The End of Days.
Show Hide image

Live through this: Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel makes us question death - and life

The End of Days kills its protagonist five times in a novel grounded in the turbulence of 20th-century Europe.

The End of Days
Jenny Erpenbeck; translated by Susan Bernofsky
Portobello Books, 241pp, £12.99

The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation (published in English in 2010), dispensed with one of the cornerstones of the realist novel, character, and instead chose to have as its protagonist – if that’s the right word – a piece of land by a lake in Brandenburg. The conceit allowed her, in little over 150 dense and astonishing pages, to give her readers a startlingly powerful glimpse into the troubled history of 20th-century Germany, with the land (and a house on it) as the stage.

In her latest novel, The End of Days (the German title, Aller Tage Abend, literally translates as “Night All Day”), Erpenbeck deepens the project she began with Visitation, achieving something even more imaginatively daring with the concept of character. She makes an eight-month-old girl die in the first of five books that comprise the novel, then brings her back to life in the second book, making her die this time in her late teenage years, and resurrects her in the third, killing her off when she is pushing 40 . . . and so on, until the final book ends with the death of the woman in a care home in her nineties.

This confronts us with the fundamental issue of the unitary nature of character in a novel: is the central figure of the woman in The End of Days one person or five? In
what sense can we even use the term “character”, something implying lifelike (or realistic) continuity and development, when this book deliberately sets out to deny those? Yet, despite this, Erpenbeck manages to suffuse her book with affect, one of the main reasons for character in the realist novel. It is baffling and somewhat miraculous that she can manage to elicit an emotional response towards the various and extraordinarily moving destinies of the woman while tearing up the realist rule book on sustained character development; it seems counter-intuitive, almost impossible. How does she do it?

Even more significant than how this device makes us question some of the philosophical foundations of selfhood is the way in which it aids Erpenbeck in shining a merciless light on some of the nodal moments of European history, each time achieving something aslant, surprising and profound. From the persecution of Jews in early-20th-century Galicia, through the Great War and the depredations of Soviet communism, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the unification of the two Germanys, history has rarely seemed so present or been dramatised in fiction in such original ways.

The musical structure of the book – five books (or movements) with an intermezzo inserted between each – allows Erpenbeck to introduce a measure of wit that sits in arresting counterpoint to the bleakness of the events she describes. The intermezzi offer a counterfactual reversal of the death we have just witnessed and determine the increment of life given to the woman in consequent books.

Not for a single sentence does this arrangement become schematic. Instead, it is both playful and profound – playful because it makes transparent a fundamental work of novelists, namely the extent of authorial fiat involved in the fates of characters; profound because of Erpenbeck’s sustained working out of the idea that: “Time present and time past/Are both perhaps present in time future,/And time future contained in time past.” While T S Eliot’s meditation (in Four Quartets) is mystical-philosophical, Erpenbeck’s is grounded in theories of history – which, after all, unfolds in time – and the turbulent realities of 20th-century Europe.

Someone in book one, while watching the sleeping face of his wife, tries

to get to the bottom of what has seemed to him the greatest riddle in all the history of mankind: how processes, circumstances, or events of a general nature – such as war, famine . . . – can infiltrate a private face . . . [T]he secession of Hungary, say, might result in a pair of lips bitten raw in the case of one particular woman . . . [T]here is a constant translation between the far outside and deep within . . . the only language valid across the world and for all time.

Here lies the nerve centre of Erpenbeck’s vision, a rich comprehension of the inextricable enmeshment of the public and the private.

Michel Foucault outlined a theory of human beings as historical subjects in both senses of the word: we are the thinking subjects, the actors, of history, at the same time as we are subjected to the forces and processes of history. Erpenbeck, heir to Bernhard and Sebald, writers who have mightily portrayed the imprint of history on the individual, finely calibrates this thesis in her fiction. There is no one writing now who is quite like her, possessing such an understanding of the deep currents of history while gifted with the ability to do such extraordinary things with form. In Susan Bernofsky’s lucid, seamless translation, The End of Days emerges as a necessary and illuminating novel, alight with intelligence and meaning.

Neel Mukherjee’s novel “The Lives of Others” is published by Chatto & Windus

Neel Mukherjee is an Indian writer writing in English. His book The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and he reviews fiction for the New Statesman. 

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism