“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book Review: Visitation

By Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is yet another work of fiction that’s not quite a book of short stories and not quite a novel either. Yes, each individual piece in this collection could stand on its own as a story, but—taken together—there’s a much larger narrative scope than readers could expect from ‘just’ a linked collection of short stories. Most of the stories revolve around a piece of property on a lake in the country outside of Berlin, and the fate of this property serves as a synecdoche for the history of Germany in the 20th century. Moreover, the stories are further connected by a prologue and epilogue, as well as a series of brief episodes relating to a gardener who maintains the property over most of the period the book covers.
    Given that the stories cover an enormous sweep of history, including both World Wars, the Holocaust, and East Germany under communist rule, the stories are (legitimately) quite serious and sombre, although brief moments of playfulness and humour occasionally do shine through. But this book works for the reason that Erpenbeck simply writes beautiful, restrained prose and always frames her tales in oblique ways, so that large topics are approached from a fresh and unexpected angles. Consider the opening story, called ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’, which is about a marriage, but opens by recounting the local superstitions about how a wedding day should be conducted:
    ‘When a woman gets married, she must not sew her own dress. The dress may not even be made in the house where she lives. It must be sewn elsewhere, and during the sewing a needle must not be broken. The fabric for a wedding dress may not be ripped, it must be cut with scissors. If an error is made while the fabric is being cut, this piece of fabric may no longer be used, instead a new piece of the same material must be purchased.’
    Erpenbeck repeats these platitudes throughout the story, and they do an exceptionally economical job of bringing the reader into the culture and society of late 19th-Century Germany—particularly illuminating the role of women in rural society at that time. And this is what is so exceptional about Erpenbeck’s work—she is able to convey an incredible breadth of experience through small gestures that suggests the scope of a much larger narrative without needing to state it explicitly.
    In ‘The Architect’, we learn about the designer of the house on this property, but we learn about his plans for it precisely at the moment he has been forced to leave, due to the coming of World War I. These details are not insignificant, either, since the unusual design of the house—including a secret room—comes to play an important role in later stories, like ‘The Red Army Officer’. Another story that plays with similar themes is ‘The Girl’, which is about a young Jewish girl attempting to hide from the Nazis in a hidden compartment; Erpenbeck’s depiction of her containment and the inevitably of her discovery is simultaneously brutal and deeply moving.
    Visitation is a marvel of what can be achieved through precise, minimal prose. Conveying the depth and complexity of this relatively short book is virtually impossible in such a small space of time, but any fan of either short stories or contemporary, European literature needs to rush out and buy this book now.

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