The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

27/02/15, New Statesman

The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck’s previous novel, Visitation (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 150 dense and astonishing pages, to give her readers a startlingly powerful glimpse into the troubled history of twentieth-century Germany seen through the events unfolding 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 late-teenage, then resurrects her in Book Three, this time killing her off in when she is pushing forty … and so on, until the final book ends with the death of the woman in a care-home her nineties.

This immediately 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 life-like (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 Rulebook on sustained character development; it seems counter-intuitive, almost impossible. How does she do it?

But even more significant than making us question some of the philosophical foundations of selfhood in the way they manifest themselves in the realist novel is the way this device 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 twentieth-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 in 1989, history has rarely seemed so felt on the pulse, so seldom 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 and playfulness that sit in arresting counterpoint to the bleakness of twentieth-century European history on display here. The intermezzi work out the counterfactuals and determine the increment in 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 Eliot’s meditation is mystical-philosophical, Erpenbeck’s is grounded on theories of history – which, after all, unfolds in time – and the turbulent and tragic realities of twentieth-century Europe.

Someone in Book I, 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 process 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, meaning and affect.