Jenny Erpenbeck is of genuine literary stock. She was born on 12 March 1967 to John Erpenbeck, a physicist and philosopher who has written several literary works, and Doris Kilias, who has translated numerous Arabic works into German, including those of the Nobel prize winner Nagib Mahfuz. Erpenbeck’s grandparents, Fritz Erpenbeck and Hedda Zinner, both lived in the Soviet Union during the Second World War. After 1945 they became important cultural figures in the socialist East Germany. Hedda Zinner, who was the director of the House of Broadcasting from 1946, was awarded numerous awards for her literary writing, including the Goethe Prize (1957), Lessing Prize (1960), Lion-Feuchtwanger Prize (1974), and the GDR National Prize First Class (1989). Zinner is a ghost in her granddaughter’s prose. She bears resemblance with the state authoress in Heimsuchung (Visitation, 2003) and can be identified with the protagonist in Aller Tage Abend (The End of the Days, 2012). Zinner’s husband, Fritz Erpenbeck, published several prose texts, edited the magazines Theater der Zeit and Theaterdienst between 1946 and 1958, and established the Henschel Verlag, which specialised in publishing works for the stage. He was also the head dramaturge at the Berliner Volksbühne between 1959 and 1962.
Erpenbeck would initially follow in her grandfather’s footsteps. After completing a two-year apprenticeship as a bookbinder, she initially worked in theatre as a props and wardrobe supervisor. Between 1988 and 1990 she studied theatre at the Humboldt University in Berlin, before training as a musical theatre director at the Hanns Eisler Music Conservatory where she was taught by Ruth Berghaus, Werner Herzog and Heiner Müller, amongst others. Afterwards she worked first as an assistant director at the Graz Opera house, staging her own productions of Arnold Schönberg’s Erwartung and Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle. She also premiered her first play, Katzen haben sieben Leben (Cats Have Seven Lives, 2000), in Graz.Erpenbeck continued working as a freelance director, staging productions across Germany and Austria, but has concentrated on her own writing since the birth of her son. Her play Katzen haben sieben Leben consists of a series of sparse parables about power, depicting, amongst other things, mother-child dependencies and resentments, the authoritarianism of the master-pupil dynamic, as well as manipulative and deceptive relationships. Most end in an act of violence and frequently the death of a protagonist. Each act, a series of exchanges between two protagonists, A and B, represent symbolic scenarios rather than individual psychological dramas.
The relationship between individual subjectivity, memory and therefore interpersonal relations, is the subject of extended reflection in Erpenbeck’s highly-elliptical debut novel, Geschichte vom alten Kind (Story of the Old Child, 1999), which Michel Farber in The Guardian (29 October 2010) calls ‘one of the best first novels ever written’. It begins when a young girl is found standing in the middle of the road with nothing but an empty bucket in her hand. She has no recollection of who she is or where she is from. Since her face cannot be found in the files recording missing children, the police are forced to put the homeless enigma into an orphanage. Here she does the least necessary not to stand out. She fights for and to be nothing. Only four short paragraphs narrated in the first-person give the reader any insight into the feelings or motivations of this uncanny figure. Glimmers of memories seep into the letters that she writes, the last of which reads, ‘You are dead to me. Best wishes – Mummy’. The novel draws to a close as the protagonist’s physical strength wanes. During her hospitalisation she loses the youthful blubber that has served as a disguise. She is not a 14-year-old girl, after all, but a 30-year-old woman who had sought to escape from the emptiness of adult life. Erpenbeck’s terse and sublime language transforms this, a true story, into a parable of traumatised subjectivity. The collection of short-stories published as Tand (Bauble, 2001) offers equally allegorical treatments of a variety of themes, from the abstract (coincidence, language and identity) to the concrete (loss, ageing and the aftermath of war). This collection of short-stories established Erpenbeck’s distinctness from other writers of her generation. As a journalist for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (17 March 2002) remarked, there is no trace of irony, sex or contemporary Berlin life (the latest fashion trends, clubs, music, drugs) in her writing. These are the distinguishing features of the early works of Alexa Hennig von Lange (Relax, 1997), Tanja Dückers (Spielzone, 1999), Elke Naters (Lügen, 1999), Julia Franck (Lagerfeuer, 2003) and Karen Duve (Dies ist kein Liebeslied, 2004). The driving concerns of Erpenbeck’s writing are less transitory. Her prose is firmly anchored in the modernist tradition.
