The story running through The End of Days, the latest novel from German writer Jenny Erpenbeck, features an intriguing premise. By following five different variations of the life of one woman, the novel examines the role chance plays in our lives. In doing so, it touches on various aspects of European history in the 20th century from the hardship in the years following WWI, to the rise in anti-Semitism, to the period following the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s an ambitious narrative, and Erpenbeck pulls it off to very good effect.
The novel is divided into five books, each one covering a possible life of the woman in question. In the first variation of her life, our central character dies in her cradle just a few months after her birth in Galicia in 1902. (Galicia now straddles the Poland-Ukraine border, but was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the time.) As her Jewish mother mourns the loss, her father (a Christian) drowns his sorrows in drink. Unable to come to terms with the tragedy, the father set sail for America, abandoning his wife in the process. The man’s arrival at Ellis Island’s immigration hall provides an opportunity for reflection on the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a place where ‘German remained the language of democracy’ despite all the intermingling.
The Kaiser, though, hadn’t selected the individuals to be let in; rather, he’d swallowed up entire peoples indiscriminately, making all of them part of his realm. Melancholia, madness, and unlawfulness remained at home—even after home became suddenly known as Austria or Hungary—and it did the monarchy no harm. Europe’s peoples, with or without wars, had always crisscrossed the continent, intermixing and seeking out new homes whenever their one bit of land produced too little or life became unbearable for some reason. But perhaps a coastline like this was a more naturally defined border. Here you could send the people you didn’t want back out on the water, even if it meant they would perish back home or simply drown at sea like surplus kittens. (pg. 50)
Meanwhile, the bereaved mother slips into a life of prostitution as a means of supporting herself after the desertion of her husband.
Each of the five variations of the central character’s life are separated by Intermezzos, short sequences of 4-9 pages in which Erpenbeck raises the question ‘but what if…’. For instance, what if the baby girl didn’t die in her cradle that night? What if she survived the crisis and her life continued? In effect, these intermezzos serve as a means of moving us from one version of the woman’s life to the next.
But if, for example, the child’s mother or father had thrust open the window in the middle of the night, had scooped a handful of snow from the sill, and put it under the baby’s shirt, perhaps the child would suddenly have started breathing again, possibly cried again as well, in any case its heart might have gone back to beating, its skin would have grown warm and the snow melted on its chest. (pg. 57)
As book II begins, we fast forward to 1919, and the seventeen-year-old protagonist and her family have moved to Vienna in the hope of finding a better life. Despite the end of the First World War, food is in desperately short supply, and the girl’s younger sister queues all day for meagre rations until her mother takes her place for the night shift. In this scene, the central character’s father reflects on the family’s situation.
For a brief time he had nurtured the hope that by moving to Vienna they would all be moving to an easier life, but then there’d been four years of war, a capitulation, and four months of hunger, and now all their provisions—their supplies of wood, groceries, hope—were running out, the emptiness in the pantry and storeroom equally great, the dirt floor showing through. Here in Vienna, his wife was reproaching him for one last thing: having married her, a Jewish vixen from the provinces, and not even a rich one at that. Something he had always refused to believe was apparently proving true after all: she was trapped in her Mosaic origins as if in a cage, knocking herself black and blue against bars. (pg. 79)
As for our central character, the weight of trying to find her way in an uncertain world proves too much to bear, and she enters into a suicide pact with a young medical student. Things don’t quite go to plan, but nevertheless the girl dies in hospital a few days later. And so we move to the next Intermezzo and another ‘what if?’ and her life continues once more.
In the third variation of her life, our protagonist is in Moscow. As book III opens, the year is 1938, and she is writing an account of her life in the hope of gaining Soviet citizenship. As the woman writes her story, we learn that she joined the Communist Party of Austria in 1920 where she met her husband, Comrade H. Both she and her husband were writers, keen to use language and words as a means of forging progress in the years following the War. Now, as she sits at her desk in Moscow, she knows that this written account might put an end to her life; alternatively, it might be kept in reserve, forcing her to live by it, ‘to prove herself worthy of it’. With her husband already under arrest, she must try to survive. Her aim is to save herself by writing her way back into life.
Now that her husband has been taken away, she knows that when she sits here putting her life to paper, she is playing not just with her own life, but with his as well, not just with her own death, but also with his; or she is playing against death—or does all this pro and contra make no difference at all? She knows that with every word she writes or leaves unwritten she is playing with the lives of her friends, just as her friends in turn, when they are asked about her, are forced to play with hers. (pg. 152)
I’ll refrain from covering the fourth and fifth lives in detail—I’m sure you’ve got the idea by now—but final instalment finds our protagonist living in a care home and suffering from dementia as her life draws to a close.
