Saturday, January 3, 2015

Living again and again: Kate Atkinson and Jenny Erpenbeck

Imagine a novel about a woman who is reborn each time she dies, until eventually she manages to live a long and "correct" life. That's the premise of two recent novels, Kate Atkinson's Life After Life: A Novel, and Jenny Erpenbeck The End of Days. (I read Erpenbeck in it's original German, but Amazon tells me it's available also in English).

Atkinson's is the more famous and popular of the two. It tells the story of Ursula, born in 1910 to a comfortable upper middle class English family, who dies at birth, is straightaway reborn, and keeps at it for decades. The first few times are accidents which are then corrected next time round; along the way there's a growing awareness. Among the mishaps which are corrected in repeat versions of her life are various accidents, a couple of rapes, a couple of badly mismatched marriages - one of which can't be terminated until her daughter dies in Berlin in 1945 thus freeing her to start again - and as time goes on, eventually also the lives of others. There are parts of the story which are constant in all versions, and characters with immutable traits which overcome all repeat versions of Ursula's life, while others change from version to version.

The heart of the book, and by far its most powerful section, deals with the London Blitz, which she sometimes survives and other times doesn't; there's one dramatic night which she lives through (or not) again and again, from three or four different vantage points.

Imperceptibly there's the encroaching understanding of how to operate her unique ability, to keep at it until the story is lined up "correctly"; at the very end we understand that perhaps she's not even the only character in the story who knows about her ability and appreciates it.

I expect this is a book one might wish to read a second time, to pick apart the strands of the story and see its twists and turns.

Erpenbeck's book is by far the deeper of the two. It tells the story of an unnamed woman born in a Polish shtetl before World War One, who eventually lives to be 90 in post-unification Germany. Each section of the book tells the story of her family up to or a bit beyond her death; the next section then assumes she didn't die and tells the story of how things worked out in that case. She dies as an infant, or doesn't, in Poland. As a teenager, or not, in Vienna. As a German communist in Moscow, or not, under Stalin. As a famous poet, or not, in East Germany. As an old woman, in unified Germany.

We meet 7 generations of her family, from her great-grandparents, orthodox Jews in the shtetl, to the rumour of her grandchildren, German teenagers ignorant of any family history in the present, There's a motif of a set of volumes of German poetry which bump into the story throughout the generations; but the thing is that we're the only ones who know it. The profound irony of the book is the inability of the family to maintain its memory. Those contemporary German teenagers don't have the foggiest notion of their Jewish forbears; the woman herself never knows significant parts of her own story. At one point, the only way to transmit a very important piece of identity is by having her die so her son can bump into it; when she doesn't, he doesn't, and so it is lost.

It's an elegiac book, and it stays with you, even as it shows how the history doesn't stay in the family.

I have no reason to think Atkinson and Erpenbeck knew of each other as they wrote to so very different novels based on the same impossible premise.


Fabián said...

I have started reading Life after Life and we will see how it turns out.
I have read some reviews of The End of Days and some say it is a terribly sad book, and I kind of dread suffering all through a novel. I am not sure I will read it, though the way you tell about the things that are lost forever is what attracts me.
Lets see.
תמיד אני קןרא אותך, יעקוב.

Yaacov said...

תודה, פביאן!

Fabián said...

I finished Life after Life.


What did you think about the ending. I was confused by the last chapter. I thought that she was perfecting her life and the last life (where her brother comes back alive from WW2) would be the final one. But she is born again in the last chapter.

Do you think there is no end to the circularity of her life or maybe there were some things she will still go to perfect (lets say, getting married/having her own children)?

Do you think that the quick mention (and not dealt with again) of Benjamin Cole as an Israeli politician in 1967 points to a future life in which she married him and he does not become an Israeli politician/Stern Gang terrorist?

Maybe a final life in which she manages to kill Hitler but is not killed by his bodyguards?

Anything you can say would be appreciated. I did a reading on Goodreads about what other people thought of the ending, but everybody was just as confused.


Yaacov said...

Hi Fabian,

To be honest, I regarded the penultimate chapter as the end: when she reunites Nancy and Teddy, and Teddy pretty obviously knows she has done so.

The final chapter? It could be anything, couldn't it? The explanations you offer are as good as any others. Or perhaps she's simply opening it up for each of us to continue the story as we wish.

Then there's another possibility. If Haddock never made it, perhaps she was never born alive at all, and the whole tale never happened... because it's literature, after all, not history.

But as I said, I regard the pub scene in 1945 as the end of the tale. she's still yound enough then to have a reasonable rest-of-her-life.