive at best and wholly discredited at worst. We have all learned to raise a skeptical eyebrow when someone uses the first-person plural. Yet literary moralism has certainly not been banished by the naturalization of this apparent worldliness; it has merely been relocated and simplified in ways that are even more naive. The confessional and the expressive have been granted priority over the formal, the philosophical, and the analytical. The integrity of the text thus becomes a function of the integrity of the author; the morality of the text becomes a simple matter of the affirmation of principles. The inevitable result is a contraction of intellectual and interpretive possibilities. Realism and allegory are estranged from each other, fiction is swallowed by memoir, and the inviolability of subjective experience is taken as confirmation of the epistemological banality that one can never truly know another person. It sometimes seems as if the only culturally acceptable reasons for writing these days are personal testimony and trite sermonizing, while the only remaining justification for reading something as frivolous as a novel (other than as a vacuous distraction) is the self-validation that is aptly designated by the watery term “identification.”

Erpenbeck’s rigorously inquisitive work resists these kinds of simplifications. She recognizes the incontrovertible nature of personal experiences as the source of a fundamental problem. The truth of such experiences is real enough. But they are essentially mute, incommunicable, intransigent in their refusal to reconcile with the present. They are, in themselves, an intellectual dead end. “There can be no discussion of experiences and feelings,” she writes. “They have their own, wholly individual morality, and they lie beyond the knowledge that we later acquire. They are simply there” (emphasis added).

The impulse to write is thus paradoxical. It arises from a feeling of inarticulateness, a sense that language is inadequate. “The impossibility of expressing what happens to us in words is what pushes us toward writing,” Erpenbeck observes:

I think we write because we find it hard to make ourselves understood … Strange as it sounds, the most important reason for writing is probably that we are at a loss for words. Whenever I have not been able to understand something, have not been able to capture it in words, that’s when I have started writing.

The act of writing is in this sense exploratory and open-ended. It is an attempt to reconcile subjective experiences and conflicting frames of reference—“the perspective always is the story,” as Erpenbeck puts it. She has earned her share of praise as an empathetic writer, but the term does not convey the active intellectual dimension of her work, the extent to which her novels are exercises in thinking through literature. “Writing is always an experiment,” she maintains. It is “a process with an uncertain outcome and with any number of meanings that aren’t necessarily clear to me as a writer while I am writing.”


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Much of the distinctive quality of Erpenbeck’s fiction arises from this combination of radical uncertainty and purposefulness. Her literary vision is ultimately outward looking. In her early novels, up to and including The End of Days, her explorations of the central theme of historical dislocation are filtered through an aesthetic sensibility shaped by her love of classic folk tales and fairy stories—Ovid, A Thousand and One Nights, Hans Christian Andersen, the Brothers Grimm—which she read eagerly from an early age. The tremendous appeal of these stories, she observes in a short essay on the subject of her literary influences, is that they are full of forking paths and wondrous transformations, but also that “there is always a second time alongside the time of reality, a second aspect to every place behind its outward appearance.”

The duality runs through Erpenbeck’s work, which is constantly drawing attention to disparities of temporal scale. The striking originality of a novel like Visitation is the way it fuses the timeless atmosphere of a fairy tale to the timebound specificity of a historical novel, the former manifesting itself not as fabulism, but rather as a powerful sense of hauntedness. Some of the haunted quality of Erpenbeck’s writing is a more or less direct acknowledgement of the traumatic legacy of history itself—in Go, Went, Gone, for example, Richard has an eerie vision of all the people murdered by the Nazis still wandering the streets of Germany as ghosts. But for Erpenbeck it is also part of our existential condition to be perpetually estranged from ourselves. “We know only one thing,” she argues in Not a Novel:

That behind everything we can see, hear, and touch, another reality is concealed—a reality that we can’t see and can’t hear and can’t touch, a reality made of time. We know that transformations lie before us, we know that transformations lie behind us, and we know, according to scientific findings, that the present belongs to us for precisely three seconds before it plunges down the throat of the past. That means that every three seconds, we produce ourselves again as strangers.

