Montréal is a city of parallel universes, often most at ease ignoring each other. Across linguistic, cultural, and generational orbits, it’s also a city that’s shown tremendous appetite for German author Jenny Erpenbeck’s work, in great part due to De Stiil, an anglophone bookstore in the heart of francophone neighborhood Le Plateau. Owner Aude Le Dubé’s carefully curated shop features literary fiction and books translated into English—and it serves as a kind of headquarters for what Le Dubé affectionately calls “the cult” of Erpenbeck fans.
Erpenbeck’s six books—five of fiction, and a memoir in essays—are as interdisciplinary as reality itself: economy, archeology, architecture, political history, musicology, psychology, sociology, mythology. Or a more contemporary articulation of academic inquiry: Trauma Studies. From the immeasurable devastation of the Third Reich to the enduring reverberations of Red Army soldiers’ desecration, from the upheaval that awaits within a numbered Stasi file to a modern Berlin accounting of what’s untaxed and undeclared in an inheritance, Erpenbeck’s writing defies appraisal. Her work resists summary, just as her most injured characters, with intractable agency, resist straightforward victimhood. Is her most recent novel, Kairos, about an increasingly destructive affair between married 58-year-old Hans and 19-year-old Katharina, or is it a reimagining of the control, betrayal, and collapse of a state? Both, of course, and then some.
A few weeks before my conversation with the Berlin-based author, I sit down with Le Dubé beside one of De Stiil’s huge windows to get a better sense of this Erpenbeck cult.
Originally from Brittany’s Lorient, a seaport town once occupied by the Germans, Le Dubé situates Montrealers’ fervor for Erpenbeck, an East Berliner who was twenty-two when the wall came down, within the Quebec context: “She speaks to our beliefs: socialist principles, sharing, and that building a better society includes immigrants and refugees.” The pre- and post-Wall Germany of Erpenbeck’s work offers helpful analogues for the complexities and clashes of Montreal’s adjacent universes, each building from distinct cultural-political models, yet supposedly the same people.
Beyond historical and metaphorical walls, though, Le Dubé, who prefers to read in English, emphasizes the moral urgency of the Erpenbeck oeuvre. At the time of reunification of Germany, Le Dubé describes, “All of a sudden the future was dead. Everything they’d been taught to fight for was gone. When everything is collapsing, how do you build a fair society?” Climate catastrophes, xenophobia, pandemics, occupations, wars, not to mention the proto-fascist policies of Quebec’s current premier—the concerns are unyielding, for any person who enters De Stiil. “I think it’s important for people to read her. While we don’t sell her to everybody, we always mention her work.” For the uninitiated, she first recommends Go, Went, Gone. “They buy that book, but they always come back for the rest.”
When New Directions published the English translation of Kairos earlier this year, Le Dubé contacted their Canada publicist to see if Erpenbeck, who some say is on her way to a Nobel Prize, might have travel plans to North America. Once on the continent, Montreal’s not that far, right? An agent got looped in, then Montreal’s Goethe Institute, then the Consulate General, then the Ottawa Embassy. At each stage of escalating bureaucracy, though, was a champion of Erpenbeck’s work. In the early evening of October 26, the outside of De Stiil resembles a night club more than a literary writer meet-and-greet. Dozens and dozens of readers, lined around the block, await their entry. In advance of the event, I sit down in a quieter corner of the bookstore to speak with Erpenbeck.
Ellen Adams: In re-reading your work, I was struck by how often infidelity comes up. Across your books, what new discoveries have you made about betrayal, whether in intimacy, or infidelity of values or the state?
