The Real Woman in the Real Cupboard

Benjamin Markovits

In the fourth section of The Emigrants, W.G. Sebald (or rather, his narrative alter ego) travels back to Germany from Norwich to look into the childhood of Max Ferber, an artist based loosely on Frank Auerbach. At 15 Ferber had been sent to England by his parents, who were eventually murdered in the camps at Riga. Sebald finds the silence of the people he encounters weird and unsettling: ‘I felt increasingly that the mental impoverishment and lack of memory that marked the Germans, and the efficiency with which they had cleaned everything up, were beginning to affect my head and my nerves.’ Yet the reaction of Germans to the terrible things in their recent past continued to fascinate him. It isn’t easy writing about the Holocaust – artists work with proportions, and the Holocaust distorts all proportions – but Sebald turned the ‘after silence’ into a rich subject.

I have experienced something of this reaction first-hand – but it wasn’t characterised by silence. My German grandfather built ships for the Nazis. My mother, who was born in 1937, told us stories about the war at bedtime. She used to argue with my brother about the degree of her father’s complicity. Part of the heat of these arguments came from the fact that our father is Jewish, from New York, and his family gave him hell for marrying a Christian from Schleswig-Holstein less than 25 years after the end of the Second World War. My parents are both academics and for two non-consecutive years I went to high school (or Gymnasium) in Berlin – the first time a few months after the fall of the Wall, and the second during reunification. Twentieth-century German history played a large part in the curriculum, both in Geschichte and Literatur Unterricht, and teachers and students didn’t seem at all shy of expressing their opinions. I remember a wonderful English teacher, a short, vivid, grey-haired, energetic old man. In the course of discussing Slaughterhouse-Five, he said with painful honesty that if he had been born a year earlier, he had no doubt he would have become an ardent member of the Hitler Youth.

The war and the Holocaust came up naturally in class discussions – in part because so many of the students were reacting angrily against the military engagement in Kuwait. But Jews and Jewishness remained subjects on which the Germans came across as weird. (When I spoke to my mother about this recently, she reminded me of something her own mother once said to her. ‘I cannot say Jew the way you do,’ she remarked sadly.) An art teacher discussing the stereotypes employed by a cartoonist asked the class to describe one character’s features. Sinister, dishonest, dirty, they all said. Which surprised me: I thought he looked rather simpatico, an anxious man down on his luck. ‘Can you sum up these characteristics in a word?’ the teacher asked. And without hesitation my classmates answered: ‘Jewish.’ They didn’t mean that Jews were sinister and dishonest. They only meant that the cartoonist was playing off the stereotype, but it seemed odd to me how easily they fell in with his tactics.

In German class, we read Lessing’s play Nathan der Weise, based on his friend Moses Mendelssohn: a famous Enlightenment account of an enlightened Jew. When we discussed it I said that Nathan didn’t seem very Jewish to me, he didn’t have any particularly Jewish characteristics or habits of thought, and one of my classmates called out, almost involuntarily: ‘Oh, das ist fies’ – a hard phrase to translate. Fies means ‘mean’, in an underhand, school-bully kind of way. I looked at her baffled until the teacher stepped in to explain. There are also good Jewish characteristics, she said. The girl thought I was arguing that Nathan couldn’t be Jewish, because he wasn’t sinister, dishonest, dirty etc. She thought I was being nasty.

None of these struck me as examples of anti-semitism. Rather, the Germans of my generation responded to the peculiar burden of their history by discrediting all ideas of ethnic difference. Everyone was, somewhat impersonally, the same. They understood the stereotypes, of course, and knew their source, but for them any differentiation between groups could only be at the level of stereotype. At a party in Hanover I remember talking to a girl who seemed genuinely puzzled by the idea that you could tell someone was Jewish. Not a character in a book, or a cartoon on a page, but a real actual Jew, who naturally in her view would be just like everybody else. ‘Nobody cares,’ she said, about such differences. Meaning, they don’t exist. I tried to explain that Jews sometimes care, that certain differences matter to them, and that certain differences mattered to me too. She looked at me suspiciously, as if I were trying to surprise her into some kind of racist confession. ‘Honestly,’ she repeated, ‘nobody cares.’ Maybe this feeling accounts for the indifference and worse than indifference my Gymnasium classmates showed at the prospect of reunification. The same teenagers who boycotted school in protest against Operation Desert Storm had no particular fellow-feeling for the Germans on the other side of the Wall. Just because they are Germans, why should we welcome them?

