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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Jenny Erpenbeck

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To purchase Visitation

Title: Visitation
Author: Jenny Erpenbeck
Genre: Novel
Written: 2008 (Eng. 2010)
Length: 150 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Visitation - US
Visitation - UK
Visitation - Canada
Le Bois de Klara - France
Heimsuchung - Deutschland
  • German title: Heimsuchung
  • Translated by Susan Bernofsky

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Our Assessment:

A- : adroitly handled and presented

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times A 25/10/2010 C.J.Schuler
FAZ A 23/2/2008 Martin Halter
The Guardian A 30/10/2010 Michel Faber
The Guardian . 22/7/2011 Alfred Hickling
The Independent A 19/11/2010 Rebecca K. Morrison
Independent on Sunday . 10/10/2010 Christian House
London Rev. of Books . 30/6/2011 Benjamin Markovits
NZZ A 2/2/2008 Roman Bucheli
The Observer . 17/7/2011 Natasha Tripney
The Telegraph . 9/12/2010 Kasia Boddy
Die Zeit . 29/5/2008 Katharina Döbler

  Review Consensus:

  Very impressed; very impressively done

  From the Reviews:
  • "Though just 150 pages long, Visitation has the epic trajectory of Thomas Mannís Buddenbrooks. This impressive achievement is a deeply engaging panorama of Germanyís troubling 20th-century history." - C.J.Schuler, Financial Times

  • "Erpenbeck hat jahrelang recherchiert, vom Bauaktenarchiv Köpenick bis nach Südafrika, hat sich in die Fachsprachen von Geologie, Rosenzucht, Zivilrecht und natürlich Bautechnik eingearbeitet. Am Ende hat sie das Schreckliche wie das Schöne in dieselbe schlackenlose, poetisch beherrschte Sprachkunst gebannt, und selbst wo von Brüchen, Unglück, Terror und Wahn die Rede ist, geht alles perfekt auf. Heimsuchung ist ein kühnes Experiment, ein eindrucksvoller Roman." - Martin Halter, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

  • "The page count may still be modest, but the achievement and resonance are massive. (...) Visitation is foreign in the profoundest sense of that word. (...) (A)n extraordinarily strong book by a major German author, ingeniously translated, produced with love by an idealistic publisher intent on doing something about the shamefully small proportion of foreign literature whose existence our country acknowledges." - Michel Faber, The Guardian

  • "Jenny Erpenbeck's novel is an ambitious attempt to compress 20th-century trauma into a single address, but though the narrative painstakingly traces the movement of glaciers and the potato beetle, it rattles through the human history with confusing swiftness" - Alfred Hickling, The Guardian

  • "Visitation is a master-class in the craft and power of short fiction. (...) She weaves a restrained, never indulgent, tapestry of individual stories laced with folklore, her descriptive riffs saved for appreciation of the shimmering lake and surrounding woodland. (...) Erpenbeck's language is of a pared-back poetry." - Rebecca K. Morrison, The Independent

  • "Erpenbeck has focused on a patch of land next to a Brandenburg lake to produce a novel that layers story upon story to construct a haunting edifice. The tales illuminate the conflicts and conflictionssuffered and perpetuated by the German population during the Jahrhundertwende, the turn-of-the-century shift, and over the following decades of war, National Socialism and Soviet occupation. It's a Who Do You Think You Are ? for bricks and mortar; a lineage of hope, despair, love and tragedy framed by an architect's dream weekend home." - Christian House, Independent on Sunday

  • "Jenny Erpenbeck's new novel, Visitation, can be read as a response or a companion to Sebald's The Emigrants. (...) The novel is hard to sum up: the things that matter in it don't happen at the level of chronology. It might be described as a collection of interlocking short stories, except that the chapters aren't quite stories either. A collection of prose poems is nearer the mark, which isn't to say that nothing dramatic happens. (...) A certain amount of confusion is probably what Erpenbeck intended. She expects her readers to scramble to keep up. One characteristic of her narrative style is that within each episode she tends to invert present and past, effect and cause. (...) I'm probably not avant-garde enough (or German enough) to appreciate Erpenbeck's work. The price she pays for cutting up her narrative seems to me very high: the reader has to work hard just to find out what's going on." - Benjamin Markovits, London Review of Books