This impressive novel touches on various different ideas, and several of these are revisited throughout the narrative. Alongside the recognisable themes of personal sacrifice, loss, and the fragile nature of our existence, other themes emerge, too. Erpenbeck’s story highlights our desire to keep secrets from those who are closest to us as a means of protecting them from the heartache of knowing the truth. The daughter who doesn’t know her father was beaten to death by the Poles; the son who is told his father fell in the battle of Kharkov – these motifs echo and reverberate through the text.
Did keeping her misguided love a secret from her friend make her just as halfhearted and deceitful as her parents? It had done no good to keep the truth to herself either, for a truth remained even if it was never spoken aloud, day after day it went on doing what it had to. (pg. 89)
As I mentioned earlier, the intermezzos highlight the role chance plays in our existence – how our lives can turn on the tiniest of moments and the smallest of decisions, many of which are subjective. A handful of snow; a chance encounter in a café; a decision to cross a street at a certain point – all these things and more play a significant role in the lives of the central character.
Ultimately though, the novel’s overarching theme is, perhaps, the continuation of humankind – even when an individual dies, life goes on.
A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (pg. 15)
Before I finish, a few thoughts on Erpenbeck’s prose. While the style is spare and haunting throughout, it does vary somewhat from one section to another. Personally, I found Books I, II and V more engaging than the middle sections despite the highly compelling subject matter at the heart of the novel. Book III alternates between a first-person narrative (the documented account of the central character’s life) and passages written in the third person. While different fonts are used to differentiate between each section, the frequent switches between these two forms (together with the inclusion of snatches of conversation from a possible interrogation session) didn’t quite work for me. That’s just my personal opinion, though, and others may well disagree. Nevertheless The End of Days is a very powerful work, one I’m glad to have read.
This novel won the 2015 Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, and as such, it has been widely reviewed. Posts that have caught my eye include those by Grant (of 1streading), Joe (of Rough Ghosts), TJ (of My Book Strings) and Gert Loveday. I read this book for Caroline and Lizzy’s German Literature Month, which is running throughout November.
The End of Days is published by Portobello Books. Source: personal copy. Book 14/20, #TBR20 round 2.
I read this one last week, Jacqui, but have yet to review. Your thoughts chime with mine though. I felt the momentum of the story waned when our narrator hits her Communist period but it picked up slightly when she was in the aged person’s home. I like how her life (or series of lives) was so entertwined with 20th century European history.
Oh, that’s very interesting to hear, Kim. Virtually all the reviews I’ve read have been very positive, so I was beginning to wonder if it was just me! Yes, the connection between the protagonist’s life (or sequence of lives) is very effective. I’ll definitely keep an eye out for your review.
I DEFINITELY want to read this ….heard so much about it . Great review ….really tantalising !!
Thank you! Erpenbeck’s themes and ideas are right up your alley, Helen. I’m pretty confident you’ll like it. Do let me know your thoughts on it – I’d love to hear.
Great review Jacqui, I really liked this book but agree about the middle sections, I really struggled for a while but I’m so glad I stuck with it.
Thanks, Claire. Ah, it’s interesting to hear you felt the same way about this one. Yes, I’m glad I persevered, too. I did disengage a little during Books III and IV, but the final section pulled me back into the story (I loved the touches of humour in the scenes at the care home). It must have been hard to find the appropriate balance in the closing stages, but I think Erpenbeck got it just right.
I’m very interested in Jenny Erpenbeck, as her own family story is quite intimately linked with German history in the 20th century – so I suppose this book is in many ways partly auto-biographical. I think I’ll treat myself for Christmas to her latest book in German ‘Gehen, ging, gegangen’ (Go, going, gone), which talks about refugees in Germany and mutual understanding – hope it will be translated soon!
Ah, very interesting. I must admit to not knowing a great deal about Erpenbeck’s own background or family history, but it doesn’t surprise me to hear that The End of Days is autobiographical (to some extent at least). Even though I liked some sections of TEoD more than others, I would be open to trying another by this author in the future. Looking forward to hearing what you make of her new one – I’m sure it will be translated fairly quickly as there must be quite an appetite for her work after the IFFP triumph.
PS Have you read The End of Days, Marina? I don’t recall seeing a review from you, but I may well have missed it.