Jenny Erpenbeck’s new novel, Visitation, can be read as a response or a companion to Sebald’s The Emigrants. The German title makes this clearer: Heimsuchung, ‘looking for home’, ‘returning home’. Like Sebald, Erpenbeck attempts to take the long view of modern German history, though her perspective is geological rather than historical. Visitation begins with an account of the landscape around a lake in Brandenburg: ‘Approximately 24,000 years ago, a glacier advanced until it reached a large outcropping of rock …’ Twenty-four thousand years later, a wealthy mayor owns most of the lakeside real estate. He produces no sons; one of his four daughters goes mad and drowns in the lake; the others fail to marry. The land goes out of the family. An architect buys it some time after the First World War (there are few dates given) and builds a beautiful house on it, with stained glass windows, wrought-iron balconies, a secret closet. This house subsequently passes through a string of owners and occupants: a Jewish family waiting for their visas; the Russian army; another architect, an East German who is later imprisoned for doing business with the West – until it falls into disrepair. At the end of the book, the house is torn down and the landscape, ‘if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more’. The landscape, of course, doesn’t care who occupies it, and if the view you take is long enough then the terrible events of the 20th century that shaped these people’s lives begin to look rather small.

Erpenbeck trained as a bookbinder and has also had a successful career as a theatre director. Visitation is her third novel, after The Old Child and The Book of Words. All her books have been short, dense and lightly experimental. Anyone who has ever gone to the theatre in Berlin should be grateful for that ‘lightly’. The Old Child tells the story of an oversized, underdeveloped foundling girl, who is sent to a school for orphans. ‘Story’ probably gives the wrong idea. It’s really a kind of allegory for the horrors of childhood, a grotesque account of a child’s obsessions with weight, food, sleep, sex, fitting in, standing out. But even ‘allegory’ implies too clear a line of development. The book is mostly a series of descriptions, which occasionally suggest progress of a sort – until the end, when a mother appears on the scene and the purpose of the allegory suddenly seems to shift. The Book of Words is another surreally intense account of childhood, but more impressionistic, still more loosely shaped.

Unlike the first two books, Visitation contains specific historical facts, but it still isn’t a conventionally realist novel. The story of what happens to the mayor’s mad daughter, for example, is embedded in a long list of old German wedding customs and superstitions: ‘When a woman gets married, she must not sew her own dress. The dress may not even be made in the house where she lives …’ The list is impressively various and detailed: I have no idea how much of it Erpenbeck invented. And its effect is strangely powerful, because it makes the business of love and marriage seem so impersonal. The daughter’s suicide makes sense not as a particular response to psychological pressures but as a general response to cultural pressures. Erpenbeck’s aim seems to be to show an old-fashioned society on the brink of modern madness. Sebald (and it’s hard not to think of him in this context) employed a similar strategy in The Emigrants: one of the documents Ferber sends the narrator is a memoir his mother wrote about her childhood in Steinach, describing a Germany that is happy, almost idyllic, rooted in culture and place, before the denaturing effect of the wars to come.

Erpenbeck seems to have learned a lot from Sebald. She writes in long run-on sentences and doesn’t always concern herself with paragraphs. Important plot elements and insights are buried democratically alongside commonplace descriptions and facts:

Down in the bathing house his green towel is no doubt still hanging. Perhaps someone else will use it now to dry off. When he acquired the bathing house from the Jews, their towels were still hanging there. Before it could occur to his wife to wash them, he’d gone swimming and rubbed himself dry with one of the strangers’ towels. Strange towels. Cloth manufacturers, these Jews. Terrycloth. Top quality goods. Not too much to ask. His first application to join the Reichskulturkammer was turned down because on the line asking about his Aryan ancestry he had written ‘yes and no’. In any type of attack, it is essential to assail your opponent from behind. Terrycloth. An official well disposed toward him, someone he knew from school, had pointed out to him that the race of his great-grandparents was not relevant to this application, and he was then allowed to submit the application a second time, answering the Aryan question with ‘yes’ and attaching the certificates attesting to his and his wife’s ancestry as far back as their grandparents’ generation, whereupon his application was accepted. The yes and the no. The gaps between the planks of the bathing house had been stuffed with oakum. All the carpentry provisional. Still, he’d paid the Jews a full half of market value for the land.

