The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck

The End of Days BY Jenny Erpenbeck. New Directions. Hardcover, 256 pages. $22.
The cover of The End of Days

At one point in Jenny Erpenbeck’s remarkable novel, The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend), a woman who is falling to her death thinks of how thinks of how, throughout her life, she had done things for the last time without knowing it. “Death was not a moment but a front,” he thinks, “one that was as long as life.” As in the books of W. G. Sebald, life and death in Erpenbeck’s novel are separated by so thin a membrane as to render both a kind of purgatory. But the coexistence is uneasy—something as immeasurable as death doesn’t seem to fit naturally within the measured limits of a life, nor does the intimate clock of a lifespan appear to synch with that of historical time. In this book, Erpenbeck is most interested in what can be recuperated from the space between.

Published in Germany in 2012 and now available in a careful English translation by Susan Bernofsky, the novel takes its German title from the saying “Es ist noch nicht aller Tage Abend,” meaning: “It isn’t over until the end of all days.” It begins with the burial of an eight-month-old Jewish girl in a small Galician town around the year 1900. The child’s mother stands by the grave and, as each handful of dirt is thrown in, mourns the death of the girl, woman, and crone the baby might have become: “She doesn’t know how she can bear it that her child’s death still persists, that from now on it will persist for all eternity and never diminish.” As a result of the death, certain events unfold: the baby’s “goy” father emigrates to America; the mother learns that her own father was killed in a pogrom; the family is torn apart. But Erpenbeck is less interested in what happens than in how the story intersects with what might have been, giving life to the possibilities foreclosed by, but nonetheless coexisting with, the child’s death. In an “Intermezzo,” she imagines the way things might have been different, “if for example the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill and put it under the baby’s shirt,” allowing the girl to breathe. With this small exchange—a handful of snow for a handful of dirt—Erpenbeck finds an exit from fate, a layer of freedom hidden inside—or under—events. In each of the four chapters that follow, then, the girl survives, living out another stage of life as her mother imagined: an impulsive teenager in Red Vienna, a young wife in Moscow haunted by the Stasi; a middle-aged Soviet author in East Berlin; a befuddled elder spending her last days in a nursing home. These lives, too, are lost for the smallest, most contingent of reasons—the road is iced up; she gives someone a hug; she walks downstairs five minutes too soon—and each of these chance errors is caught up in the vastness of historical events: There is ice on the road because the men who would clear it have been lost in the war; the receiver of hugs is a Trotskyite.

The flipside of such contingency is that nothing is without consequence. A true miniaturist, Erpenbeck adorns her character’s lives with a catalogue of minute incidents and disasters: a beetle crawls up a blade of grass, causing it to bend imperceptibly, a puddle freezes in the shape of South Africa, a stone scrapes the spine of a volume of Goethe, an Aryan bride buys a clock. In Erpenbeck’s hands, these seemingly meaningless moments ripple outward to touch the character’s lives, effecting, as one character puts it, a “constant translation between the far outside and deep within,” binding history to the personal. Although the novel is seemingly narrated from a distance, it’s no small measure of Erpenbeck’s mastery that a similar translation occurs within the novel’s prose. She subtly modulates its tone throughout, from the first chapter’s placid, almost folkloric depth to the fractured upheavals of the third. She continually recalibrates, shifting ever-so-slightly in style to register political events and tiny shifts of emotion alike: “Someone who was a Soviet poet, and she’d have sworn he almost, and with her body, and he would have, and then the two of them, and then, oh, simply given away, what?” Particular phrases, playing in and out of the minds of different characters, create a layered, intertextual mosaic of historical and personal memory, like a symphonic leitmotif or holy text annotated in different hands. Marking her prose in this way, Erpenbeck proves herself an artist of that “deep within,” making poetry, for instance, out of the gorgeous nonsense-profundities of a ninety-year-old (“Slowly, his mother says, I want to try to address the burden with the burden title”), for whom “time is a paste made of time.”

This is, in large part, a novel about time, how the eternity of death might coexist with the measured hours of a clock. The novel’s constant present, tending to foreclose the possibility of things being different, might seem to struggle against this conceit, and the text is full of precision—latitudes, distances, the length of a piece of twine, “how much a herring weighs compared to three apples.” Yet such exactitude is undermined by an equal amount of narrative hedging: “for example,” “possibly something like,” “perhaps.” In this tension between the precise and the haphazard a kind of space is created, something immeasurable, a furrow in what is. In Moscow, the young writer wonders: “Was it possible to change the world if only you found the right words?”

At one point, the dead girl’s great-grandmother recalls “debating whether the realm of God could in truth already be found here on Earth if one only knew how to look . . . [whether] there were two different worlds or just the one.” The suggestion, which comes out of the Jewish faith, is that there is a divine world interleaved into our own—if only we knew it was hiding. The End of Days allows for a similar interpenetration of its narrative world by a world of the dead, enlivening the past with a host of potential presents. In allowing possibility and chance to share a reality with certitude, whether that of death or of the 20th century’s upheaval, Erpenbeck creates the possibility of a kind of creative freedom inside of it, a space where something is saved. The great-grandmother sings a song about a man who makes a coat out of a piece of cloth, and when that is tattered makes a vest, and on and on, until he makes a button, “and a nothing at all out of the button, and in the end he makes this song out of nothing at all.” Death here, as Walter Benjamin once wrote, is the sanction of everything the storyteller can tell.

Jenny Hendrix is a Brooklyn-based writer and critic. She has written for The Believer, Slate, and the New York Times Book Review, among other places.