No, I haven’t read it. I bet on the wrong horses during the IFFP debates – and ordered Tigermilk and Neck of the Giraffe instead.
Haha! Oh, well – you can’t win ’em all. I do think you would like this one. The themes strike me as being your type of thing.
Thoughtful and interesting review as ever, Jacqui. I enjoyed this book very much. It brought to mind the same structure Kate Atkinson used in Life After Life but to very different effect. If you haven’t yet read Visitation I’d thoroughly recommend that – it explores similar territory through a house in what was East Germany. Both these novels reminded me of Heimat, the 1980s TV series which explored twentieth century German history through one village. I’m sure you know it.
Thanks, Susan. I’m glad you enjoyed it. I very nearly read Visitation earlier this year when I spotted a copy at the local library. (In fact I think I may have borrowed it, but something else must have caught my attention at the time as I never got around to reading it!) One for next year, perhaps – it’s good to have a recommendation.
Gosh, Heimat – yes, I have seen it, although it’s been quite a while. Very powerful stuff, a landmark series…I can understand why you were reminded of it.
This sounds really great. I love such stories that explore such alternate paths in people’e lives. It Chance really does have such an enormous impact on us. I think that is a fact that we so often forget. This makes me think about how it impacted my own life.
I do think you would like this novel, Brian. The themes are fascinating, and it touches on so many aspects of European history in the 20th century. There’s a lot to think about here.
I really liked the way the author used the intermezzos to explore the role of chance or fate in our lives. A very clever idea and this aspect of the novel’s structure never felt heavy-handed or laboured in any way.
Sounds fascinating & intriguing alternative in narrative structure to handling the ‘what if’ premise…
It’s been on my TBR shelf since #WITMonth… must make room for it soon.
Great review Jacqui ☺
Thanks, Poppy. Even though I liked some sections more than others, it’s definitely worth reading. As you say, it is a fascinating way of exploring the role of chance (and various ‘what if’ scenarios) in our lives. I’d be curious to hear your thoughts on it.
I agree. The writing is hauntingly beautiful (a credit to the translator as well), but the middle section does drag.
Yes, I loved the prose in Books I, II and V! As you say, all credit to the translator as she seems to have done a fine job. I just got a little bogged down in the middle, which is a shame because it should have been the most compelling section…
Interesting that we came at this from such different perspectives. I’m glad you enjoyed it, even if not as much as I did.
I think that’s one of the most interesting things about following a wide range of reviewers/bloggers. We often see something different in a book or approach it from another perspective. I’m off to read your review in more detail now as I’d been holding off until this morning! :)
Yes, as we said in our post on Tim Parks’ article the other day, bloggers in general seems to have a fresher approach and not to be so influenced by accepted opinion. I suppose that’s why we do it!
Like some other commenters I will have to agree with you about the middle sections of the book. I emerged from this and wrote my review just before the IFFP list came out and at the time I was awestruck. But by the time the shadow jury process was over it had become mildly irritating in my mind. The conceit is just a little too neat after a while. I was not unhappy to see it win, but it was not my choice. Having read so much since this one, I don’t even know if it will make my top 10 for the year (top 20 for sure).
Not be in mine Joe
That’s very interesting to hear, Joe. It’s funny how our impressions of certain books can change over time – some burrow away and grow in our minds while others fade to some extent.
I really liked the first two parts of this novel and was all set to dive into the heart of the action in Book III, but the form/style of that section didn’t quite work for me. To tell you the truth, I’ve been putting off the write-up of this novel partly because I couldn’t remember a huge amount about the fourth section. (I can recall section III even though I didn’t like it as much as the earlier parts, but Book IV remains a bit of a blur.) It’s an ambitious novel, and there’s still much to admire here, but I doubt whether it will make my end-of-year highlights either. I am glad to have read it, though. You loved the Erwin Mortier if my memory serves me correctly – I must take a closer look at that one at some point.
Was strange that it also won shadow iffp first one we agreed on. I maybe wasn’t it’s biggest fan of our shadow jurors
Ah, yes – a double win. I must have missed your review, Stu – sorry. I’ll head over to yours in a little while to take a look. :)
I never got my review done was at time when time was short earlier in the year
Ah, that’ll be why I don’t remember seeing one. You can’t cover everything. :)
I’ve been wanting to read this for a long time. I’m going to have to try to fit it in before the end of the year. The themes sound like a novel I’d really enjoy and I’ll be interested to see where my opinion falls regarding certain sections over others. Great review as always, Jacqui!