The effect is both incantatory and slightly soporific: you have to pay close attention to work out what matters. Sebald uses this strategy to suggest something sinister about trains of connection that can move so quickly from the insignificant to the significant. His writing conveys a profound sense of the impersonal historical forces at work on human personalities, and Visitation at its best aims at the same kind of profundity.

The novel is hard to sum up: the things that matter in it don’t happen at the level of chronology. It might be described as a collection of interlocking short stories, except that the chapters aren’t quite stories either. A collection of prose poems is nearer the mark, which isn’t to say that nothing dramatic happens. Roughly halfway through the book there is a lengthy sexual encounter between a German woman, who has been hiding in the house’s secret closet, and the Red Army officer who discovers her in it. Standing outside the closet door, the soldier ‘grasps that on the other side of the shallow cupboard someone is breathing who already knows all his thoughts and is now awaiting the end of this very, very long second’. I’m not sure that the real woman in the real cupboard would ‘know’ about the ‘thoughts’ of the Red Army officer outside it, whom she has never seen: she’s probably just trying to work out, by the sound of his footsteps, where he is in the room. It also seems odd for the soldier to imagine himself sympathetically into the mind of the hiding woman, who may be a child, for all he knows, or an old man, or someone with a knife. Probably this is what would be on his mind: not thoughts, but how strong the breather might be, and whether he or she is armed. Erpenbeck demands at this point an athletic suspension of disbelief: for us to imagine ourselves into the point of view of the soldier, who hasn’t even seen the hiding woman, but is imagining that she, who hasn’t seen him, ‘knows all his thoughts’. And the ‘long second’ that rounds it all off seems more cinematic than persuasive.

The sexual encounter that follows is uncomfortable-making for the wrong reasons: we feel we are watching someone’s imagination at work. The man begins to sort of rape the woman but then the woman turns the tables and sort of rapes him. She urinates on his face ‘first gently, then more forcefully … and so she too is waging war, or is this love, the soldier doesn’t know, the two seem to resemble one another.’ There are flashbacks to his innocent youth: ‘the girls wore two braids on their way to school or else tied these braids into loops with big, red silk ribbons and a triangular neck scarf’ (another mixed dose of what matters and what doesn’t). Eventually, ‘the woman goes on the attack again,’ and we feel, not for the first time, the heavy symbolic freight of the encounter. The characters themselves seem to stagger under that weight; they move unnaturally, as inexperienced actors do in front of a camera, so that even terrible things seem funny:

and now she throws herself on top of him, there’s nowhere to take cover here, she wants to cover him, this mare, with experienced hands she tears open his trousers and spears herself on him, riding him deeper, then she grabs him in a chokehold and squeezes his throat, whispering curses, he has stopped resisting – if that’s what she wants – he drives his barb into her flesh, she holds his mouth shut and spits on his face, she rubs herself against him, he thrusts, she tears open her blouse and slaps her breasts in his face, and he – hears himself moaning, hears himself saying No in Russian, and she says Yes, so he keeps thrusting, thrusts the mare in two, victory grinding itself against defeat, defeat against victory, and sweat and juices between the peoples, and spurting, spurting until all life has been spurted out, the final cry the same in all languages.

Afterwards Erpenbeck offers a strange disclaimer: ‘In fact all he did was open a closet. Now he shuts the closet door again.’ It’s not clear what we’re supposed to make of this. By ‘all’ does Erpenbeck mean that a formal description, a nature’s-eye view, of what happened would include only a door’s being opened and closed? Or does she mean that the episode, in all its cinematic implausibility, represents an imagined encounter – that the sex-act was purely symbolic, with no counterpart in the reality of the story? Or is it a roundabout way of saying that the soldier doesn’t give the woman away.

A certain amount of confusion is probably what Erpenbeck intended. She expects her readers to scramble to keep up. One characteristic of her narrative style is that within each episode she tends to invert present and past, effect and cause. There’s a chapter that begins:

Hermine and Arthur, his parents.
He himself, Ludwig, the firstborn.
His sister Elisabeth, married to Ernst.
Their daughter Doris, his niece.
Then his wife Anna.
And now the children: Elliot and baby Elisabeth, named for his sister.

This refrain (for that’s what it is; Erpenbeck keeps repeating it) turns out to be necessary. Subsequent paragraphs move backwards and forwards in place and time, various characters move in and out of the house, and the only way we have of working out their relation to each other is this list.

