Jenny Erpenbeck’s Aller Tage Abend (published in English as The End of Days), the story of a re-imagined Jewish life, begins viscerally: at the grave of a newborn baby, which suffocated in its cot. A new life, inexplicably aborted: maybe, the mother asks in a series of what-ifs, the child “needed only a short while to complete something begun in an earlier life,” as some believe? The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away.
She tries to barter with God for the child’s life by offering her own, but in marrying a Gentile she forfeited the right to ask God for anything. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away. The motions of prescribed Jewish mourning rites are “something that a drowning man might cling to, if at all.” She rails at religion as a source of consolation: “It would be nice… if the world were ruled by chance, and not a god.” Her husband the Gentile, meanwhile, is off drowning his grief in liquor.
Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.
Grief spreads out in ripples across three generations of the family, triggering memories of earlier losses. The child’s grandmother remembers the death of her husband in a pogrom; the great-grandmother attends her dying husband on his sick-bed and remembers him performing a funeral wake for his granddaughter, the mother of the dead baby, who was lost to him when she married a Gentile. The Lord gave, and the Lord takes away, is Job’s mantra of resignation to the will of God.
As the three women grieve, each of them also remembers knitting clothes for the yet-unborn baby, slowly threading a new life story into existence as they prepared for a transmutation of their roles as women: the daughter would become a mother, with a daughter of her own, the mother would become a grandmother, and so on. But their new roles are usurped by death, which interrupts the mother-daughter continuum. The metaphorical thread of life is cut; the transformations reversed.
Sie selbst hatte durch die Geburt des Kindes ihre Großmutter in eine Urgroßmutter verwandelt, und ihre Mutter in eine Großmutter, aber jetzt waren alle die Verwandlungen schon wieder aufgehoben.
The widowed grandmother observes her daughter’s grief with something approaching Job’s equanimity. Having barely escaped with her life as her husband was killed in front of her eyes, and forced by circumstances to pick up the pieces and create a new life for herself and her baby daughter, she’s a survivor and understands that the death of someone close doesn’t signal the end of all life. Despite interruptions, life goes on, and the thread continues to unspool: the end of a day on which someone dies is not the end of days.
Sie weiß schon sehr lange, was ihre Tochter von heute auf morgen lernen wird: Am Ende eines Tages, an dem gestorben wurde, ist längst nicht aller Tage Abend.
The final chapter has not yet been written; the story has just begun. What if the baby had survived? What if the parents had had a “moment of inspiration,” eine Eingebung as Erpenbeck calls it, and somehow prevented the baby from suffocating?
In a musically titled “Intermezzo” (interlude), the book suddenly swerves into magical realism. The subjunctive mood, the verb form of wishes and possibilities, takes over the language. The story is re-imagined with a different turn, and the baby that died now gets to live and have a sister and move with her parents to Vienna and be raised as a Christian by her Gentile father.
And yet, death also follows this mutated strand of the story: the trenches of the First World War, famine, and the Spanish Influenza cut short many a life. The girl who escaped death in the cot is now a starving, half-frozen 17-year-old, desperately in love with her best friend’s fiancée, a shell-shocked zombie freshly returned from the trenches. As her best friend is claimed by the influenza, the girl finds the bereaved fiancèe is not interested in a relationship with her, and she goes on to commit suicide. She was able to escape death only for 17 years before it found her again, on a cold winter evening in Vienna. It again feels as if life ended too soon for her, before it was complete(d).
So in another magical interlude, the girl is now a middle-aged writer living in Moscow at the time of Stalin’s purges. She didn’t commit suicide simply because she took a different road home on that fateful night in Vienna. At the beginning of the book, her mother had wished for a world ruled by chance, and Erpenbeck grants her that wish. Death is perhaps easier to come to terms with when it’s accidental, rather than fateful, administered by the hand of God. Schön wäre es, denkt sie, wenn der Zufall regieren würde, und nicht ein Gott.
And yet, because of her writing, which doesn’t suit Stalin’s regime, the woman doesn’t survive in this story, either. Also at the beginning of the book, her mother had wondered if the newborn’s life had originally been so short because she only needed to complete a small mission from an earlier life. If she has magically been given a prolonged life, and several chances, as it were, to give her existence more meaning, why does she keep failing at it? And if she’s granted another reprieve from death, will she be able to do more with her life?
Erpenbeck gives us a main character who is unable to survive her own story, even when placed in a magical narrative structure where anything goes. There is, weirdly, no consolation in the possibility of several incarnations, as none of them seem to “complete something begun in an earlier life,” and a shorter or longer life span doesn’t really make a difference.
If this is a musical novel, with interludes for chapters, then it’s a fugue. Erpenbeck is obsessed with how chance and history collide, repeat themselves, and translate into a personal narrative. In her worldview, death is the inevitable end of each narrative, but each narrative is also a transmutation, a piece of the thread picked up at random, in different times and in different places, and blended into history. And, in the spirit of Whitman, each narrative contains multitudes.
If death is always waiting around the corner, it means we are all constantly fighting to live. In Aller Tage Abend, life is at the same time a battlefront and a story of survival. Put bluntly, each new day on which we don’t die means that we get to die another day. “How many such battlefronts, which could have cost you your life, are there in a single life? It was so tiring, having to endure all the battles in which you didn’t want to fall.” ⌈translation mine⌋
Wie viele solcher Fronten gab es in einem Leben, die einen das Leben kosten konnten? Es war so mühsam, all die Schlachten, in denen man nicht fallen würde, zu bestehen.
Aller Tage Abend thus reads like a series of permutations of one and the same life story that are designed to stall the inevitable progress towards death. In spirit, it approaches One Thousand and One Nights, where stories are also told to postpone death. Reading it in German affords a particular pleasure, as Michel Faber noted in his piece for The Guardian, because Erpenbeck’s writing is not simply poetical but “incantatory.”
I also agree with his assessment of Erpenbeck as one of the “finest authors alive”: her voice stands out and conveys its message, even in German, across the vast murk of current novel production. Her prose is resonant and casts a spell; you find yourself drawn into it from the first page. There is no room for overwrought drama and pregnant conversations; the delivery is matter-of-fact and surgically precise, even when the narrative form is a fugue. Ich bin begeistert.
I look forward to going back and reading some of her earlier books.