Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days

 "The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days."

Lives end pretty frequently for the female protagonist in Jenny Erpenbeck's The End of Days, people die around her, but those deaths also include her own. Four times she dies and we see what that death does to the people around her; four times, through the magic of fiction, she avoids her death and carries on; only the fifth, at the age of ninety does she die for good--or ill.

The protagonist (unnamed, so I'm going to have to awkwardly keep calling her the protagonist) is born in Brody around 1900, a town now in the Ukraine, but then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. She's the eldest child of a Jewish mother and German father.

I'm going to unpick Erpenbeck's structure and give the story of the protagonist straightforwardly; it's easier; but it's also the case the suspense is in how she dies, and revealing the causes of death feels a bit spoiler-ish. And there are so very many ways for a woman with that background to die in Eastern Europe in the 20th century. 

Her father is a civil servant with the Austro-Hungarian empire, initially working for the railroad, and of the lowest pay grade. Even in a provincial town, the family can barely make ends meet. A younger sister is born. The father has the opportunity to take a job with the meteorological institutes in Vienna. He moves up a couple of grades, but then Vienna is so much more expensive. Then WWI comes, the Austro-Hungarian empire is broken up, and Austria is impoverished. "One month's salary, if she [the girl's mother] stretched it skilfully, would last a week." The novel does have its moments of grim humor.

The opening quote comes from those years. The protagonist's best friend dies of the Spanish flu; the protagonist is half in love with her dead friend's boyfriend. At this time the protagonist is sneaking off from the house; the mother assumes she's prostituting herself, but in fact she's joined the Communist party. She writes a novel. She leaves for Russia and marries a German Communist there. (From here on in, she's referred to as Comrade H., or Frau Hoffmann, so maybe I will, too.) The years of the Stalinist terror come. Another dark joke:
"Three prisoners are sitting in a cell and they get to talking.
Why are you in prison?
I was for Bukharin.
What about you?
I was against Bukharin.
And you?
I am Bukharin."
After the second World War ends, Frau Hoffmann moves to East Germany. Herr Hoffmann is dead, but she had a child by another man and the child comes with her. In East Germany she's a celebrated author, but her reputation doesn't extend outside the Communist world. Late in life she suffers dementia and her son is forced to commit her to a nursing home.

The novel came out in German in 2012 and was translated into English by Susan Bernofsky in 2014.

Two of her four premature deaths are political; the other two more domestic. It gives a great sense of how contingent life was in that time and place. The Holocaust lurks, but none of Frau Hoffmann's deaths are caused directly by the Holocaust. It's a novel as history of the 20th century, like The Eighth Life (For Brilka) -- I thought this much better -- or Earthly Powers -- hmm, Earthly Powers is awfully good. I understand Erpenbeck was trying to universalize her character by leaving her unnamed, but it did sometimes lead to awkward moments in the prose, I thought. Still this was very good, touching and surprising both.

Ukraine, Germany, Russia and--though I still need Russia--Austria, which is how I'm counting it...



  1. i thought this sounded like an almost familiar, not plot, but ambiance, and when you mentioned Burgess it clicked... i've read some of his books but not all. he was definitely an original and this seems well worthwhile looking for... tx...

    1. I liked the other one I read by her, too.

      I've been thinking about rereading the Burgess myself.

  2. What an interesting premise. I'm kind of intrigued by this one.

  3. Interesting review, Reese. 'There are so very many ways for a woman with that background to die in Eastern Europe in the 20th century.' Yes, so terrible!

    1. Thanks!

      It was a pretty terrible period for a lot of people.