That section is titled “Life,” and indeed, the reminiscences have a crackling vitality. In one, the adult Erpenbeck at last gets to open her “Stasi file,” the record kept by the now-defunct secret police, and there discovers middle-school love letters. In another her dead mother’s old pressure cooker proves full of surprises. Both memories are expressed with masterful touches of repetition, achieving a telegraphic poetry. Nevertheless, the section comes to no more than a handful of pieces, a number of them only a couple of pages.
Meatier by far is the group that follows, “Literature and Music.” These investigations into Erpenbeck’s joint calling (she directs opera, as well as writing novels) bristle with erudite allusion, not to mention sheer smarts. Repetition remains a hallmark of her style, but here it turns canny, yielding aphoristic gems: “Both literature and music are closely connected to … silence, in their essence they are nothing but interpretations of … silence, at least insofar as they aim to arrive at something like truth.” She meditates on forebears from the Brothers Grimm to the late W.G. Sebald, and in the process illuminates fresh parallels between timeless fable and postmodern experiment.
A lengthy trio of university lectures amounts to an ars poetica, meditations that address her playwriting as well as her fiction. The three talks resonate with memorable lines (“The world is there in every word, no matter how small”) and serve as a centerpiece for the entire text. Combined with the rest of the section’s belles lettres, the impact is of a master at work, someone who ought to be considered for the Nobel — just as some critics claimed, following her breakout with “Go, Went, Gone.”
This latest book closes with “Society,” just two essays. These pack a terrific punch, however, as they confront one of our moment’s most pressing issues, namely, the untold millions of displaced people seeking asylum. The first offers an obituary, alert to the most telling details, for an African immigrant Erpenbeck came to know in the course of her research. The second, the book’s closer, is a lecture delivered in 2018 in deepest Republican Oklahoma. There Erpenbeck has the temerity to affirm the humanity of contemporary refugees — in particular the families coming across the Rio Grande. Boldly citing Donald Trump’s notorious obscenity concerning impoverished African countries, she insists, in a ringing if unprintable final line, that we all come from such downtrodden places.
“Not a Novel” cannot claim to be a coherent whole. Nevertheless, its pig-in-a-python ungainliness contributes to the fascination. Variety proves its own reward, since in every guise this artist makes virtuosic adjustments, changes of tone or rhetoric. A couple of essays salute Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” as an essential resource, “a living thing … that … meets me again and again … in the various ages of life,” and longtime Erpenbeckians will recall her tendency to shift shapes from one book to the next. Her most radical departure led to her most celebrated accomplishment; “Go, Went, Gone” followed a single character through a straightforward chronology (well, mostly), something new for this author.
Despite their differences, these essays come together to assert the value of the writer’s vocation. Whatever her subject or tone, Erpenbeck keeps coming back to how her work enables us to know the unknowable, especially in our ever-changing heads and hearts. “It takes an entire lifetime,” she contends, “to unravel the mysteries of our own lives,” and in that task we have no better tool than fiction, poetry, drama — or even memoir.
Two of the personal pieces in “Not a Novel” are haunted by the death of Erpenbeck’s mother. As she warms to a reminiscence about the old woman’s cookware, the daughter admits the piece cast a spell. “I get the idea that I should bury the pot. A quiet burial on our land outside the city,” she writes. “A very quiet burial, since I don’t want anyone to know I’m the kind of person who holds a funeral for a pressure cooker.” The incident is at once charming and unsettling, and therefore squarely in keeping with Erpenbeck at her most scholarly, in the university lectures. Here she rises to a preacher’s cadence, claiming a mystic power for the storyteller’s art: “Literature is indiscreet, its purpose is to be intimate, to tear secrets wide open . . .to allow us, the readers, to see and to perceive … more than one person alone normally can.”
John Domini’s latest book is a novel, “The Color Inside a Melon”; his next will be the memoir “The Archeology of a Good Ragù.”
Not a Novel
A Memoir in Pieces
By Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions. 212 pp. $16.95