Here’s my best effort at piecing together what happens in the chapter. The family are Jewish. Ludwig and Anna emigrate to South Africa in 1936. Ludwig’s parents visit them for two weeks, but go home to Germany afterwards. Eventually they are persuaded to sell their house, at a greatly reduced rate, but it’s too late. And so:

When Holland enters the war the passports for Ludwig’s parents are ready, but it is no longer possible to wire the money to the steamship company. Ludwig knows that it is not without its dangers to lie down to rest beneath a eucalyptus tree. But he loves the rustling sound. Even when the gardener shakes his head the pencil does not fall out. Elliot speaks his first word: Mum. Anna is pregnant for the second time.

I think I see the point to this confusingness. It suggests the disruption of an emigrant’s life, and the way disaster – the death of Ludwig’s parents in ‘the gas truck in Kulmhof’ – can sit side by side in time with happiness. A few months afterwards, in South Africa, a second baby is born. Towards the end of the novel, Erpenbeck makes this point explicit. A widow begins to feel that the events in her life happened simultaneously. ‘Now that she is old, her husband’s injury could be the reason she fell in love with him, and the music he played when he arrived in her village had its roots in his early death.’ She imagines that everything she says has been said before: ‘she wonders whether the sentences go out looking for people to utter them, or whether it’s just the opposite and the sentences simply wait for someone to come along and make use of them.’ Both of these ideas strip the personal from history. If you take away cause and effect, you take away intention; if the sentences have all been said then it doesn’t matter who says them.

Much of the book is taken up with domestic concerns – the house, the garden, cooking, sweeping, planting. The gardener holds the whole thing together like a kind of Tiresias, though he makes no comment. He just digs and plants, part of the property that’s passed along from owner to owner with the house. His passages are beautifully written: Erpenbeck has a sharp eye for unpretentious natural detail and pays close attention to the little repetitions necessary to hold a life together. She applies the same register to more terrible events. Her account of the gas truck murders is vividly practical:

Arthur’s eyes pop out of their sockets as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before, all their assets, together with the assets remaining in Germany that belonged to their son, Ludwig, who has emigrated, are seized, all the frozen bank accounts dissolved and their household goods auctioned off.

One test of any novel about the Holocaust is whether it can make us feel again what has become so difficult to feel. The events themselves are too awful; their awfulness has been so frequently invoked. Erpenbeck here chooses her impersonal language very carefully, in order to heighten our sentimental response. We can compare Arthur and Hermine’s deaths, several thousand miles removed from the new lives of their children, to a similar moment in The Emigrants – when Ferber, at school in England, stops getting letters from his parents:

The correspondence became more of a chore, and when the letters stopped coming, in November 1941, I was relieved at first, in a way that now strikes me as quite terrible. Only gradually did it dawn on me that I would never again be able to write home; in fact, to tell the truth, I do not know if I have really grasped it to this day.

Here the language is also neutral and matter of fact, but unsensationally so. Ferber didn’t see the murders, so he won’t describe them. The passage suggests a struggle to feel anything commensurate to the horror of what happened. Erpenbeck, by forgoing realist characters and limited points of view, has no choice but to describe everything, and to make the reader respond the right way she has to play tricks on him.

It’s hardly a damning criticism of a novel to say that it doesn’t live up to Sebald. Sebald himself didn’t always live up to Sebald. One can read too many of his intricate, rich but slightly inhuman accounts of 20th-century history. Erpenbeck’s interests are more menschlich: the pleasures of breakfast, of swimming outdoors, of returning to a country house after a period away. Her book is also a reflection of the fact that ‘mental impoverishment and lack of memory’ no longer characterise the German response to the Holocaust.

I’m probably not avant-garde enough (or German enough) to appreciate Erpenbeck’s work. The price she pays for cutting up her narrative seems to me very high: the reader has to work hard just to find out what’s going on. One of the arguments I got into with a few of my classmates in Berlin had to do with a short story we had just finished reading, by Heinrich Böll maybe, about a man who was persecuted for the colour of his hair, which was red. He lost his job; the waitresses in the cafés refused to serve him etc. The whole thing was supposed to be an allegory for the Third Reich. I don’t understand, I said. Nobody has strong feelings about the colour of your hair. It doesn’t make any sense. And the other kids looked at me a little bemused. As if to say: but how could you have strong feelings about the Jews?