Thanks, Eric. I think you’d really like the various themes and ideas in this novel. There’s so much to comment on here. Every review I’ve seen has approached the book from a different angle or found something new to say about it. The sign of a rich and thought-provoking novel, I think. And even though I liked some sections more than others, I would definitely encourage you to give it a go – I’d love to hear your take on it.
Thanks for the link, Jacqui. I’m glad you liked the book overall, even if some parts dragged a bit for you. While I liked the entire book, I have to admit that all the commas got to me after a while. Thankfully, they did not distract from my overall love for the book. I don’t remember different fonts in the German edition; now I need to look that up to see if this somehow slipped my mind.
You’re very welcome. I loved the way you focused on the ‘what if’ aspect in your review – it really made me want to read the book. I’m fascinated by the way our lives change direction on the tiniest of moments or the most insignificant decisions, and the novel makes use of that concept in such an interesting manner.
I did wonder whether the middle sections might have been easier to follow in the original German version. It’s difficult to say, of course, especially my knowledge of the German language is scant to say the least, but that might have been a factor. I’m really glad I read it, though. The final section was excellent (I was totally back on board with it by that stage!). A very fitting end to the story all in all.
Interesting, though it does sound slightly neat and sagging in the middle puts me off a bit. I have her Visitation, which I’ve not read yet.
Stu, if you’ve subscribed to comments so that you see this, what didn’t you like about it?
Oh, I’ll be very interested to hear what you think of Visitation, Max. (Little point in buying another Erpenbeck until you’ve tried the one you already own.) I nearly read Visitation myself earlier this year when I spotted a copy in the local library, but something else must have distracted me in the end.
I did like The End of Days, especially the combination of the intermezzo idea and the novel’s themes (which are very compelling). I just didn’t enjoy every section quite as much as I’d hoped. Perhaps my expectations were a little too high…
This book really appeals to me. I love the idea of exploring all the ‘what-ifs’. And, some books do it better than others – I don’t think it would be an easy thing to pull off.
I think you’d like this one, Naomi. I don’t know if you’ve read it, but there are some parallels with Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, another novel that explores the role chance/fate plays in our lives. It’s worth considering, especially as the ‘what if’ idea appeals to you.
Yes, I read and liked Life After Life!
The End of Days would make an interesting comparison with Atkinson’s novel. Let me know what you think if you do read it.
Sounds fascinating, if maybe a little flawed – one I’ll definitely look out for. Excellent review as always, Jacqui.
It is fascinating…and I so wanted to love this book as it’s full of interesting ideas. The period, the scenarios, the novel’s themes…it’s all good stuff. I just wish I could have engaged a little more with the middle sections.
Thank you for the heads up and review of this book. A definite addition to my reading list. I was going to mention Life After Life, but someone else did above. Have you read that? The change in locals is appealing and again the subject matter is fascinating. How often do we all say “what if….”? Thank you again for sharing!
You’re very welcome! I’d be interested to hear what you make of this book if you get a chance to read it.
I have read Life After Life – and you’re right, there are similarities between the two. I think the main difference in the set-up stems from the amount of re-treading of familiar ground that takes place as the story moves from one version of the protagonist’s life to the next. In Life After Life, Ursula’s life starts at the beginning again, and although Atkinson’s doesn’t go through every single thing that has happened to her in the previous versions, certain key events are revisited. Erpenbeck’s approach is a little different. Each version of her protagonist’s life moves the character forward in time, so she doesn’t return to the beginning each time. It’s also probably fair to say that The End of Days is more ‘weighty’ than Life After Life, perhaps more literary in its style. I hope you enjoy it.
Thanks again. I’m looking forward to reading it!
Reminds me a bit of Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life. have you read that?
I have read it, Guy. Donald just asked the same question, so I’ve replied in a little more detail in the comment above. There are similarities between the two novels (and some differences in the transitions from one version of the protagonist’s life to the next). I think the Erpenbeck is more ‘weighty’ than Life After Life – some of the scenes are pretty hard-hitting. Have you read/reviewed the Atkinson?
Yes I read and reviewed it. I’ve heard the sequel isn’t as good.
I’ll take a look at your review. Yes, I’ve heard mixed reports about A God in Ruins.
I was really pleased to see this win the IFFP this year – thanks for your thoughtful review of an intriguing novel.
I glad you liked it, Claire. I can see why it scooped the prize – it’s a very thought-provoking work.