This is the point at which the problem of understanding the historical past becomes indistinguishable from the problem of understanding ourselves, the point at which Erpenbeck’s potent awareness of the provisional nature of things connects with the moral and political themes in her work. Perhaps the clearest example of this is her most recent and most topical novel. Go, Went, Gone differs markedly from its predecessors in its style and tone. It tells the story of Richard befriending a group of African asylum seekers and becoming involved in their arduous and dispiriting legal battle to be granted German residency. The heart of the novel, which is based on an extensive series of interviews with asylum seekers conducted by Erpenbeck in the early 2010s, is Richard’s attempt to understand the personal experiences of the refugees. He inches his way toward an inevitably imperfect sense of mutual comprehension, seeking some way to bridge the gulf of cultural understanding. In the absence of common points of reference (in one scene, he realizes the elementary knowledge of modern German history he takes for granted means nothing to the man he is talking to—even the name Hitler draws a blank), Richard gradually comes to realize that the process of genuine comprehension demands that he break down and relearn everything he knows.

The novel just happened to be published the same week that Angela Merkel announced that Germany would settle a million of the refugees who were flooding into Europe at the time to escape the war in Syria—a humanitarian gesture all the more remarkable for its rejection of the cruel, cynical, xenophobic, border-obsessed politics that have come to predominate in many Western countries in recent years. But the brilliance of Go, Went, Gone is not simply the timeliness of Erpenbeck’s humane examination of a pressing global issue; it is her recognition, signaled in numerous allusions to the Odyssey, that the themes of wandering and exile are as old as literature itself. The novel does not simply seek to humanize the plight of refugees and bear witness to their suffering (though it does do this). It takes the condition of homelessness—embodied in the figure of the refugee, but also capable of being understood in a figurative sense—as a universal theme that speaks to questions of our ethical obligations toward strangers in need. The underlying instability of all the things we are apt to take for granted is itself the point of connection.

The power of literature is that it provides a formal means to observe parallel truths.

In constantly drawing us back to the provisional nature of things, in setting out to explore those liminal spaces where individual fates are decided in imperceptible ways, Erpenbeck seeks to make an ethical point. The final section of Not a Novel, which she titles “Society,” consists of two essays. The first is an obituary for a man named Bashir Zakayau—one of the asylum seekers Erpenback came to know while writing Go, Went, Gone. Zakayau died shortly after the publication of the novel, and Erpenbeck’s moving tribute describes, in the plainest language, his appalling travails and his strength of character. The second essay is the text of a speech Erpenbeck gave at the University of Oklahoma in 2018, in which she takes up the crucial subject of “the border—along with the concepts of transition and transgression, in the sense of border crossing. Closely related to these is the concept of freedom.”

The themes are eternal, though Erpenbeck draws them into the present, in full knowledge that she is speaking as a guest in a country whose president was elected on the promise of building an enormous wall—a country in the process of enacting deliberately cruel and dehumanizing anti-refugee policies (policies, it must be said, that were pioneered by Australia at the beginning of this century, before they spread like a cancer throughout other Western democracies). Intrinsic to this rigid enforcement of borders, Erpenbeck observes, is a judgment about the relative worth of individual lives, which is barbaric in itself, but which on a deeper level speaks of a willful blindness about the precarious nature of our own existence. A blind spot, as a character observes in The End of Days, refers to an inability to see something even though it is right there before us. The refusal to acknowledge the human reality of the global refugee crisis is ultimately a refusal to recognize our own vulnerabilities: “Those blind spots hide our own guilt and impotence. Even things that go wrong in other people’s lives make us begin to fear for our own because it means that misfortune as such has not yet been cast out of our universe, and it may be infectious.”

On these grounds, the essay develops a characteristically measured argument against the idea that freedom is a valid principle without due respect for the principle of equality, culminating in a list of questions:

Shouldn’t we always remember that we are all survivors in historical terms? … How can we slip out of these two roles that world history has assigned us: victim and perpetrator? Or do the roles reverse of their own accord, and then reverse again and again? … Where is the line that divides “us” from what is “foreign,” from what is “other”? … Who are we, that we may enjoy happiness at the expense of others thanks to a simple matter of selection?

These questions, Erpenbeck insists, are not rhetorical. They are the timeless problems that animate her work. And in the face of these questions, she suggests it is always befitting to conduct ourselves with humility. As she cautions in her lapidary manner: “The arrogance of the victor impedes cognition.” icon

Featured image: Photograph by tanakawho / Flickr