Looking the Sphinx in the Eyes

The first page of Jenny Erpenbeck’s amazing 2014 novel The End of Days (Aller Tage Abend in German, available in English from New Directions) has to rank among the most agonizingly beautiful—and thematically apt—novel openings ever written: “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, the grandmother had told her at the graveside. But that wasn’t true. The Lord had taken much more than was there: all that the child might have become lay down there too, being covered with earth. Three handfuls of earth, and the little girl, who, lugging her school backpack, runs from the house, lay under the earth—the backpack see-saws to and fro, as she heads off down the street; three handfuls of earth, and the ten-year-old, playing the piano with pale fingers, lay there; three handfuls, and the teenager, who men glance after because her hair shines so copper-red, was buried alive . . .” (translation mine).

Regarding translation, the author’s verb choice I rendered ‘buried alive’ was ‘verschüttet.’ The first dictionary meaning of verschütten is ‘to fill or choke up with earth or rubble,’ from the noun ‘Schutt,’ meaning ‘ruins, rubble, debris, refuse, rubbish.’ Other meanings of ‘verschütten’ are ‘to spill, upset,’ ‘to block (a road)’ and, yes, ‘to bury a person alive.’ All these meanings resonate here, introducing one of the principal thematic motifs of this book: the random cruelty of nature, chance and of men; the devil-may-care squandering of human lives—not just lives already lived, but the many potential lives each of us carries within.

As this first page graveside scene goes on, the mother imagines, with three more handfuls of dirt thrown on, the grownup woman her eight-month-old infant might have become, assisting her in her old age; then—three more handfuls—she imagines the dead baby as an old woman herself, assisted by a son or daughter of her own. Some form of the phrase ‘three handfuls of earth,’ is used five times, introducing another signature technique—repetition—of this careful, deeply affecting author.

I have no idea whether Jenny Erpenbeck is Jewish, but the extended grieving family is Jewish, except for the father. To me, the constant use of repeated phrases, sentences, even clusters of sentences, feels biblical in tone and haunting effect. I’ve read that rabbinical scholars focus heavily on repetitions in the Torah, believing there is new meaning in every repetition from the mouth of God. I might add, also from the mouth of Ms. Erpenbeck. This new meaning is often ironic, to potent emotional effect, as when a nursery song is first used to entertain a child, and later recalled in a morgue. It would be interesting to do the math on what percentage of this 264-page novel consists of repeated sentences—my guess might be fifteen percent, a shocking number for those of us schooled in the American literary industry’s rule-obsessed workshops. What it speaks to is the concision and economy of the unrepeated sentences, on which the author manages to take us on a hundred-year journey through the twentieth century. If The End of Days is a novel that clamors for re-reading—and it is—it’s not because of density or incomprehensibility, but for its compressed, symphonic complexity. (I wasn’t surprised to learn that Ms. Erpenbeck also produces operas.)
But that graveside opening reveals what’s to come in a much bolder way than through word choice and rhetorical technique. For as the mother heartbreakingly imagines the potential person her baby never came to embody, in each of her dead-on-the-vine stages of life—schoolgirl, teenager, mother, grandmother—the reader, unwittingly, is reading an approximate outline of the novel about to unfold.

The End of Days is divided into 5 ‘Books,’ each (except the last) followed by a short “intermezzo”—handfuls of earth, as it were, burying conventional novelistic logic. At the end of Book I, which follows the grieving family in the aftermath of the baby’s death, the first intermezzo poses the question, ‘What if?’ What if the eight-month-old baby hadn’t died in her crib that night in 1901, in a provincial town deep in the dying Austro-Hungarian Empire? What if one of her parents had thought, as a result of a random noise at the window, to grab a handful of snow (not earth) from the windowsill and rub it on the baby’s chest, thereby reviving her? And what if the father, instead of escaping in shock and despair to America (we follow him to Ellis Island) had moved in 1908 with his wife and daughters—two daughters now—to Vienna for work? And what if, in 1919, that resuscitated baby, now a red-headed 18-year-old at odds with her mother and struggling, along with everyone else, to survive the famine-like conditions of post-Great War Vienna, had, tragically, lived to die there instead? But, then, what if . . .? That’s right: over the course of five ‘Books’ of this novel, the protagonist dies five times, the last time in her 90’s. (I only balked briefly at this ‘gimmick:’ the narrative’s haunting, repetition-driven intensity and fearless examination of the thin membrane between life and death quickly transmute gimmickry into a novel-length cri de coeur. Besides, consider the close calls in your own life, and it maybe it won’t seem so far-fetched.)

After the graveyard scene, we enter the mind of the mother as she sits shiva, grieving, refusing food and drink, on the same footstool she once used as a child. (Now begins another type of repetition, this time, of objects—a stool, a woolen blanket, a clock, an old suitcase, a set of Goethe’s complete works, the spine of its ninth volume damaged from a rock thrown through a window during an 1890s anti-Semitic pogrom. These objects end up being, once memories fade through time and death, the only proof, albeit temporary, that a family ever existed.) As the mother sits, her own mother, who, “the day before yesterday . . . could still be called a grandmother,” bustles around the house keeping busy. The grieving mother, eyes closed, hears all this bustle: “On the bureau top sits the toy with the little silver bells. As (the former grandmother) takes it away, the bells tinkle. They tinkled yesterday too, when the daughter was still a mother and played with her child. In the 24 hours since then, the sound of the tinkling bells hasn’t changed.” This is measurably true, of course, but the reader knows that for the mother, the sound is now like a stab in the heart. Nothing has changed, except that everything has changed. In fact, the immeasurability of suffering is a recurring theme, contrasted against the futility of human beings’ enthusiasm for measuring things.
The author mocks this futile measuring with devastating irony, almost clinically, like a scientist studying a subject in a Skinner box. She achieves this partly by switching effortlessly from a sometimes close, sometimes distant 3rd person point of view, to an absolutely chilling omniscient POV. In Book III, for example, she describes, down to its exact longitudinal and latitudinal coordinates, a particular clump of grass on a Siberian steppe, with an insect weighing down one blade of grass as it tries to climb it. No reason is given for this observation for dozens of pages, until we learn that on this spot our protagonist (still unnamed, as are almost all the characters) will be forced to dig her own grave in preparation for her third death, in 1941, for being an inadequate member of Soviet Communist Party.

So what’s the author after with this “What if?” technique of multiple and temporary resurrections, and her obsessive observation of the act of grieving? What is her cri de coeur? I believe her attitude is one of horrified fascination, both at a waste of life implicit in the death of even one individual—especially when it’s untimely. With any one death, not one person dies, but the four or five people that person once was, or might have become, die too. Multiply all those lost lives, lived and potential, and the waste is shocking. Then consider the surreal, bewildering coming-to-grips with those lost lives on the part of their surviving loved ones. It’s a reality we prefer to ignore, even deny, until we’re forced to face it ourselves. The great Spanish writer Unamuno once said that “most scholars spend their lives counting the strands in the Sphinx’s tail. I prefer to look the Sphinx in the eyes.”

Jenny Erpenbeck has looked the Sphinx in the eyes.


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