Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Visitation”

Reviewed by Fran Bigman

Image of Jenny Erpenbeck’s “Visitation”

Like the storied estates of Brideshead and Manderley, the house in Jenny Erpenbeck’s unsettling, inventive novel Visitation has a hold on everyone who passes through it.  Built by an architect in the 1930s, it serves as a weekend getaway on a Brandenburg lake in what will be East Germany.

While in the British tradition these stately homes of rural England tend to play host to the symbolic decline of one family, the house in Erpenbeck’s novel reveals an even more expansive story. She uses the experiences of its occupants over the course of seven decades to chart the upheavals of twentieth-century Germany.

The lake house comes out of a broken inheritance; originally a royal grant, the land has belonged to the village mayor’s family since 1650. The short history of the mayor’s daughters, related in an early chapter, displays Erpenbeck’s skill at creating menace through repetition. A laundry list of the village’s wedding rituals lasts several pages, turning an anthropological account of curious regional customs into something darker—a litany of laws that distinguishes conventional from unconventional and thus separates insider from interloper. For all these matrimonial prescriptions, though, none of the mayor’s daughters marry. Instead one loses her fiancé to emigration, one ruins her reputation with a premarital affair, one remains celibate, and another commits suicide. Having no heirs, the mayor divides up the land in the 1930s and sells plots to the unnamed architect and Arthur, a Jewish cloth merchant. As Arthur watches the construction of his neighbor’s house, he plans a house for his only son, Ludwig, intending it as an inheritance. All they have time to build, though, is a bathing house before the Holocaust interrupts their plans. 

Meanwhile, next door, the architect builds his dream house to delight his young wife.  He fills it with hidden closets, secret lookouts, a balcony with decorations of iron birds. “A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing,” thinks the architect, whose pride in his creation is detailed with Erpenbeck’s characteristic exactitude. The couple treasures the way the stairs creak at the second, seventh, and second-to-last-step going up—and the second, fifteenth, and second-to-last step descending. But after almost twenty years in the house the architect must abandon it. In 1951, he leaves for West Berlin, fleeing imprisonment for having bought screws from West Germany—there are none to be had in the East—in order to complete a building commissioned by the East German government. He and his wife relocate to a West Berlin apartment, and the state takes over the house.

In the ensuing chapters, Erpenbeck tells the stories of others connected to the house, including the architect’s wife; the cloth merchant; his twelve-year-old granddaughter, hiding in the Warsaw ghetto; a Russian major who occupies the house during the war; after the war, a writer who acquires it through her impeccable Communist credentials; and her granddaughter, who eventually has to sell the house when East German bank accounts are halved. Between each of these chapters is an account of the gardener who tends the grounds no matter who lives there and who, movingly, declines along with the property.

Another character in the novel is time itself, which often bullies, taking on an almost physical presence. Although the architect was master of three dimensions, “the fourth dimension has caught up with him: time, which is now expelling him from house and home.” Of the child hiding in the ghetto, Erpenbeck writes: “time has dragged her off and locked her away in this dark chamber.” The lake home, however, provides a refuge for its inhabitants, however temporary. During the twenty years the architect’s wife lives there, “time appears to be at her beck and call, like a house in which she can enter now this room, now that.”

The same could be said of Erpenbeck, who is a master of concealment and delay. She omits dialogue and interaction almost entirely; each chapter immerses readers in the mind of the title character, creating gaps that can only be filled by later accounts of the lives of others. We sympathize at first with the fleeing architect, but then learn that in 1939 “he’d paid the Jews a full half of market value” for the bathing house, even using the “strange towels . . . top quality goods” of the cloth merchant’s own make that are left hanging there. He offers the feeble justification that the money he paid the Jews allowed them to flee to Africa or Shanghai.  Only later do we learn whether or not this is true. The architect’s wife speaks of a man who “drilled a hole in her eternity for all eternity,” but only when we come to the Russian soldier’s story do we learn how and who this person is.

Erpenbeck’s strategies—these concealments and gradual disclosures—create a subtle layering of stories that is the novel’s greatest strength.  That said, one sometimes wishes that Visitation would leave a little more to the imagination. For example, Erpenbeck includes the full story of the cloth merchant’s twelve-year-old granddaughter, whose memories of the lake provide comfort as she hides in the Warsaw ghetto. Had readers been allowed to wonder at the granddaughter’s fate, however, the girl’s story would have been more powerful. 

Erpenbeck is as proficient at the delayed reveal on the small scale as she is on the large. She repeats particular sentences, allowing us to trace the dawning of our comprehension as she gradually reveals more through concentric descriptions and elaborations. We read about a lovely visit the cloth merchant and his wife pay to their son’s family in some tropical locale, hearing several times the innocuous phrase “two weeks later Arthur and Hermine, Ludwig’s parents, go home again.” Only later do we learn that Ludwig left Brandenburg—and his “inheritance”—in 1936 for South Africa, that his parents visited in 1937 but insisted on returning to Germany, and that when they finally apply for a visa two years later it is too late.  

Her graphic account of their deaths skillfully evokes the mingling of horror and bureaucracy so peculiar to the Holocaust: “two months after Arthur and Hermine get into the gas truck in Kulmhof outside of Lodz, after Arthur’s eyes pop out of his head as he asphyxiates, and Hermine in her death throes defecates on the feet of a woman she’s never seen before . . . all the possessions of Arthur and Hermine, including the proceeds from the sale of the property beside the lake, containing 1 bathing house and 1 dock, become the property of the German Reich.”

Susan Bernofsky’s translation elegantly captures Erpenbeck’s language as it swings from mathematical precision (the bathing house is “5.5m long, 3.8m wide, outer wall construction: wood, roof construction: thatch”) to legalese (“whether acquisition was in good faith and in rem right of use and enjoyment exists is not relevant to the matter under dispute”); and it stays with her through the subtler effects in between, from Carrollian wordplay to Freudian mishearings. Bernofsky smartly retains the original German in scenes where language has become outmoded by exile. On a summer day in South Africa, Ludwig’s young daughter, named Elisabeth after his sister, asks her father, “What is a snowy Winterwald?” Erpenbeck, with her stammering repetitions and strategies of delay, knows that language cannot always keep pace with what happens to people. Her own language, however, convincingly portrays a range of characters—Russians and Germans, Christians and Jews, children and grandparents, communists and capitalists—while conveying their shared pain at losing a country as well as a home.