Jenny Erpenbeck’s profile has gradually risen in English, with many readers having tried Heimsuchung (Visitation) and the 2015 IFFP winner Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days). I suspect that not many people know, though, that she actually had a book published in German in between these two. No? Well, that’s what Women in Translation Month is for – you do now 😉
Dinge, die verschwinden (Things that are Disappearing) is a short work of non-fiction containing thirty-one passages, brief musings on a range of topics. While the pieces are all very different, they do have one thing in common. Each focuses on the topic of disappearance, examining a facet of the world which has retreated, or is in the process of retreating, into the realm of history.
Many of the sections focus on objects, and Erpenbeck laments the disappearance of things as diverse as ‘Tropfenfänger’ (rubbery drip catchers keeping coffee pots clean), open fires and the coal that goes with them, and old houses. The subject of the first section is the biggest object of them all – the monumental Palast der Republik, a symbol of the German Democratic Republic’s egalitarian nature (this one reminds us that it’s no surprise the writer is obsessed with disappearance, given that the country she was born in has vanished into thin air…).
However, most of the topics are a little more abstract. There’s a nice story about how the tradition of exchanging Christmas gifts continues in her family, even if her friends seem to have given it up years ago. Erpenbeck also looks at memories and friendships, remembering people who themselves have disappeared:
“Meine Großmutter stand, als ich von ihr fortging, an einem Fenster in einem dunklen Zimmer und winkte mir nach, erleuchtet wurde ihr Umriß nur von dem Licht, das hinter ihr im Flur brannte, in dem wir uns verabschiedet hatten. Zwei Tage später stürzte sie, und ich sah sie mit unbewegtem Gesicht und geschlossenen Augen im Krankenhaus wieder, wo sie im Koma lag und einige Zeit später starb.”
‘Erinnerungen’ (‘Memories’), pp.11/12 (btb Verlag, 2011)
“My grandmother was standing, when I left her, at a window in a dark room and waved to me, her outline illuminated only by the light behind her on the landing in which we had said our goodbyes. Two days later, she had a fall, and I saw her again with an unmoving face and closed eyes in the hospital, where she lay in a coma and died a little while after.” *** (My translation)
Friends, family, old houses – Erpenbeck uses her pages to reflect on those who are no longer with her.
While the book can be serious, there is a fair amount of wry humour, some of which has the writer coming off as a bit of a grumpy old woman, bemoaning the push towards unjustified equality:
“Der Beethoven ist nicht nur mit der Moderatorin, sondern auch mit mir plötzlich auf Schulterhöhe, wo ich persöhnlich ihn gar nicht haben will.”
‘Kluge Kommentare’ (‘Clever Commentaries’), p.83
“Beethoven is suddenly on a level, not only with the radio host but also with me, a place I don’t particular want him.” ***
Another entertaining chapter is a piece looking at Erpenbeck’s busy day, with a never-ending list of tasks she has to fulfil for herself and her family interrupted by interjections of HOW IS YOUR NEW BOOK COMING ALONG? in capitals along the way. Remind me never to ask a writer that question again…
However, the overall tone is nostalgic and wistful. There’s certainly a recognition that things must go – that doesn’t mean she has to be happy about it. Erpenbeck is publicly mourning not only the loss of friends, but also of the well-known empty spaces in her neighbourhood, with modern buildings taking away the charm of these ‘Leerstellen’. She’s even angry about the way her favourite pastry has seemingly morphed into a fluffy monstrosity in most bakeries in Berlin (sadly enough, this is one of the stories I empathise with most…).
It’s hard to look at the book without going back repeatedly to the word ‘verschwinden’, and the writer revisits it several times in an attempt to understand what the word means and grasp why things have to disappear:
“Die Dinge verschwinden, wenn ihnen die Existenzgrundlage entzogen wird, so als hätten auch sie einen Hunger, der gestillt werden muß.”
‘Tropfenfänger’ (‘Drip Catchers’), p.64
“Things disappear whenever the reason for their existence is taken away, as if they too have a hunger that must be satisfied.” ***
That might be true, but then why does it leave her (and the reader) so forlorn at times…
As mentioned above, the book contains thirty-one passages (although the last one is merely half a sentence…). With each taking up no more than three pages, and most clocking in at around 500-600 words, this is not a book that you’ll spend a long time on (I read it twice, knocking it off in an hour or so each time). While they’re interesting vignettes, at times the pieces were almost too short for me, and I couldn’t help making comparisons with Valeria Luiselli’s Sidewalks, another set of musings which are slightly longer and meatier. I certainly wouldn’t have begrudged Erpenbeck the time and space to expand upon some of the topics (mind you, having read how busy her days are…).
Long or short, Dinge, die verschwinden certainly contains some good writing, though. There’s a lot of clever use of language and frequent appearances of her native Berlin dialect, which makes reading the text aloud fun. One story, ‘Wörter’ (‘Words’) is a witty piece showing a seduction/attack by a nobleman on a maid, alternating archaic language and modern slang to great effect (no, I’m not going to attempt a translation – the quotations above took long enough as it is…).
In all, it’s a nice find for an Erpenbeck fan – whether the average Anglophone reader will ever get to try it is another matter. A non-fiction work clocking in at around 90 pages doesn’t really sound like a book publishers will be clamouring to take on, no matter who the writer is. Still, I’ve been wrong before, and let’s hope that I’m wrong again here. Erpenbeck’s an excellent writer, and there’s always room for more of her work in English 🙂