A young girl is also ostensibly the protagonist of Erpenbeck’s second novel, Wörterbuch (Book of Words, 2004), which is about inherited language, knowledge and therefore identity. Erpenbeck reflects in an interview that ‘there are so many people putting education into you, and giving you meanings and ideas and stories. You never know if the stories are true. This is the first thing. And there are so many emotions that come from other people. Later on you may tell people: “This is my emotion, my feeling, or my memory of something”, and it’s probably not really yours, it’s your mother’s or father’s or someone else’s altogether. This interested me and I think it’s a very complex thing to be brought up; so many people are needed to form a person and to give them an identity’ (quoted in The Quarterly Conversation, 3 December 2012). This story of a woman who must figure out how much of what her father has told her is true has unsurprisingly been interpreted as an allegory of dictatorship. While Geschichte vom alten Kind can be understood to enact the process whereby an individual subject becomes integrated into the collective body and whereby the self consequently becomes extinguished, Wörterbuch might be seen to stage an individual’s attempt to overcome totalitarian discourse.
The social and political move into the foreground in Erpenbeck’s most successful novels, Heimsuchung (2007) and Aller Tage Abend (2012), although her language and the depth of emotion it conveys arguably remain centre stage. Heimsuchung chronicles the tragic lives of the various families that attempt to put down their roots next to the Scharmützel Lake in Brandenburg. Their quest for stability and security remains futile. Amidst the turbulent political history of the 20th century, familial attachments to place and traditions of inheritance have been complicated. Erpenbeck’s sweeping historical view of the province, beginning with a depiction of the natural transformations of the landscape during the ice age, and which is marked by modernity and war, thus undermines the conventional association of rural space, and the German ideal of Heimat, literally homeland, with temporal stasis. Erpenbeck writes against a lasting temptation in German culture to imagine nostalgically the province as a refuge from global politics, the degeneracy of modern consumer culture and the impoverishment of experience under capitalism more generally. The notions of Heimat with which Erpenbeck engages can no longer be attached to clear notions of national belonging. For Ludwig, a German-Jewish émigré, Heimat means the place where he grew up and was forced to flee. For the granddaughter of the socialist writer, loosely modelled on Hedda Zinner, the meaning of Heimat transmutes after the fall of the wall. Her emotional attachment to the area has not altered, but its geographic boundaries and ideological foundations have. The uncanny undertones of Heimsuchung evoke the individual’s helplessness in the face of political and social developments that repeatedly turn upside down the world in which they live. As Erpenbeck tells Nicole Krauss in interview (Vogue, 9 November 2009), ‘when you’re from the East, when you’ve seen your country disappear, you understand how quickly things can change. It’s surrealistic’.
The individual’s subjection to fate is more obviously a theme in Erpenbeck’s most recent novel, Aller Tage Abend. The novel is divided into five books, each describing a stage in the protagonist’s life. The first begins with the burial of the protagonist, only a baby in this version of her life. The rest of the first book concerns itself with the reverberations of her death in the family. The intermezzo that follows undoes this pain and loss, however; it enacts a twist of fate: ‘What if the child’s mother or father had opened the window in the night? What if they had gathered a handful of snow from the windowsill and put it under the baby’s shirt? Perhaps then the child might have suddenly started breathing again, maybe even cried, in any case, it’s heart would have started to beat again’. Each subsequent book imagines a different fate for its protagonist. As an 18- year-old she is killed by her lover in Vienna at the end of World War I. As a 37-year-old living in exile in Moscow she becomes a victim of the show trials. As a highly-regarded writer living in East Berlin in 1962 she dies after a fall. In the final book she is resuscitated to experience the fall of the Berlin wall and dies in a care home. Similar to Heimsuchung, this novel spans almost a century, capturing the impact of German and European history on the individual in a delicate but immensely powerful language.
