The End of Days

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Jenny Erpenbeck’s last novel, Visitation, curated a number of stories around a particular setting. In her latest, The End of Days, she displays the same dissatisfaction with the single story, but this time the nucleus is character. If this sounds more traditional – after all, don’t most novels tell a number of stories connected to one character? – it isn’t: each of Erpenbeck’s tales ends in death, only for her character to resurrected by the power of fiction and continue along a different path. (I haven’t read it, but the premise of Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life sounds similar, though the titles themselves suggest a difference of tone).

Erpenbeck’s novels often explore human cruelty and The End of Days is particularly concerned with the treatment of Jews – not only in Germany (Erpenbeck is German) but throughout Eastern Europe. A key scene which reverberates throughout the novel is the death of the central character’s grandfather in Poland after a mob breaks into his house. Though his wife escapes to the roof, he is murdered before he can make it through the gap they have created. It is difficult to decide what is most horrific: her husband’s violent death or the peaceful scene that greets her when she looks down from the roof.

“First she is holding her husband by the hand, and then all she is holding is a clump of flesh, for there is no longer anything alive left she might pull up to where she crouches in then open air. Then she is a Jewish widow holding Death by the hand. She lets go, gets up, and looks down beneath her and the open landscape.”

The contrast between this vicious blood-frenzy and the everyday is typical of Erpenbeck’s writing, as is the perfect, almost poetic phrasing – aided, once again, by the expert translation of Susan Bernofsky. The widow moves away with her daughter – the first of a number of moves in the vain hope of finding a safe haven. In some versions of the stories which follow the daughter never discovers the reason for her father’s absence. The daughter marries, and the novel opens with her own daughter dying:

“The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave. But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than there had been to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.”

It is this potential life, or lives, which Erpenbeck goes onto unfold, after first demonstrating the consequences that the baby’s death has for the mother and father. This first Book is followed by an Intermezzo which begins, “But if, for example…” and goes on to describe the effect of the child’s survival, including the relocation of the family to Vienna. We then re-join them in Book II shortly after the end of the First World War. The pattern is now set: each of the five Books will end with her death at different stages of her life; the Intermezzo which follows will suggest a route to survival, and we will begin again.

There is nothing life-affirming in this journey, however. We are taken beyond the effects of the First World War, through the Second World War, and east to Russia. The girl’s birth in 1902 means that her life is that of the 20th century. When she survives as teenager she becomes radicalised and joins the Communist party, leaving for Moscow as result of the rise of Nazism. In her final life she lives long enough to see the reunification of Germany. Throughout Erpenbeck demonstrates that, though she may be able to conjure survival with her pen, survival in the world itself is difficult – and not dying is the least of it, particularly for women. Avenues of survival are few, and often rely on men – prostitution features more than once. While Erpenbeck uses the novel’s structure to show the role fate plays in death, it is the characters’ lives which feel fated, and often outwith their control:

“How long does a life last anyhow?
Seventy or eighty years?
Doesn’t she already know more than she can bear?”

Throughout the family carry with them a complete set of Goethe – representing the civilisation they never find – until eventually it, too, has to be sold. When the protagonist’s son unknowingly encounters it in an antique shop – along with other jetsam from his mother’s life – he contemplates buying it, but decides:

“…who knows whether he’d still have time to read an edition of collected works, he isn’t getting any younger.”

Time may seem to be the enemy, but Erpenbeck’s novel suggests that we might live many lives unfulfilled.

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8 Responses to “The End of Days”

  1. JacquiWine Says:

    Great review, Grant. Your first quote and accompanying commentary stopped me in my tracks – it’s so arresting.

    I do want to read this book, but it’s possibly a little bleak for where I’d like to be in the next few months. One for the later in the year perhaps.

    Does this one count towards your #TBR20? If so, I suspect you’ve chosen wisely – I wouldn’t be surprised to see it on the IFFP longlist!

    • 1streading Says:

      It wasn’t on my original ##TBR20 list but I decided to read it in an IFFP panic! If I’d had any sense I would have made sure my 20 books were all eligible for the prize. I do hope it’s on the list, and not just because I’ve now read it! I think she’s a wonderful writer.

  2. Bellezza Says:

    I’m not sure why, with such bleakness, this book is also so very poignant. It touched me to the core, perhaps partly because Erpenbeck’s writing was able to connect me to so many aspects of myself: daughter, mother, wife. Those parts were even moreover piercing to me than the Jewish aspect, for which I have no personal connection.

    However, I do read the Bible every year, and I loved her use of Scrioture, as well as her reference to Lot and his wife. First, that she should not have looked back and become a pillar of salt; secondly, when the Angels come to Lot’s house and the evil townspeople want to have their way with them. So interesting that she would use Lot’s story from the Old Testament in her modern book. Of course, those Biblical stories never grow old becuase of all the truth they contain.

    • 1streading Says:

      I wonder – does Lot’s wife remain anonymous as the central character in The End of Days does?
      Although having no personal connection to either the Jewish or female facets of the novel, I would agree that I felt the novel was more about the experience of being female. I think it is Erpenbeck’s style which makes the bleakness both heart-breaking and bearable (which suggests she has been wonderfully translated by Susan Bernofsky).

  3. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Erpenbeck, The End of Days (German: trans. Susan Bernofsky), Portobello […]

  4. Lost Books – Girl in a Turban | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a […]

  5. The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (tr. Susan Bernofsky) | JacquiWine's Journal Says:

    […] Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book […]

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