So far, things are going reasonably well for German Lit Month, I’m pleased to report. Halfway through, I’ve read just over a book and a half from my list, so that’s not too bad considering that I’ve also started a new job and so am a bit busy sorting out my new life.
Jenny Erpenbeck’s Aller Tage Abend (The End of Days) is one of those books I’ve heard mentioned here and there with respect ever since it came out, so my curiosity had been piqued. When I wanted to select some female writers for German Lit Month this year, it was a sort of natural choice.
Here’s a brief plot round-up, with brief being quite difficult because this novel – which isn’t even that thick – manages to pack quite a punch of a sweeping plot. It sets out in the late 19th Century in Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) and opens with the death of an eight month-old girl and the story of her parents afterwards. The girl’s father leaves the house in grief and never returns, emigrating to America like so many Central and Eastern Europeans of his period. The mother, left without resources, moves back in with her own mother and works in her shop, before she mistakes the advances of a military officer for real interest – while he just wants sex. This is the beginning of a spiral that eventually leads to her becoming a prostitute.
But what if the little girl had not died at eight months? The following parts of the novel play through different scenarios of how her life could have developed. What if she had survived and her parents had moved to Vienna? What if she had experienced the First World War and died shortly after? What if she had herself emigrated to Russia as a Communist and been arrested in one of Stalin’s purges? What if she had become a successful writer in the German Democratic Republic?
The novel is centred on the saying “Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wird, ist längst noch nicht aller Tage Abend” (At the end of a day on which there has been a death, it’s not yet the end of days – my translation), and the idea that there are always different options – depending on the elements of own and other people’s choices, as well as chance. The way the book plays through the different scenarios is really innovative; really it conflates several novellas into one longer novel. It also allows Jenny Erpenbeck to touch on many aspects of the history of the 20th Century without having to introduce an unwieldy plot and lots of characters, because the same protagonist lives through different possibilities (except in the first scenario, where the parents become the protagonists).
I also liked the book’s simple, but never simplistic language. It goes well with the stories, it’s unpretentious and evokes emotions just enough so they’re triggered in the reader, but the reader can do the feeling themselves. This is where Aller Tage Abend fell a bit flat for me. I could see the trigger, but somehow I didn’t really become emotionally involved – I’m not even sure why. It just didn’t work out.
And finally, I enjoyed the focus on women’s stories, because Aller Tage Abend doesn’t tell just the story of the girl’s life. Erpenbeck uses the different storylines also to create other multi-faceted female characters of whom more and more is revealed the longer the girl herself survives, especially the mother and grandmother. The only male character that is further developed is the father, a public servant who has married a Jewish woman, which complicates his career, in addition to the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which complicates the family’s life further. So many novels exploring the 20th Century focus on male experiences that it’s great to read one that has women at its centre. It shows how strong they had to be to survive and overcome whatever History threw their way.
Overall, I liked Aller Tage Abend, although it won’t make my all-time favourites list. It spoke to me at an intellectual level, but somehow I didn’t really become invested in the book. Even so, I’m glad I read it and I’d recommend it to others as well. Erpenbeck’s devices are very interesting and she explores a new way of writing about an historical period that is very complex to capture.
P.S. I think some other German Lit Month participants are also reading this, so I’m looking forward to your thoughts!