Translated by Susan Bernofsky
Book 13 of my #20booksofsummer
Visitation is a short novel, at just 150 pages, which I’d picked up in the past and then abandoned, largely because I think it isn’t the novel I’d expected it to be, and I needed to adjust to that. I’d imagined a straightforward fly-on-the-wall narrative, focusing on one Manderley-esque house over perhaps a hundred or two hundred years, whereas Visitation is more abstract than my expectations, less hard-edged and more poetic. It’s very clever, but I still don’t know that I enjoyed it.
First published in German in 2008, the novel appeared in English translation in 2010. The German title, Heimsuchung, evades straightforward translation into English. My German stops at GCSE level, but the author has said that the word translates as “devastation”. However, it can also be broken into its composite parts: “Heim” (home) and “suchung” (searching), or “home-seeking”. The house around which the book revolves, then, represents both sides of this interpretation: a longing for a lost home, and the horror of the terrible events of the 20th century in Germany. But the depth of meaning doesn’t stop there, since “Heim” is a not a neutral word, it is loaded with secondary meanings, around obligation, around politics … the Nazis were big on the notion of Heim.
The narrative evokes a house and a plot of land that is owned by several different families over the course of the 20th century, while the events of history play out in the wings. Both the house and its location are based, in large part, on Erpenbeck’s own family history, as she spent happy times as a child at her grandmother’s lakeside house in Brandenburg.
At the beginning of the novel, a plot of land near Berlin, on the side of a Brandenburg lake, is intended as part of a dowry, to consolidate wealth between two families. However, when the marriage doesn’t take place, the land is sold.
An architect builds on the land and acquires a neighbouring plot, together with access to the lake and a “little bathing house”, from its Jewish owners, who are trying to raise funds to flee to Brazil. Later, we find out the fate of that Jewish family, and we see how, in her last days, doomed 12-year-old Doris treasures her warm memories of swimming and playing in the lake with her family.
During the Second World War the house witnesses scenes of carnality and violence, and afterwards its grounds conceal valuables when the architect and his wife flee East Germany. Another family receives the house upon their return from exile in Russia, and the house impassively watches the owner’s legal battle to retain it after German unification, in the face of a restitution order. Amid all this change, only one character remains in situ: the semi-mythical, unnamed gardener, who continues to work on the land as he ages.
It was interesting to see 20th century German history from the East German perspective, but I struggled with the style. The prose is pared down and minimal – like a kind of anti-Knaussgård – with barely any dialogue, and most characters remain nameless. I found the introspective and impersonal nature of the writing meant that I sometimes didn’t feel particularly inclined to read on. In the German, Erpenbeck’s writing is known for its lyrical, poetic quality, but in the English translation the paragraphs are quite long and dense, and, dare I say, off-puttingly so.
The tale of the house and its various occupants is bookended by a Prologue, giving a brief account of the historic events that shaped the landscape over many thousands of years, and an Epilogue telling us of the demolition of the house, after which “the landscape, if ever so briefly, resembles itself once more”. The novel thus emphasises the illusion of ownership, the often arbitrariness of legal diktats, and the fact that human concerns and activities, however monumental or devastating their impact, are only an infinitesimally tiny part of earth’s slow history.
“Perhaps eternal life already exists during a human lifetime, but since it looks different to what we’re hoping for – something that transcends everything that’s ever happened – since it looks instead like the old life we already knew, no one recognizes it.”