In thinking about the many excellent books I read this year, I kept circling back to the slender and wondrous Visitation by Jenny Erpenbeck, translated from the German by the equally wondrous Susan Bernofsky. What is Visitation, exactly? One could make a case for the book being a novel or a collection of short stories or a novel-in-stories, though Visitation is one of those rare books that is so spectacularly successful in its project, so fully-realized in its ambitions, that questions of form quickly become irrelevant.
Visitation is bookended by accounts of the emergence — “Approximately twenty-four thousands years ago, a glacier advanced…” — and the destruction — “In the case of this demolition…” — of a landscape. More specifically, this landscape, the centerpiece of the book, is a grand house on a lake in Brandenburg, as seen through the eyes of 12 characters who, at different moments in history, make a life there.
This might sound like a simple enough premise, but I am hard-pressed to remember the last time I encountered a work of fiction that captures the interior lives of its characters, in addition to the land itself, with as much complexity and brutality and love and guts and beauty and strange, piercing insight.
There are an untold number of passages in this book worth quoting, some of which concern the darkest chapters of German history. Take “The Girl,” which follows Doris, a 12-year-old girl who goes into hiding, only to be discovered by Nazis; near the story’s end, Doris “takes off her shoes forever and goes to stand on the board to be shot.”
How to write what comes next? I can scarcely imagine it.
Here is how Erpenbeck describes Doris’s passage out of the world:
“For three years the girl took piano lessons, but now, while her dead body slides down into the pit, the word piano is taken back from human beings, now the backflip on the high bar that the girl could perform better than her schoolmates is taken back, along with all the motions a swimmer makes, the gesture of seizing hold of a crab is taken back, as well as all the basic knots to be learned for sailing, all these things are taken back into uninventedness, and finally, last of all, the name of the girl herself is taken back, the name no one will ever again call her by: Doris.”
If someone were to ask me to identify the single most powerful paragraph of literature I read this year, it is, unquestionably, this.
One of the most formidable challenges that lie before fiction writers is to find language for what is unsayable and unthinkable and unknowable. In Visitation, Erpenbeck, does precisely that.
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