Jenny Erpenbeck: When I first started to write, I didn’t know what my subject would as a long-term author. But, as it turned out, you are right. Betrayal and lying are at the center of my work, as are the layers of truth: how the same thing can be revealed again and again, or looked at from other perspectives, without being a lie, but rather a different kind of truth. If you look at Book of Words, her childhood is made up to be a good, easygoing childhood, then all of the sudden you can see that there’s something underground, not told to her, and eventually her father’s true profession is revealed. Even in The Old Child, my first main character, she’s lying to her classmates, to everyone, about her age. There’s a lot of hiding in my books. It’s always interested me. Hiding gives a certain kind of freedom because you can try something on without telling anyone, an experiment you undertake. And there’s always the question of what is the truth? In The Old Child, the truth is not revealed at all, not even in the end, so you don’t know where this lie comes from. And of course in Kairos, lying in the very middle of everything, as is the question: Who’s lying to whom, and in which way? Sometimes it’s shocking, with how little we can be content because we expect a certain truth. And if this is given to us, we are content. If someone believes a lie, it’s also sad, because it tells us that he or she is lacking the instruments to even doubt. But perhaps if you are young, it’s a blessed state of mind, to be so trusting.
EA: It makes me think of that initial rendezvous with Hans in Kairos, where Katharina thinks, “How can he ever refuse her anything, if she doesn’t demand anything?” The self-deception, the self-erasure that allows for their connection to exist.
JE: I think almost everyone has had this experience once in life, that of betrayal. If we were to see all the complexity all the time, it would drive us mad. And there’s always the question behind it: How could I take a half-life for a whole life? Was I content with so little that I couldn’t even see there was something missing, there was something hidden from me? In Kairos, all the things that are hidden, earlier or later, are revealed in the course of the book, earlier or later. What also interests me about hiding and revealing secrets is—in The End of Days, for instance—is if someone dies, a different kind of talk can happen, real, serious talks when someone perhaps reveals what’s been kept secret. Or in sorting the household of someone who’s died, a character might run into a secret by chance. This is also interesting to me, that there are some moments when you can speak about what has been hidden, after years in which it was not the right moment to speak about the secret.
In Kairos, you also have to—well, you don’t have to, and you don’t need to, but it’s nice if you manage to enable someone to tell the truth without being punished. And of course, we are cowards.
(Erpenbeck cracks up.)
If you ask your lover to tell the truth, but in the very moment when he or she does, you start arguing or punishing or playing some bad games with him or her, he or she will learn the lesson that if “I tell the truth, I get punished.” Kairos is a slow process of how something meant as a kind of truth actually transforms into a relationship with lying at its center. As it was in the political history of the GDR. Ideas were received enthusiastically in the beginning, a new start after fascist times. Slowly, a certain vocabulary was forbidden, a certain exchange of opinions not allowed. People started to deliver ready-made sentences—how to bring it into good English?
EA: Catch phrases, party lines?
JE: Yes. Perhaps I shouldn’t say so, but sometimes I have the feeling that we are coming to a similar time now, because there are certain sentences that you are supposed to deliver and others sentences that you are not supposed to deliver anymore. It’s a core question to art, because we are also responsible for the ugly children among the sentences. We should love all sentences, the ugly ones as well as the beautiful ones.
EA: And to let them be heard.
JE: Yes. Because if you want to describe reality, you cannot make a detour. Reality is reality is reality, and that’s it. So if you want to describe a bad experience, perhaps you need to use bad words to bring it to life, to let the readers feel something about it. If it’s not ugly enough, it doesn’t work. If Richard III is a nice character, you might as well throw the play away.
EA: (pointing to Go, Went, Gone) Or Richard the—
JE: Or Hans the Third!
EA: The first time I read Kairos, I found myself shouting on my couch, “What an asshole!” “Piece of shit!”
I wrote it sometimes, too, in the margins: How awful!!! And yet, it was very liberating to see—in such amazing sentences—experiences that many of us have had behind closed doors.
JE: The women were much less shocked than the men. The women somehow experienced similar things. Some had periods in life when they were obsessed with such a Hans character. The men were really shocked! The nice readers, you know, the nice men. “Does such a person exist? I got so angry about him!” They hadn’t faced such a thing before, as it seemed.
