Erpenbeck’s refreshing frankness and incisive thinking permeate this collection. Written over two decades, Not a Novel includes snapshots of a happy childhood in the German Democratic Republic, literary criticism on writers she admires (including Hans Fallada, Walter Kempowski, Thomas Mann and Ovid) and meditations on her own work as a writer. We learn of her love of folk tales, how their “intensity” and “harshness” infiltrate her own fiction, and how music (she worked as an opera director) taught her “to give shape to the gaps between the words, those mute spaces, to give rhythm to the silence between the words. The pauses are part of the text, they may be the finest part…”
Erpenbeck notes that reviews of her work have often claimed her to be particularly concerned with childhood. She corrects this, pointing out that her first two novels, The Old Child (1999) and The Book of Words (2004), were in fact interested in the tension between one truth and another, between past and present, innocence and experience. “One wonderful aspect of literature is that merely by naming this unresolvable tension, it casts a sort of spell, and while it may not give us the one, irrefutable truth, it does provide us with a structure that allows us to observe the many truths that exist parallel to one another, to consider them precisely in parallel.” Erpenbeck’s writing is at its best precisely when she is able to provide us with this structure. At a time when former East German states vote in increasing numbers for the right-wing party Alternativ für Deutschland, Erpenbeck’s voice is all the more important for its ability to draw attention to a parallel world, one that sought to call a new future into being, rather than harking back to a darker past.
Not a Novel is not just autobiographical. There are fascinating reflections on German literature — Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Hans Fallada, Thomas Mann and Walter Kempowski’s war novel All for Nothing — as well as exquisite descriptions of the writing process. Why does a person want to write? she asks at one point. It’s because “we find it hard to make ourselves understood.” “In fact,” she goes on, “as strange as it sounds, the most important reason for writing is probably that we are at a loss for words.”
she is as incisive when considering the East Berlin, now demolished, where she grew up as she is when critically contemplating the writings of Thomas Mann or Hans Fallada. The book acts, in part, as a fragmented memoir: to read Erpenbeck’s musings on the majesty of folk tales or on life in the shadow of the Stasi is to begin to understand the forces that propelled her to become the deft, fearless author she is today.
In this attentive prose, in her desire to map stories that are suppressed and rhythms of the heart that keep being forgotten, Erpenbeck is one of the most vital writers working today. While this slim collection does not have the power of her fiction, it still reminds us of a humanity that, right now, feels terribly under threat, which keeps us connected to one another as well as to ourselves.