The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (A Spectacular Way to Begin the IFFP Long List)

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Several years ago, I was only able to read one book for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It was The Detourby Gerbrand Bakker, and I was not surprised to find that it was named the winner in May, 2013. That is how I feel about The End of Days, a book which is written with such tender and insightful prose it nearly takes your breath.

This novel is many things. The fly-leaf says, “A novel of incredible breadth and amazing concision, and the winner of the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize, The End of Days offers a unique overview of the twentieth century by “one of the finest, most exciting authors alive” (Michel Faber). And while it certainly is a portrayal of Germany’s history from 1900 through the next hundred years, it is so much more.

None of the characters are named. They are simply the baby, the oldest daughter, the mother, the grandmother. Yet we are able to understand who is who as the characters are woven together through five books, in between which comes an Intermezzo.

Each of the five books supposes a different scenario with the female protagonist. (Done far more brilliantly than Kate Atkinson’s work in Life After Life.) First, there is the baby who dies an infant.  In Book II, the author imagines that the baby had lived and is now seventeen years old living in Vienna. In Book III, the girl is a woman in her thirties who has entered the Soviet Union and lives in Moscow. In Book IV, the woman is in her 60’s and living in Berlin. The novel ends with Book V, when the woman is 90 and visited by her son in the nursing home where she is cared for. Through each of these scenarios, we see the impact that history has made particularly on the Jewish people, the Germans, and the Russians. But the scope is much larger than that. We see the impact of life on humankind.

I could not stop highlighting certain passages:

  • The customs of man are like footholds carved into inhumanity, she thinks, something a person who’s been shipwrecked can clutch at to pull himself up, and nothing more.
  • For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn: A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days.
  • The end of a day on which a life has ended is still far from being the end of days.
  • Does it make a difference to someone who doesn’t know the truth whether the person is dead or just very far away?
  • On Wednesday, for the first time in her life, she met people who didn’t just grumble about how awful everything was, but instead clearheadedly investigated  why this machine known as progress kept undermining the well-being of mankind.

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967. She is the author of several works of fiction, including The Book of Words (2007) and Visitation (2010), both translated by Susan Bernofsky and published by New Directions. The End of Days won the prestigious Hans Fallada Prize in 2014. Also an opera director, she currently lives in Berlin.

The End of Days is a book which I strongly suspect may win the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize. It is a book which, in my opinon, must be read.

 

Find reviews from roughghosts here, 1st Reading’s Blog here, and Tony’s Reading List here.

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29 thoughts on “The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck (A Spectacular Way to Begin the IFFP Long List)”

  1. I finished this just before the longlist was announced and it set the bar high. Although nothing I have read since has quite reached it, I have thoroughly enjoyed each of the new authors I have encountered. I’ve only had trouble with the ones I was not crazy about before (the best known names on the list).

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    1. I am afraid that much of what I read to follow will also pale in comparison. The writing was exquisite, and I could not do it justice in my review. Still, I’m looking forward to carrying on with the others. In a moment, I’ll go upstairs with Kehlmann’s F.

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  2. I’m always curious to know how an authors previous, or even current careers impact the way they write. It would be interesting to here her thoughts on whether or not her musical background has an impact on the cadence and tone of her writing.

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      1. What an interesting thought, Ryan, how her musicality would effect her writing. I can’t answer that, but I can say that each sentence was crafted so meticulously to convey such thought…I suppose that would be more like a composer, but possibly a director going for the overall effect.

        I do not like my review. I can’t say what I want to say about how powerful this book is. But, that always happens to me. The books that effect me the most deeply are the hardest to write about. Some of my favorite books of all, I’ve reviewed not once. I can’t uphold the author well enough with my silly words.

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  3. High praise indeed, must get a copy of this on, I have her Visitation to read as well, I feel like Alice fumbling to get through the door, such great intentions to read this author and still not gone there!

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    1. I’d like to read Visitation after enjoying this one so much. Isn’t it funny how we can want to read an author, and yet somehow not get around to it for the longest time? I am reminded of authors I want to read from the blogs I visit daily.

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    1. Atkinson’s book had such high praise I felt compelled to read it, but I was fairly disappointed by it. At least, that’s how I recall it from this point. It doesn’t compare to Erpenbeck’s book, which I can’t recommend highly enough.

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      1. I was afraid to read Atkinson’s novel because of the hype, but I found it brilliant. So too Erpenbeck’s and to say I’m rooting for her in the #iffp is an understatement (even if I preferred Visitation).

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        1. Maybe because of the hype, Atkinson’s novel fell short for me. I liked it, but not nearly as much as this one. I’m with you in rooting for Erpenbeck! And now i want to read Visitation.

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  4. The more I hear about this book the more I want to read it; the writing sounds superb. Our library network doesn’t have it, so I’ve submitted a request. With any luck it’ll arrive on or around the date of the IFFP announcement and I’ll be able to read the winner!

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    1. Jacqui, I miss your presence on the IFFP Shadow Jury this year, but I’m always so glad to have your comments. Erpenbeck’s writing truly is suberb, in every way. I’m amazed that our library did have it, in fact The End of Days and F were the only two on the long list that they did have. I hope you’re able to obtain a copy sometime, I think you’d really enjoy this one.

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      1. That’s very kind of you to say, Bellezza. It’s a pleasure to read your reviews and chat with you through our respective blogs. The Erpenbeck does sound unmissable – I’ve submitted that purchase request, fingers crossed!

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    1. Gary, remember how much we loved The Detour? I still smile to myself when I think it was the only one of the fifteen that I read that year, and yet it was the prize winning book. What are the chances of that?! Anyway, this is as beautiful in my opinion.

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  5. Oh, this sounds wonderful. I will ask my mom to bring me a German copy when she next comes to visit. Although after reading your quotes, I almost want to read it in translation. Either way, I am sure it will be a treat.

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    1. I would love to be able to read this (and many others!) in its original language. I really miss the days when I could speak and read French practically fluently; it enhanced books like Voltaire’s Candide, and even the New Testament, so much. Whichever copy you are able to find, though, I’m sure you will love it as much as I did.

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  6. Wow! This books sounds fantastic. I must get a copy ASAP. I love how you describe the character evolving through these five scenarios. I’ve yet to read Atkinson’s novel, but am thinking that I should read this one first.

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    1. Definitely read this first! In fact, skip Atkinson’s altogether. Each Intermezzo imagines what would happen if the protagonist didn’t die; it’s not like she had some weird reincarnation or something, like Life After Life seemed to represent. Erpenbeck’s book made me wonder about all the possibilities our lives hold, and seems to answer at least some of the “What if…?”s we might ask ourselves.

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  7. I’m now just past the halfway mark in my reading of the shortlist and I still feel this novel stands out. This will be the fourth time Erpenbeck has made the long list (i.e. every novel to be translated) and I believe a woman has never won it…but then neither has my favourite!

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    1. This is only the second I’ve read of all fifteen (!), but I plan on getting through as many as I can during Spring Break which starts Friday. At any rate, I can tell it will be hard to beat The End of Days. The writing is stellar in every way. It’s not so important to me if a woman wins, as much as the most gorgeous work, which is certainly not the case last year. It would be nice to see Erpenbeck take the prize this year.

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  8. I also loved reading this book and agree with the musicality of the writing. I was particularly struct with the discordance of the soviet section. For me the pacing and language was different than the rest of the book and the change really reflected the story line.

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