We all lie to ourselves. We manipulate with what phrases we leave behind.
EA: And yet there’s so much complicity between some of the male colleagues in your books, whether it’s a Richard’s colleague who’s dating a 20-year-old—
JE: This is not what I’m judging. The age difference is not the point. The point is the character. Even if Katharina could have met a version of Hans when he was 20 years younger, he would have been the same character. The character is what matters—if someone is manipulating, or hiding a big part of his life. An older man looks at a young woman with a certain kind of pleasure? This is normal. You admire beauty. You are happy to look at some young person, man or woman, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a crime. Only if you use your experience to manipulate someone, like Hans does with Katharina.
EA: I’m curious about the idea of using sensuality or romance to lure someone as an agent of the state—for example, the “John” essay in Bits and Pieces. Or Richard looking up his own Stasi file to find that his state-declared “areas of weakness include habitual arrogance and documented marital infidelity.” And of course, Hans uses his sexual influence to surveille.
JE: To spy for the Stasi—that’s bad!
EA: Mixing spying and romance and the state—which returns us to the idea of infidelity.
JE: It seems this kind of surveillance spying is a specialty of dictatorship systems! After partition, people worked for the Stasi for a variety of reasons, and not all of them were bad. Especially in the first years of the GDR, people entered the Stasi in order to find fascists who were hiding under false identities. Or people freed from the concentration camps entered to find those who had treated them so badly. Later on, it became more complex, to put it briefly. People were trying to gain power over others by stepping out of the system and looking in on it. This is the core of spying: you position yourself outside to look in. You look at your community, a group of friends, your family, or your colleagues, all from outside, from the very moment when you start reporting on them. (Even in Western structures where there is no Stasi, there are still people who would like to surveil. The bad characters still exist. They just aren’t given the chance to do so!) Again, it’s a question of character, as is lying. You know, Katharina is also lying. Perhaps not that badly, but she’s lying, too.
EA: And her diaries become this archive of lying—or not.
JE: We all lie to ourselves. We manipulate with what phrases we leave behind. If I make a diary entry, I might write one thing on one day, and the next day I might describe the same scenery in a different way. Is this a lie? Or if you are afraid that someone will find your diary, so you leave some things out. So it’s not all about the bad Other. It’s also about us. And of course, Katharina is not true to herself. This is the main mistake she’s making. Otherwise, she would just go away with this young guy and be happy, you know? Why is this obsession with Hans is so much stronger? And I have no answer! If any reader does, give me an answer, please!
EA: Yet there is a logic to it! In Kairos, as in other works, the logic and inner worlds of your characters feel full, flush with associations and fleshed-out subconscious. In your process of developing a book, does that ecosystem of meaning arrive to you from the onset, or do you write your way into it and then trim back?
JE: Normally, I start from the beginning, and I just write my way to the end. I have a center for every scene or chapter. I put all the material that I collected, all the thoughts that I had on it, and then I try to put it in connection to the chapter’s center. Some things about your characters will just happen in the writing process. When I had already written half of Kairos, for example, I did some research on the guy on whom Hans is based. I got this Stasi file. It became a major problem for the structure of the book, one I didn’t expect! When I studied opera directing, a famous director—one of the most famous opera directors in Germany at this time—she always said, “If you are facing a problem, don’t make a detour. Go right through the middle of it.” I think this is a basic law for all art. Even if something is destroying your initial idea or plan, you have to deal with it.
EA: Which reminds me of what you mentioned at the beginning, of not making a detour around the truth. Instead, really looking at it—while also exploring characters who are lying to themselves, or having to shed lies that they’ve told themselves.
JE: I think we are all trying to produce ourselves as like—Wait.
(Jenny goes to the back of her bookstore to fetch her smartphone, then searches the word Heil.)
We want to produce a sound picture of ourselves, a picture that makes sense. A whole that works well with our idea of what we want to be. We want to have not only smooth outsides, but also smooth insides. And this doesn’t work, of course. We have dark corners.
