March/April 2022
Jenny Erpenbeck: Not a Novel

Book cover: Not a Novel
© Granta

Fans of Marilynne Robinson’s essays will find themselves drawn in by Jenny Erpenbeck’s Not a Novel.

The American author Marilynne Robinson is perhaps best known for her novels (notably Gilead and Housekeeping), but she also has a dedicated readership – amongst them former US president Barrack Obama – for her essays, collected in books such as The Givenness of Things and What Are We Doing Here?. Exploring ideas around creativity, contemporary society and what it is that makes us human, Robinson’s delicate and persuasive essays draw you in and stretch the borders of your thoughts.

I had a similarly expansive experience while reading Jenny Erpenbeck’s latest book in English, Not a Novel: Writings and Reflections, which brings together articles and speeches written by the author over the past 25 years. (I should caveat here that Erpenbeck has none of Robinson’s fascination with faith, and her writing is rather more accessible, though just as thought-provoking.) The essays appear in a lithe and sensitive translation by Kurt Beals, but the book only presents a selection of the articles which appeared in the longer German collection – perhaps the others were deemed too culturally specific?

Divided into three sections – ‘Life’, ‘Literature and Music’ and ‘Society’ – Not a Novel is of course a must read for any Erpenbeck fans out there. A couple of the essays delve into Erpenbeck’s approach to two of her earlier novels, The Old Child and The Book of Words, and the book reflects on the author’s ideas around writing more generally. Particularly fascinating is Erpenbeck’s background in theatre and music (her formal training was as an opera director) and the way her understanding of song, with its movement, harmonies and silences, has fed into her writing. She is eloquent on the importance of “the gaps the between the words”, recognising that “that which is kept silent takes up just as much space as that which is spoken of openly.”

Interwoven with this exploration of poetics are Erpenbeck’s uneasy reflections on society, which for me make up the most moving and thought-provoking parts of the book. In her memories of the East Berlin of her childhood with its ruins and constructions sites (I loved the image of a young Jenny climbing through the ruins of Berlin’s Museum Island), she reminds us that “we weren’t a wonder or a horror to ourselves, we were the everyday world, and in that everyday world we were among ourselves”.

Erpenbeck’s expression of her ambivalence towards re-unification is the most eloquent I have ever come across (“now, all of a sudden, we were supposed to believe that the best of all possible worlds had been found?”). And to my surprise, her musings on the ways in which debate and discussion were bypassed feels remarkably relevant for post-Brexit Scotland, still feeling the aftershocks of two divisive referendums, with all their talk of winners and losers, majority and minority: “The majority had defeated the minority and done away with socialism, and the minority, which believed in the continued existence of a socialist system, in improvements, replacements, wasn’t even asked anymore, freedom was suddenly freedom of the majority.”

In one essay, Erpenbeck suggests that writing – and above all discovering her books have met with keen readers – “means that I’m not alone with the baggage of life”. As I underlined more and more of her thoughts in Not A Novel, neither was I.

About the author

Annie Rutherford is an incorrigible bookworm and Jill of all (word-based) trades. She is the Assistant Festival Director at StAnza (Scotland’s international poetry festival), a German-English literary translator, and runs Lighthouse Bookshop’s Women in Translation book group, among other things. She has been known to read while cycling (she does not recommend it), and can spot a misplaced apostrophe at a distance of fifty yards.

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