Thursday, September 30, 2010

The so-called hydraulic excavator - Jenny Erpenbeck combats beauty

We commonly link art and beauty, but some fiction has no interest whatsoever in beauty, unless beauty is just a synonym for well-made.*  I know that some of my aversion to “beauty” has come from the example of any number of Modernists, experts at dodging, mangling, and mocking beauty.

“Make life beautiful! Make life beautiful!” Charles Baudelaire exhorts in “The Bad Glazier,” Paris Spleen (1869, sort of). The poet makes life beautiful by throwing a flower pot at an itinerant glazier, smashing his glass samples, just to hear the marvelous noise.  The actual beauty of this gratuitous act seems highly questionable.  Irony destroys beauty.  How much literature of consequence is not ironic?  Therefore.

Literary beauty can cause ethical problems.  Rohan Maitzen writes about the issue here, where the subject is contemporary Afghanistan.  Jenny Erpenbeck’s recent novel, Visitation (2008, tr. Susan Bernofsky), is, among other things, a Holocaust novel.  The ethical stakes are high.  Any treatment of the subject aestheticizes it, fiction especially so.  Erpenbeck needs to portray horrible things in an artful manner, but not necessarily in a beautiful manner.  It’s a curious effect – Erpenbeck creates real sympathy for her characters, but also employs a range of distancing techniques.  Visitation is a brilliantly cold novel.

Erpenbeck uses repetiton to create distance.  Lists.  Technical language.   Find the beauty here:

Their most important tool is the so-called hydraulic excavator, a piece of equipment weighing between 20 and 25 tons with maximum 9 meters extension using an arm driven by a hydraulic cylinder. (149)

Entitlement of counterclaimant on the basis of action under law of unjust enrichment may exist in the amount of the difference… (136)

To supplement the pines, the young oak saplings and the little hazelnut shrubs that grow naturally on the slope leading down to the lake, additional bushes will be planted close together to make it more stable. (17)

Visitation is a conceptual novel centered on a piece of lakefront property north of Berlin, and a house built on it in the 1930s.  History, horror, passes back and forth over the spot.  Erpenbeck begins twenty-four thousand years ago, with glaciers and the filling of the lake, but the story begins in the late 19th century.  The parcel is split in pieces in a first chapter that deliberately resembles Theodor Storm or Adalbert Stifter, earlier masters of stories about the interaction of people and landscape.  Meine Frau tells me that the title of the novel invokes Goethe, and I suspect that other chapters nod at later German fiction.

The house, a wonderful house, with murals and carvings and secret closets, is built by an architect who colludes with the Nazis and later flees the Stasi.  Some of the landowners are Jewish.  One can guess how their stories go.  A chapter about a girl hiding from the Nazis is paralleled by another where a German woman hides from the Russian Army.  Life in the GDR is better than life under Hitler, but has its own miseries.  Life in reunited Germany is better than life in the GDR, but ditto.

I quickly picked up a sense of Erpenbeck’s project.  Knowing Storm helped; knowing Sebald, too.  People-in-landscape, people-in-history.  Old subjects, but rich.  The focus on the specific lake and house are key.  In the twenty-four thousand year scheme of things, neither the house nor the Holocaust may mean much.  But that beginning is itself a dodge, a source of distance – within each chapter, the land or house or the people in or on it, however impermanent, mean everything.  I found the novel moving, some parts deeply so.  But hardly beautiful.

*  Not just fiction, or not just literature.  Is Duck Soup (Marx Brothers, 1933) beautiful?  Or “Heebie Jeebies” (Louis Armstrong, 1926)?  Would either be improved by more beauty?


  1. Does beauty vary from one language to another and is it easier-and other qualities more difficult- to achieve in different languages? For example, Les Bienvallantes is beautifully written and I'm sure that we weren't meant to accept the beauty of the language as a virtue. I'd guess that the narrator, and other firat-person narrators, was probably more persuasive as a character in French than in English just as beautiful writing may be easier in French. I think that Littell may have written in French because someone like Aue was literally unimaaginable in English, at least as the author wanted to depict him. It may seem odd, given my earlier remarks about Melville's style, but perhaps some qualities in writers are more admirable because they go against the temper of the language they use.

  2. Such an interesting question isn't it? Few writers have any choice, although I wonder if that is changing, if writers like Littell or Beckett will be more common.

    I agree with that last point. Different writers, different temperaments, I guess, but some seem to be at their best when they are really fighting with the language. Melville, or Blake, or Dickinson say - writers willing to break the language if it won't bend the way they want.