One of my favourite German-language writers is Jenny Erpenbeck, and over the past few years, I’ve gradually worked my way through everything she’s published. From novels (such as Aller Tage Abend / The End of Days and Gehen, ging, gegangen / Go, Went Gone) to non-fiction (Dinge, die verschwinden / Things that are Disappearing) and even drama (the two plays Katzen haben sieben Leben / Cats Have Seven Lives and Schmutzige Nacht / Dirty Night), there’s been a fair amount of variety in her work, and today’s choice continues that trend. But can you try it if your German’s a little lacking? Well, that’s not an easy question to answer, but I’ll be sure to give it a go before I finish the review 😉
Tand is a collection of ten short stories dating from early in Erpenbeck’s career, beautifully written with generous helpings of the slightly off-kilter nature of her early work. There’s a mix of full-length stories and briefer pieces, and while it won’t take long for most (German-speaking) readers to make their way through the book, many of the choices linger in the memory.
Several stories feature narrators looking back in time, either through their own or others’ memories. In ‘Frisch und g’sund’ (‘Hale and Hallowed’), an old woman pays a surprise visit to someone she knew briefly fifty years earlier. Her host initially has no idea who her visitor is, but as the two women talk, the memories come flooding back, producing a heart-warming moment of companionship. Of course, it wouldn’t be an Erpenbeck story, though, without a final, melancholy twist.
‘Siberien’ (‘Sibiria’) takes a slightly different approach, with a woman listening to her father’s stories about her grandmother, a most remarkable woman indeed. We hear of the hardship of her years of captivity in Russia, before she was finally able to return home, only to discover that her husband had moved on. Possession may well be nine-tenths of the law, but when you’ve struggled through long years in the frozen north, the mere presence of an intruder is unlikely to put you off retaking your rightful place by your husband’s side…
The astonished husband in ‘Siberia’ isn’t the only quiet father figure featured in Tand. ‘a ist gleich v durch t’ (‘a = v/t’) centres on a girl’s relationship with her father, a clever, kind man who nevertheless seems a little absent, as if part of his attention is elsewhere. His daughter struggles to share his love of physics, preferring the purity of mathematics, but he has a different view:
Ja, sagt mein Vater, aber die Mathematik sei eben von der Wirklichkeit gereinigt. An der Physik hingegen könne man, wenn man wolle, sehen, daß nicht alles berechenbar ist, was vorkommt. Der Dreckfaktor, sagt er, das sei das eigentlich Interessante.
‘a ist gleich v durch t’, p.73 (btb, 2003)
Yes, my father says, but mathematics has been cleansed of reality. With physics, however, you can see, if you want to, that not everything that happens can be predicted. The dirt factor, he says, that’s what makes things really interesting.
*** (my translation)
It’s an interesting theory, and it isn’t too long before we discover that it has a practical underpinning – you see, life has a habit of being a little messier than we might like…
While these pieces are fairly straightforward, a few of the others can be a little more abstract and experimental. ‘Haare’ (‘Hair’) is four pages explaining the significance of the length of the narrator’s hair, while ‘Anzünden oder Abreisen’ (‘Light a Fire or Leave’) takes us swiftly through a woman’s life, travelling from hope to regret in a matter of pages. Then there’s ‘Wenig Zeit’ (‘Little Time’), a series of loosely connected paragraphs that are almost micro-stories in their own right:
Eine Frau lebt noch in dem Haus außer mir. Ihr gehört eine Katze, die hat nur noch einen halben Schwanz und streicht vor dem Haus umher, damit man ihr Brocken zuwirft.
‘Wenig Zeit’, p.114
Another woman lives in the building apart from me. She has a cat, it only has half a tail and strolls up and down in front of the building so that people will throw it scraps. ***
That’s the whole paragraph… We learn a little more about the woman (and the cat), but it’s all a tad detached and strange.
And speaking of strange, there’s the opening piece, ‘Im Halbschatten meines Schädels’ (‘The Sun-Flecked Shadows of My Skull’). Over a series of short scenes, revolving around a woman in bed, a story of sorts develops involving a rather bizarre ménage à trois between the main character (who appears to be unable to stand up), the man of the house (her lover) and his wife (who seems either oblivious to, or accepting of, the state of affairs). It’s not a lengthy piece, but it has just that right amount of creepiness to turn it into an intriguing read.
As is the case with many of the pieces, there’s a similarity here in style with Erpenbeck’s first work, the short novel Geschichte vom alten Kind (The Story of the Old Child), and that’s actually where you will find some of these stories. While there’s no stand-alone edition of Tand in English, five of the ten stories (in Susan Bernofsky’s translation) were bundled together with Erpenbeck’s first novel for the New Directions release (interestingly, while none of the stories appear in a UK edition, Portobello decided to bundle Geschichte vom alten Kind with Wörterbuch (The Book of Words) instead). According to Bernofsky, the decision to bring out the hybrid edition was because the early works were a little short and there was no guarantee that Erpenbeck would go on to have a major career in English (I think we can agree now that she’s done pretty well!).
The omissions include the shorter pieces, but one I think was unfortunate to miss the cut is ‘Eisland’ (‘Ice-land’). It’s a slow-burning story following a young Polish woman to Iceland, in which the focus of the tale is less on the country or her work there but on the house she stays in and the memories it evokes (with shades of Heimsuchung / Visitation). The same could be said of ‘Atropa bella-donna’, in which a woman upset at losing a friend she has grown up with is unable to accept that he has a new woman in his life. It’d be nice to think that with Erpenbeck’s growing popularity and success, a release of the full collection might eventuate at some point.
Luckily for English-language readers, though, the title story is included in the New Directions edition, albeit confusingly renamed ‘Sand’. This one is another story in which a woman talks about an older relative, this time her grandmother, a woman whose ability to deliver monologues delights her grand-daughter. The German title, ‘Tand’, means something like ‘junk’ or ‘bric-a-brac’ and appears in a poem by an old friend of ours, Theodor Fontane, which the old woman enjoys delivering:
Tand, Tand/ Ist das Gebilde von Menschenhand!
Which could loosely be translated as ‘All man’s creations are mere toys!’ (I’m sure Bernofsky came up with a clever way to keep both the meaning and rhyme, but that’s why she’s the professional…). The connection between title and content only becomes clear at the end of the story, when the woman is left alone in the old house, sorting through the objects in the cupboards, most of which are now useless. It’s the most telling example of a theme running throughout the collection, namely the inexorable march of time and the inevitability of people and creations alike disappearing one day. Tand, tand indeed…