One of the very first books I wrote about for book-plate was Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation. A beautiful, concise and poetic novel, I was completely enchanted by it and wanted to tell everyone I knew to go out and read it. It was one of the key moments where I realised that I wanted to write about books and get others excited about reading and thus, book-plate was born and launched in January of this year. Now, as we slowly tick over into December and the year comes to a close, it seems fitting to be able to talk about Erpenbeck’s latest release.
The End of Days is a reflection on the every day decisions that change our lives irrevocably. The ‘what ifs’ and the near misses. Following a central character through different possibilities, Erpenbeck takes us through a number of alternative lives. What if a child dies as a young infant. What if she lives to become an adult - will she die loved or alone? Like Visitation, Erpenbeck again spans generations and the history surrounding them. There again are references to World Wars One and Two and the fall of the Berlin Wall, but this time from a profoundly Eastern perspective. From Galicia (which today straddles the corner of the Ukraine and Poland), to Vienna, Moscow and finally Berlin, the novel offers a timely history lesson on Eastern Europe, with the recent twenty-fifth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the current tensions between Germany and Europe over Russia’s actions in the Ukraine. (As a side note, this excellent portrait of German Chancellor Angela Merkel gives a fascinating history of the German parliament and of Merkel herself that is fascinating in itself, but also gave me a much better understanding of the German attitude towards Russia and the Ukraine.)
Similarly to Visitation, there’s a pervading darkness in The End of Days, a strong sense that something sinister is just around the corner. There is again the use of poetic repetition in Erpenbeck’s prose that is evocative and beautiful. Long descriptive passages are broken up into tiny fragments, as we pause to watch moments of lives, like an onlooker passing on a train, or sitting by the window of a cafe on a busy street:
At night, the younger daughter sits in the street, waiting for midnight to come. Indeed, she’s been sitting like this for years, sometimes with her mother, sometimes with her sister, and often alone. This waiting began soon after the start of the war—first for bread, meat and fat, and later also for sugar, milk, potatoes, eggs, and coal. The war is over, and still she’s sitting here, just the same as before, in this dark forest of bodies that has been growing up all around her for the past five years, stretching its limbs further with each passing night into alleyways and streets, around corners, up steps, and across the squares of Vienna, while she herself has grown within it.
Erpenbeck uses The End of Days to explore the balance between what is dictated by the lives we make for ourselves, and the life dictated to us by others. How much of our own lives can we control, how much of it depends on those who rule us. The whimsy and attitude of those sitting behind a desk can often cause major events in our lives. If your name is amongst those being called for slaughter, will your paperwork be processed by a man who has never met you and for which you are only a number? Or will it be processed by a man who remembers you made beautiful strudel and as such you are given a second chance? What if a minor error is made in the spelling of your name and you are denied this memory, this glimpse of hope? Erpenbeck reminds us of the acts of our country that we cannot change, and how they can alter our lives beyond recognition in a blink of an eye.
The End of Days is more broadly about sense of place. How do we connect to a place that wants us expelled, yet is the site of our childhood, our family, our sense of home? The disconnection between past and present, between home and away:
Ever since her husband’s arrest, she has felt like a stranger in this land, even thought when they first arrived, it was a homecoming, despite the fact that they’d never set foot here before 1935. A homecoming to the future that was to belong to them.
There is a powerful message in The End of Days about displacement that despite being set in the past, is just as relevant in the present. Every day in Australia someone sits behind a desk and makes decisions on the lives of those wanting to build a new home here and is not only influenced by rules and regulation, but whether they had a good night’s sleep, whether they have a headache, whether they are worried about their child at home or whether they are distracted by the news of the day. Every day people’s lives are changed for the better or for the worst by a small group of people who represent a whole nation. We think of these decisions being made by powerful dictators in the past, but they are still made every day, by ordinary people. We have distanced ourselves so much from this reality that we not only separate ourselves from those we make these decisions about by hiding them away behind barbed-wire fences out of sight, without the ability to know who they are, to hear their stories, to make ourselves vulnerable enough to know that someone once made a really good strudel and therefore deserves a second chance. But we’ve also distanced ourselves to a point that we are the ones making these decisions. That the facelessness that we’ve created is just as powerful as the dictators that we hope to distance ourselves from. Erpenbeck’s subtle, beautiful novel tells us what can happen when we give second chances, and the devastation we can cause when we look the other way.
Lately I’ve been feeling a little overwhelmed at the shortness of life. In the last few months a handful of people I hold very dear have been struggling. Really struggling. Some are coming out the other side. Some are making really good progress. Some are well and truly still in deep. It’s been gut-wrenching and heart breaking to see this happen to people you love and admire. It’s affected me strongly and I’ve been pretty emotional about it all. But it’s also made me stop and think about what I have to be grateful for. My partner is an incredible human who has literally picked me off the floor during some pretty dark times and I believe him when he tells me we are here to look after each other and make our world happier by being together. One of my best friends is pregnant and I’m excited beyond belief for her and her very excellent partner. Two of our friends just got married in the most beautiful, joyful, yet relaxed way possible and it still makes my heart full thinking about it. Summer might finally be coming to Melbourne. It’s nearly Christmas. Next year is going to be the start of some big changes and I cannot wait to tell you more.
Heidi from Apples Under My Bed recently wrote this truly beautiful post about what she is grateful for, as she prepared to attend my friend Yasmeen’s Friendsgiving meal. She ruminates on finding your place in the world, on finally connecting with what truly makes you happy. It’s something I completely understand and as always, Heidi articulates it beautifully. As I write this, I’m grateful for little things. Like avocados being affordable again and the start of cherry season. Like friends who I don’t see very often but when I do it just makes sense. Like being able to spend a Sunday afternoon reading, writing, drinking cups of tea and baking. I had been wanting to make this recipe for a Life Changing Loaf of Bread for ages, but then came along Heidi’s tried and tested Nut, Oat and Seed Loaf and here we are. I did two things wrong: I didn’t weigh the nuts (despite Heidi’s many warnings) and my loaf tin was too wide. If you’re also using a standard loaf tin rather than the smaller one Heidi uses I’d make a double batch of batter to fill out the tin properly. But it still made a beautiful, moorish loaf that is as tasty as it is beautiful. I can imagine eating this across all three meals of the day: with a boiled egg for breakfast, with avocado and leaves (as I did here) or chutney and cheddar for lunch, with soup or a salad niçoise for dinner.
You might have noticed recently (particularly if you follow me on Twitter) that I’ve been thinking a lot about gender disparity in literature. From the differences in design for female-authored books (highlighted in this article which I linked to in my post for How Should A Person Be? and which I also discussed in my review of Dress, Memory), to the absence of books written by women on our high school curriculum (which I wrote about for Kill Your Darlings’ blog Killings here), it’s been getting me pretty fired up recently. If you’re also interested in this idea, you should read this fantastic article by Ceridwen Dovey in The Monthly about the ruthlessness towards family and friends in autobiographical fiction, and the differences in how this is perceived depending on whether it’s written by a man (such as Karl Knausgaard’s My Struggle series) or by a woman (such as the work of Helen Garner).