Photo by Anke L used under a Creative Commons license.
Jenny Erpenbeck, Visitation (New Directions, 2010).
Using a lakeside house in Brandenburg, in eastern Germany near Berlin, Erpenbeck’s novel follows twentieth-century history from Weimar Germany through the rise of the Nazis, the Soviet occupation, the German Democratic Republic, and re-unification. After a prologue, Erpenbeck weaves the stories of the house’s owners and inhabitants, all caught in the century’s brutal events. Erpenbeck’s prose, as translated by Susan Bernofsky, is poetic and spare, and rewards attention. The story is set by the Scharmützelsee (or Märkisches Meer – the “Brandenburg Sea”), a glacially-formed lake southeast of Berlin, once the country and now a suburb. The US publisher says the house once belonged to Erpenbeck’s grandparents (something that was not obvious to this reader). After I put it down, this book continued to gnaw at me.
Here is Wikipedia’s page on Erpenbeck. M.A. Orthofer (The Complete Review) says the novel’s sense of place contrasts with the dispossession and flight experienced by many of its characters. Michel Faber (The Guardian) says it allows us to feel that we’ve known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place. Alfred Hickling (The Guardian) calls it ambitious, but says it rattles through human history with a confusing swiftness. Damian Van Denburgh (Critical Mob) says Erpenbeck repeats images and phrases to effect, illustrating the history of a place. Clare Colvin (Daily Mail) says it distils a century of German strife into one house in Brandenburg. CJ Schuler (Financial Times) compares its epic trajectory to Buddenbrooks, though it is only 150 pages long. Rebecca K Morrison (The Independent) appreciates a restrained, never indulgent, tapestry of individual stories laced with folklore. Christian House (The Independent) says that by focusing on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake, Erpenbeck layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. Jennifer Lipman (The Jewish Chronicle) says Erpenbeck muses on life and death and how the impact of experiences changes over time. Lizzy Siddal occasionally was left disoriented. Trevor calls it impressionistic but cohesive. Natasha Tripney (The Observer) says it encompasses both the domestic and the horrific. Ron Slate says Erpenbeck makes the reader care deeply about characters met in passing, in brief episodes. Christopher M. Ohge says much of what seems odd at first eventually becomes clear. Annie Janusch (The Quarterly Conversation) says the house become a vessel for the histories of its inhabitants. Phillip Witte (Three Percent) lauds shimmering prose full of radical juxtaposition. J.C. Gabel (Time Out Chicago) was lured into a terrifying world of love, loss and regret. Fran Bigman (Words Without Borders) calls Erpenbeck a master of concealment and delay. Kevin says it’s distinguished by the flat, almost hypnotic tone of the prose. Nancy O calls it challenging but rewarding. Chris Wolak was excited and exhausted. Richard Prouty says the stories are told in a mesmerizing style. Monica Carter calls it disjointed but impressive. Jefferson Chase read a collection of two-dimensional morality plays. Judith found it haunting and spell-binding. Graham calls it brief but powerful. Chazz W calls it inventive and compelling as literature, riveting as history. Richard Saturday says the hero is the house. William Rycroft said it felt like a longer book than it is. Emmett Stinson says it’s not quite a collection of short stories but not quite a novel. Jackie found no motivation to turn the pages. Caitlin Fehir says each word feels important. Jennifer Cameron-Smith found it profoundly moving. Megan O’Grady interviewed Erpenbeck for Vogue. kjd interviewed Susan Bernofsky, the translator. And Pietari Posti designed the US cover.