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James Ley on Jenny Erpenbeck

In a perceptive analysis at the Sydney Review of Books, James Ley tries to find a common thread between the novels of Jenny Erpenbeck and her new collection of essays:

That Erpenbeck has been prompted to reflection [in her essays] is very much the point. Her work is fascinated with the way that lives are shaped by contingencies, large and small. Life, for Erpenbeck, is something that happens to us, however much we might imagine ourselves to be in control of our destinies. “There is an element of disorder, something intractable, in every order”, she writes, “things have a life of their own even if they appear predictable. The same data won’t always produce the same results”. History is present in her novels as a disruptive force, capable of sweeping away one reality and replacing it with another. Visitation and The End of Days are both concise novels that span the twentieth century, their narratives buffeted by the great catastrophes of German history. Yet they are also attuned to the fateful influence of small decisions and random occurrences. The ingenious conceit of The End of Days is to structure the story of its protagonist’s long life around her many potential deaths. Each moment at which her life might have ended is shown to be a matter of chance. Every time she evades death and moves on to a new stage of her life, she is reborn into a new historical context that alters the tenor of her existence; every extension of her life demands a recalibration of its overall meaning.