Someone who builds something is affixing his life to the earth. Embodying the act of staying put is his profession. Creating an interior. Digging deeper and deeper in a place where there is nothing. From outside, the colored glass in the living room windows he’s now walking past looks dull and impenetrable, the light doesn’t take on life until you’re sitting behind the glass, only then does it become visible as light – when it is being used. Durer too peered through colored pane of this sort, seeing only the light of the world and not the world itself, he sat indoors creating his own world. If Durer’s wife wanted to know who was strolling about inthe Nuremberg marketplace, she had to open a little flap to look down at the square. The thicker the walls and the smaller the windows, the less warmth was lost by the inhabitants of a house. Fieldstone, straw, plaster: all local materials. In the crotch marking the transition from the gabled to the side-gabled area of the roof was a small shed dormer. The house was to look as if it had just grown here like a living thing. He’d helped brick the chimney himself. He’d always gotten along well with workers and farmers. But not with this state in which one official never knew what the other was doing. (pg. 28)
Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Germany into a literary family. Her father was physicist, philosopher and writer, her mother an Arabic translator and her grandparents were writers. Growing up she would visit her grandparent’s country home – that home served as a starting point for her short novel Visitation (translated by Susan Bernovsky). I became interested in this novel when I saw it reviewed on various blogs and then I saw it was short listed for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It has been compared to Simon Mawer’s The Glass House and there are some points of commonality to the two novels.
Both Visitation and The Glass House have a strong sense of place and the swirl of current events are also present in each. However, The Glass House is a more narrative work with a well defined plot. The scope of the novel is larger with its characters traveling far beyond the bounds of the house. Visitation is a much more interior or introspective novel. In many ways it reminded me of Tinkers, but Visitation is even more focused on the thought process of characters than Paul Harding’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel.
Visitation is framed by a brief prologue describing the geological history of the lake in the Brandenburg area of Germany. It ends with an even briefer, yet similar portrait. The first chapter is a fable-like description of the owner of the land in the early 19th century. When his daughter goes mad and drowns herself, the farmer decides to divide the land into three parcels and sell them. From this point, Erpenbeck uses the thoughts of a handful of characters to explore changes in power and its impact on individuals. We see the various people associated with the house, owners, sub-tenants, family members as they come and go.
This is not a book with a defined plot and linear movement. Instead, Erpenbeck only names a small number of her characters – strikingly the named characters are the Jewish family. Instead the characters are known by their occupations (the Architect) or their status vis-a-vis the house (the Sub Tenants). Most of the action takes place through the reflection of the character’s thoughts – it is a very introspective novel in that respect. The bulk of the novel takes place in or around the cottage again with a few exceptions.
Only 150 pages, yet Visitation packs quite a punch. It reminded me of listening to a powerful symphony with the opening movement setting the stage; in this case with the foundation of geological history. I remember toward the end reading a passage and feeling like the orchestra had reached a major crescendo – the climax of the music.
Each chapter of the novel is framed with a section about the gardener of the land describing in detail what he does to tame and maintain the garden – one of the reoccurring themes in the symphony Erpenbeck is writing. This is one of the strong points of the novel – as the author goes through looking at life through the eyes of a handful of characters, the reader is always brought back to the land, to home.
The importance of home, the loss of home, the coming and going from home is one of the most dominate themes along with the notion of possession. Scattered throughout are lists of possessions: a key to the house, boxes of valuables, an eiderdown comforter. Sometimes the author includes the worth of the possession as the character thinks about it. What do we carry with us and what can we carry with us? This theme builds throughout the novel, most strongly seen in the section on the Jewish family where a young girl loses everything including her name. This 11 page section of the book includes some of the most poignant writing on the holocaust that I have ever read.
I also enjoyed this passage on possessions and fleeing:
Probably, she thinks , the sentences all get overtaken sooner or later and are spoken by someone or another, somewhere or other, just as everything belongs to everyone among people who are fleeing – factored over the length, the course of both objects and human beings was no doubt no different from the experience of a refugee. In peacetime it was poverty, during the war it was the front that kept pushing people before it like a row of dominoes, people slept in other people’s beds, used other people’s cooking utensils, ate the stores of food that other people had been forced to leave behind. It’s just that the rooms became more crowded the more the bombs fell. Until in the end she arrived here in this garden, and when the gong calls her to supper, she finds it quite plausible to think this was gong was already calling to her back then, when she turned her back on her farm for the last time and set off again with her three grandchildren, carrying an eiderdown and with a patterned kerchief on her head. When you’ve arrived, can you still said to be fleeing? And when you’re fleeing, can you ever arrive?
At some point the gong sounds, calling them all to supper. Then her granddaughter comes back up from sunbathing on the dock, humming quietly to herself just as she had done all her life, even as a little girl. Which means that in the end there are certain things you can take when you flee, things that have no weight, such as music. (pgs. 101-102; 108)
Although I really enjoyed the writing in this book, the reading doesn’t just flow. Erpenbeck’s use of repetition (in my opinion to mimic the repetition of a thought process) can be difficult to follow as is her shifts in time and the nameless characters. She also scatters legal language throughout including a fairly long section towards the end. All this pushed me away from the book as I was reading it, while the language itself was drawing me in. At time I felt like I was one of the characters drawn to the cottage and yet forced to leave. But this is a book that lingers with you. A few days after finishing it I find myself thinking back to certain passages. Reviewing quotes for this review was also worthwhile. Like a great piece of music, Erpenbeck’s writing is echoing in my head long after the last notes died away.