EA: Speaking of which—I’m curious about Eros in your writing. Obviously in Kairos, it’s a powerful force, but it’s present in many of your books. Eros and violence, or Eros and control. Eros and compliance. What draws you to look at sensuality through those lenses?
JE: You might be right. The erotic scenes in my books are not the happy ones. I don’t know where it comes from. Of course, it has a lot to do with power. When I think of the Red Army soldier in Visitation, I thought it would be interesting to put it differently than how it is normally put, so that you cannot clearly see who is the one with the power and who is the victim. It switches many times during this erotic scene. You cannot say this is a Red Army soldier raping a German woman. It could also be a German woman raping a very young Red Army soldier. It’s not clear. The erotic in Kairos is also a deeply disturbed. When Hans is first tying Katharina to the bed, she’s thinking about how she forgot to buy onions. This is not erotic. I would say it’s the opposite of erotic. Perhaps only women can see that. A man would perhaps rather say that Katharina’s obsessed with him and she cannot leave him because she’s so obsessed with his sexual potency. But a woman reader, I think, can clearly see that Katharina’s not interested in him sexually. There’s one passage where he asks her, “Are you looking for a father?” She says, “No.” But in the end, she herself says she would have liked to have someone without all this sex, just as a good companion. If Hans had offered her friendship, perhaps she could have accepted to leave him. But he didn’t offer friendship, because he wanted to use her, abuse her. Ahh, I don’t know where it comes from. I’m not an American author. I don’t have a psychotherapist! I would say I had a lucky youth, and everything was okay. But in a way, it took me a long time to find men in my life who are not—freaks. I don’t know why.
EA: There’s an element of chance, and also an element of tolerance.
JE: Yes, and sometimes you are drawn to the freaks without knowing it. When you’re young, things happen. Now it’s been a long time that I’ve been very happy, you know?
EA: I certainly related to the onions moment. Been there! Which leads me to humor in your work. Humor appears in such subtle ways, or more head-on, like the Go, Went, Gone scene with the barrister, that owl-man lawyer. I was just cracking up. So theatrical, almost like it could have been a cartoon. Yet he’s the person who’s invested in reviewing these folks’ asylum files. Does humor come to you on intuition, or do you find yourself going back to the heart of a chapter and saying, “Maybe I should add some in?”
JE: I really have so much fun, actually, but very rarely do people see the humor. Perhaps it’s not so obvious. Of course my books are about serious issues, so it’s not much fun in general. But I do think I have a kind of humor, and I enjoy it. Sometimes it just takes me away!
EA: In Go, Went Gone, women are really on the periphery. I know that writing this book included experiential research, not to mention years-long friendships, with many men arriving initially through Italy as refugees. In the novel itself, we see and hear children. In the hellish waiting room of asylum claims, however, the women are spatially and narratively on the outskirts. One is up a tree at Oranienplatz, and the others appear via a second-hand account of sex work along a rural Italian road. What was your intention in writing these women only at the periphery?
JE: The journey from an African home country to Europe is really hard. Not so many women make it to Europe. Of course, some women do, and during my research, I met several, but then I thought: the absence of women is a screaming one. This is a story I want to tell. A connecting bond between Richard and the refugees is that all these men are missing women. It’s not just about sex, of course. It’s also about family, children, to have someone you feel close to, in a different way than a friend. This is what Richard is missing, after his wife passed away, and it’s also what these young men are missing. So the finale of the book is the men speaking about the women who they knew, who they are missing. The loneliness. It’s a major aspect of the problem. They are missing children so desperately! Many of them told me they had never slept in a room all alone. Many of them are used to sleeping in a room with their family, children, grown-ups, sisters, brothers, cousins, etc. They adore children. And then you put them into such isolating houses where they cannot meet women and they cannot have children. You forbid them to work, so you don’t let them learn the language. What would come out of it? This is a desperate situation, and it can only end badly. And if it doesn’t end badly, they are heroes for withstanding all this. These young men should be given a chance to move forward, to move, to get out, to find his own life, to find his family, to get a job. The absence of women means much more than just having sex. For most of these men, it means that life is starting. And their lives are not starting.