  • "Auch wenn man sich gelegentlich von glücklichen Episoden täuschen lassen möchte, so ist es doch keine gute Geschichte, die hier erzählt wird. Im Kleinen wie im Grossen häuft sich das Leid (.....) Die Geschichte ist das, was sich an jedem Ort als Sediment abgelagert hat. Jenny Erpenbeck hat einen Roman von enormer poetischer Kraft geschrieben, der genau dies eindrücklich zur Darstellung bringt: Sie erzählt von den kleinen Geschichten eines unscheinbaren Ortes und spiegelt darin -- ergreifend und fassbar -- die grosse Geschichte." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "The novel, which is a spare, delicate thing, only 150 pages long, encompasses both the domestic and the horrific. Erpenbeck's writing, with its repetitions of situation and expression, is soothing and cocooning, which only magnifies the moments of horror" - Natasha Tripney, The Observer

  • "No story is given priority but each instead hints at the connections that place forges between various owners, renters and subtenants. Erpenbeck encourages us to act like detectives, noting the re-emergence of previously insignificant details in new contexts." - Kasia Boddy, The Telegraph

  • "Jenny Erpenbeck befleißigt sich dabei großer Objektivität. Es gibt keinen autobiografischen Groll, nicht einmal zwischen den Zeilen. Es gibt viel Empathie, das schon, aber keine offene Parteinahme." - Katharina Döbler, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Rather than any single or group of protagonists, Visitation centers around a property, by a lake in Brandenburg, in eastern Germany. Alternating (and generally short chapters) do focus on a unifying figure, 'the gardener', who is a constant across the span of the novel, but the rest of the novel features a succession of characters with a connection to the property -- though their stories are not presented in strict chronological order, and there is some movement back and forth in time. In their stories, Erpenbeck manages to present much of the (east) German twentieth century experience, including the rise of Nazism, the Soviet occupation, the German Democratic Republic, and the unification with West Germany.
       Erpenbeck is a writer who chooses her words very carefully, and the German title, Heimsuchung, contains even more layers than 'Visitation' can, as this is a novel not only of visitation (a literal translation of the word) but also of repeated 'Heim suchen' -- home-seeking, as many of the characters seek this sense of place and home (and 'Heimat') there. From the architect for whom: "A house is your third skin, after the skin made of flesh and clothing. Homestead." to the writer typing out: "I a-m g-o-i-n-g h-o-m-e", this is a book about that most fundamental sense of place and belonging, and the hold such a place can exert. It is all the more effective because this particular home rarely provides the promised hold and expected refuge: this is a book full of dispossession and flight, characters chased from their home by historical circumstance, whether the Jewish family that must leave under the rise of Nazism or the architect working in East Germany for whom: "home had become a trap".
       Erpenbeck presents these stories succinctly, in carefully sculpted sections and a precise but poetic language (which comes across well in Susan Bernofsky's translation). The inexorable advance of time is contrasted with the sense of timelessness that any 'place' exudes -- something Erpenbeck already introduces in her prologue that describes the geological formation of the lake (about which she also observes: "like every hollow shape, this channel existed only to be filled in completely some day"). The gardener is the one constant, but otherwise the placidity of place is only at the surface, and Erpenbeck frequently shakes up her language and her story. The summing-up of specific fates, dryly, simply, quickly related, is often particularly effective (and jarring), but the entire novel is supremely and effectively well-crafted.
       For such a short novel that nevertheless covers so much time, Visitation is also surprisingly detailed. As her lengthy acknowledgements (and some of the precise legal and technical language) suggest, this is a carefully researched work. There's little clue to this in the English edition, but Visitation is a memoir of sorts, the property and histories ones that Erpenbeck is closely familiar with. It is interesting to see how the approach she takes to it (this subject, which, it turns out, is very close to home indeed) can often seem detached -- a clear and simple statement of facts -- yet she still achieves considerable emotional resonance with it.
       Admirable rather than truly likeable, Visitation is a very fine literary work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 February 2011

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Visitation: Reviews: Other books by Jenny Erpenbeck under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Jenny Erpenbeck was born in (East) Germany in 1967.

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© 2011-2021 the complete review

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