Interesting and thoughtful review. This one is on my TBR pile and I’m keen to get to it, although a little sad that the communism section seems to be disappointing to a lot of people.
Thanks. I’ll be interested to hear what you think of the book overall. I really wanted to engage with the communism part, but the form and style of that section just got in the way of the story for me. It’s a pity because the topic and period are very compelling. In some ways, I feel as though I’ve missed out on a vital part of the novel! Let me know how you find it – I’ll be curious to hear.
In the bookshop I have picked this one up and put it down and picked it up and put it down and… just cannot manage to decide whether I want to read it or not! I think I’m more curious than anything. Your review is as ever so crystal clear and beautifully detailed that I finally have a good sense of the novel. Ultimately my feeling is that I might one day read this but probably not as we head to midwinter and I feel the need for reading matter that might raise my spirits a bit. So thank you! I might at the very least get out of the book shop more smoothly! :)
Haha – I know what you mean about picking books up and putting them down again, especially when everything looks so tempting! I must admit to dithering somewhat before taking the plunge with this book, but in the end I wanted to experience it for myself. Some of the scenes are fairly hard-hitting, so (as you’ve gathered) it’s probably not the best thing to turn to when you’re in need of a bit of a lift. I do think it’s worth reading, though – there’s much to admire here, especially the quality of the writing. As ever, I would be fascinated to hear your take on it, Victoria – I have a feeling you’ll love this one. :)
Oh dear, I hope the Erpenbeck backlash hasn’t begun, as so often happens when a writer wins prizes / receives universal praise. I agree not every section of the novel is as gripping but to me that suggests that Erpenbeck has been careful to differentiate them. I not sure this is the best book I’ve read this year, but it was head and shoulders above anything else on the IFFP list. I feel all four of her novels which have been translated are well worth reading – she really is one of the most exciting writers I have discovered in the last few years.
Oh dear…I certainly hadn’t intended to catalyse anything approaching a backlash! That’s a very good point about the differentiation between the various sections. As you suggest, it does demonstrate that Erpenbeck has the skills to create interesting work in a range of different forms and styles (even if the middle sections didn’t quite gel for me personally). Also, I’m very encouraged to hear that you rate her work so highly as your opinion counts for quite a lot in my book. I would be up for trying another of her books at some point – maybe not in the immediate future but possibly this time next year. Which one would you recommend, Grant? (You’ve probably got a pretty good handle on my reading tastes by now!) I’ve seen Visitation at the library, but I’m less familiar with her others.
I read Erpenbeck’s Visitation and liked it OK although way less than most other people I know seem to have liked it. This one sound potentially great but also very gimmicky. Help! Oh, well, maybe next year…
Haha! Maybe you’re just not Erpenbeck’s reader…in the same way that I wonder whether I’m really the right reader for Cesar Aira? There’s only one way to find out, I guess. :-)
I like the sound of this, although it does ring a faint bell. I think maybe l Iooked at it along with other IFFP books and decided against reading it? Anyway, I should probably give it a go because it sounds right up my street, despite the less-enticing middle part. I like the idea of pondering ‘what if’, even though it’s pointless in life. It’s an interesting concept to play with in a novel, though.
Oh, quite possibly. It did get quite a lot of attention around the time of the IFFP as several readers/bloggers were tipping it to win. I do think it’s worth reading, especially if you’re interested in the novel’s themes – and it deals with the ‘what if’ concept in quite an interesting way. I’d love to hear what you make of it, Violet!
I have The Visitation on the shelf and have struggled to get into it, but determined to find the right time where I can, all the talk about this one around IFFP time made it very intriguing. It sounds like a challenging premise and an intriguing read, the many elements perhaps pose something of a risk to the potentail reader as well. Stilll ibtrigued to read it and this author, who is fast becoming a lead contemporary author of note writing in German.
Oh, it’s interesting to hear that you had a false start with Visitation, Claire. I nearly read it earlier this year, but something else must have distracted me at the time because I never got around to it in the end. I was very intrigued by the prospect of The End of Days as well – all the various ‘versions’ of the protagonist’s life (and the use of the intermezzo idea) caught my attention. It is challenging in the sense that it’s not straightforward, but I liked the fact that Erpenbeck has tried to do something different here. I loved the premise, plus the novel’s ambition and ideas. I just wish I could have engaged a little more with the middle sections as I’m sure that would have made it a more satisfying read for me. It’s definitely worth reading, though – as you say, Erpenbeck is making quite a name for herself!
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