EA: That line—“It means that life is starting”—interests me in the context of Go, Went, Gone, given the abortion revealed at the end, from a time when young couple Richard and Christel’s life would be starting. The couple’s life comes to a halt thereafter.
JE: I am absolutely for the right for abortion. But in this case, Richard made a mistake, and it couldn’t be taken back. I thought for Christel, it would have been the right moment. For Richard, because of his career, he says no. For their marriage, that proves sad and irreversible. To come back to your earlier question, how I make the characters. In the beginning of Go, Went, Gone, I mentioned that Christel drank too much. After I wrote the whole book, I thought, “Hmm, there is one question waiting for me. Why did she drink?” Only in the very end, I had to answer that for myself. It’s a strange thing, because, of course, I’m the one inventing the story. On the other hand, my subconscious put something in the beginning that I didn’t want to go back to for a long time. I could see that she was physically and mentally wounded by the whole thing, in part due to abortion being illegal at this time. I know women who almost died—put on some kitchen table in a private apartment of someone who may or may not have even been capable of performing the medical procedure. As a friend of mine says, if you don’t allow abortions, it doesn’t mean that abortions don’t take place. It only means that abortions are made illegally and put the woman in danger.
EA: Pregnancy, abortion, and paternity are weaponized elsewhere in your writing. In Kairos, Katharina wonders which patriarchal affiliation allowed her access to the West. Her grandfather, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War? Her older male employer, who takes a bit too much pleasure in sitting next to her? Her father’s status as a professor? Paternity, and paternalism, is the go-to rubric to vouch for Katharina’s mobility. Yet in other gorgeous pages, we learn about matrilineal Tuareg traditions where kids “belong” to the mom. I’m curious to hear your thoughts: Who does a child, who does a life belong to?
JE: Hmm. It’s an interesting question. I think I will write another novel about it.
EA: Let me know if you need a reader. I’ll start studying German ASAP!
JE: You are a tough questioner! Of course I already told everything, but nobody sees it so clearly! It’s always interested me, how much you inherit by your genes versus how you’re brought up socially. In The Book of Words, the young woman ends up on the wrong side, if you look at her true parents. She’s on the enemy’s side, the one who killed them. Often, you define yourself by feeling either like a natural part of, or in opposition to, your family. You always feel you have power over who you are and why you are that way. If there’s a sudden revelation, like the sad truth about the young woman in The Book of Words, it’s like that power is taken from you. You become a victim, perhaps of your parents’ mistakes, or all the things they went through so that they couldn’t bring you up themselves. Likewise, I’ve always been interested in people who are looking for their biological parents—what exactly they are they looking for.
EA: One last question. I love that Richard has to come up with a slogan to get the protest permit.
JE: Ahh, yes! That’s one of my funny scenes!
EA: If you had to come up with a slogan for your work, what would it be?
JE: Oh God!
A slogan is a difficult thing.
EA: Maybe even the opposite of what you’re doing. Your work seems like an anti-slogan.
JE: The shorter the text that someone wants from you, the more difficult it is to write. Whenever I’m asked for a blurb for a book, I work two weeks on it! I keep looking for how to get to the very essence. Hmm. The essence.
(She taps the table, then looks up.)
Keep being curious. Everything depends on the point of view. And the truth is never just one thing. It is a complex, living entity, moving, growing, shifting around. But these are not good mottos, because a motto should be clear about what truth is, and I am not.
EA: Maybe that is the truth, that it’s not clear?
JE: Clearly. Okay, one more slogan: Everybody should be given the chance to live.
Kairos by Jenny Erpenbeck (translated from the German by Michael Hofmann) is available from New Directions.