Compiled by Katie Stone (Cambridge)
Geschichte vom alten Kind [novel] (Berlin: Eichborn, 1999)
Katzen haben sieben Leben [play] (Berlin: Eichborn, 2000)
Dinge, die verschwinden [short-stories] (Berlin: Galiani, 2009)
Aller Tage Abend [novel] (Munich: Albrecht Knaus, 2012)
Gehen, ging, gegangen [novel](Munich: Albrecht Knaus, 2015)
Translations into Foreign Languages
The Old Child and Other Tales [Translation of Geschichte vom alten Kind and Stories from Tand by Susan Bernofsky] (New York: New Directions, 2005)
The Book of Words [Translation of Wörterbuch by Susan Bernofsky] (New York: New Directions, 2007)
Visitation [Translation of Heimsuchung by Susan Bernofsky] (New York: New Directions, 2010)
The End of the Days [Translation of Aller Tage Abend by Susan Bernofsky] (New York: New Directions, 2014)
Bagley, Petra: ‘Granny Knows Best: The Voice of the Granddaughter in “Großmütterliteratur”’ in Pushing at Boundaries: Approaches to Contemporary German Women Writers from Karen Duve to Jenny Erpenbeck ed. by Heike Bartel and Elizabeth Boa (German Monitor 64, 2006, pp. 151-164)
Cosgrove, Mary: ‘Heimat as Nonplace and Terrain Vague in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Heimsuchung and Julia Schoch’s Mit der Geschwindigkeit des Sommers’ (New German Critique 39.2, Summer 2012, pp. 63-86).
Domini, John: ‘Of Time and Memory: the Fiction of Laura Van den Berg and Jenny Erpenbeck’ (Virginia Quarterly Review 91.1, 2015, pp. 193-196)
Draeger, Kathleen: ‘Versuch über einen Verlust – Schwierigkeiten mit der Identität: Jenny Erpenbecks Wörterbuch’ in Zwischen Inszenierung und Botschaft: zur Literatur deutschsprachiger Autorinnen ab Ende des 20. Jahrhunderts ed. by Ilse Nagelschmidt, Lea Müller-Dannhausen and Sandy Feldbacher (Berlin: Frank & Timme 2006, pp. 139-152).
Gerstenberger, Katharina: ‘Fictionalisations: Holocaust Memory and the Generational Construct in the Works of Contemporary Women Writers’ in Generational Shifts in Contemporary German Culture ed. by Laurel Cohen-Pfister and Susanne Vees-Gulani (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010, pp. 95-114).
Goodbody, Axel: ‘Heimat als utopischer Raum der Intra-aktion zwischen Mensch und Natur: Zur Figurendarstellung in Jenny Erpenbecks Roman “Heimsuchung”’ (Komparatistik Online, 2015.2, pp. 85-99)
Jones, Katie: ‘“Ganz gewöhnlicher Ekel”? Disgust and Body Motifs in Jenny Erpenbeck’s Geschichte vom alten Kind’ in Pushing at Boundaries: Approaches to Contemporary German Women Writers from Karen Duve to Jenny Erpenbeck ed. by Heike Bartel and Elizabeth Boa (German Monitor 64, 2006, pp. 110-133).
Pye, Gillian: ‘Jenny Erpenbeck and the Life of Things’ in Transitions: Emerging Women Writers in German-language Literature ed. by Valerie Heffernan and Gillian Pye (German Monitor 76, 2013, pp. 111-130).
Schubert, Katja: ‘Kein Zivilisationsbruch: Wahrscheinliche Geschichte Heimsuchung (2007) und Aller Tage Abend (2012) von Jenny Erpenbeck’ in Störfall? Auschwitz und die ostdeutsche Literatur nach 1989 ed. by Carola Hähnel-Mesnard and Katja Schubert (Berlin: Frank & Timme, 2016, pp. 91-109)
Shafi, Monika: Housebound Selfhood and Domestic Space in Contemporary German Fiction (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013)
Snyder, Maria: ‘The View from the Parking Lot: Political Landscapes and Natural Environments in the Works of Brigitta Kronauer and Jenny Erpenbeck’ in German Women Writers and the Spatial Turn: New Perspectives ed. by Carola Daffner and Beth. A. Muellner (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2015, pp. 229-246)