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the Complete Review
the complete review - biographical / literary

Not a Novel

Jenny Erpenbeck

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To purchase Not a Novel

Title: Not a Novel
Author: Jenny Erpenbeck
Genre: Non-fiction
Written: 2019 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 188 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Not a Novel - US
Not a Novel - UK
Not a Novel - Canada
Kein Roman - Deutschland
  • US subtitle: A Memoir in Pieces
  • UK subtitle: Collected Writings and Reflections
  • German title: Kein Roman
  • Translated by Kurt Beals
  • Note that the English translation only includes about half of the original German material

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Our Assessment:

B+ : good and revealing collection of texts

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 13/1/2021 Guy Chazan
The Guardian . 3/11/2020 Lucy Popescu
The Guardian . 21/12/2020 Natasha Walter
The Washington Post . 8/9/2020 John Domini
World Lit. Today . Fall/2020 Necia Chronister

  From the Reviews:
  • "Not a Novel is not just autobiographical. There are fascinating reflections on German literature -- Grimms' Fairy Tales, Hans Fallada, Thomas Mann and Walter Kempowski's war novel All for Nothing -- as well as exquisite descriptions of the writing process." - Guy Chazan, Financial Times

  • "Erpenbeck's refreshing frankness and incisive thinking permeate this collection. (...) Erpenbeck's anger is palpable and this collection reveals both her creative process and the injustices that drive her to write." - Lucy Popescu, The Guardian

  • "In this attentive prose, in her desire to map stories that are suppressed and rhythms of the heart that keep being forgotten, Erpenbeck is one of the most vital writers working today. While this slim collection does not have the power of her fiction, it still reminds us of a humanity that, right now, feels terribly under threat, which keeps us connected to one another as well as to ourselves." - Natasha Walter, The Guardian

  • "Not a Novel cannot claim to be a coherent whole. Nevertheless, its pig-in-a-python ungainliness contributes to the fascination. Variety proves its own reward, since in every guise this artist makes virtuosic adjustments, changes of tone or rhetoric. (...) Despite their differences, these essays come together to assert the value of the writer's vocation. Whatever her subject or tone, Erpenbeck keeps coming back to how her work enables us to know the unknowable, especially in our ever-changing heads and hearts." - John Domini, The Washington Post

  • "To read Erpenbeck's latest book (...) is to glimpse at the underground geological record of life experiences and influences that support her fictional worlds. (...) One of the pleasures of reading Not a Novel is just that -- it's not a novel. Each piece stands on its own and is dense and lucid, demanding pause and reflection rather than inviting one in for a sustained read. The pieces in this collection are best savored one by one, and by taking time to consider Erpenbeck's views on writing, artistic influence, social justice, the meaning of childhood, and more." - Necia Chronister, World Literature Today

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:

       Not a Novel collects twenty-three non-fiction texts by Jenny Erpenbeck. Many of them are personal, about her life or her writing, making the subtitle chosen for the US edition, A Memoir in Pieces, an appropriate one -- in many ways this is what the volume adds up to. Unfortunately, it's not quite what the German original -- subtitled: Texte und Reden 1992 bis 2018 ('Texts and Talks 1992 to 2018') -- offered: the collection in its US/UK editions is a quite radically scaled-back version, as the German volume weighs in at more than twice the (page-)length, and includes more than twice as many texts (and talks), with forty-eight. This perhaps helps do away with the kind of repetition that this kind of collection tends to -- authors often recycle material, especially in their talks -- but still seems a shame. (I haven't seen the original version, so I can't really compare; this review is solely of the English version.)
       Not a Novel is divided into three sections, the pieces grouped into ones about 'Life', 'Literature and Music', and 'Society' and arranged chronologically in each section. The arrangement in the German original is similar, except that there are more sections: 'Life', 'Paths', 'Writing and Literature', 'Music', 'Pictures', and 'Society'; none of the essays from 'Paths' (such as her 2010 'Visit to Uzbekistan') or 'Pictures' (such as: 'Wie ist das Spiel zwischen Schalke 04 und Inter Mailand ausgegangen ? (2011), zum Fotoprojekt »Erinnerung an morgen« von Katharina Behling') are included in the US/UK editions, while the whole 'Society'-section now consists of only two texts.
       Several of the texts are prize-acceptance speeches, while the collection also includes three of her four Bamberger lectures from 2013 (but, regrettably, not the final one). The latter -- the most substantial of the texts -- are in-depth looks at her work, each lecture focused on one of them: 'On The Old Child', 'On Book of Worlds', and 'Speech and Silence', in which she speaks about her play, Cats Have Nine Lives (which has been translated, in PAJ 121)).
       Born in East Germany in 1967, Erpenbeck lived there until the fall of the Wall; among the interesting parts of her accounts of life in the old GDR are those of growing up literally in the shadows of the Wall in Berlin (one of the advantages being the dead end streets for kids to play on, without having to worry about through-traffic ...). These pieces make for a good sketch of her formative years and family life in the GDR. Among the most powerful pieces is the very effective 'Open Bookkeeping' from 2009, dealing with the death of her mother and her mother's estate (and people who keep asking "Are you writing anything new yet ?").
       In several pieces, notably her Bamberg lecture on it, Erpenbeck discusses the writing of the long story published in English as 'The Story of the Old Child', "about a woman who doesn't want to grow up". Her path of becoming a writer, retraced several times in the collection, is also an interesting one -- from an early compulsion ("I've always written"), and her practically taking it for granted that: "it's a part of me" to her being both determined to do it but not seeming to force the issue (or the stories). In a later piece she points to the centrality of her life-experience of transition -- most obviously that of the fall of the Wall and the collapse of the system within which she had grown up. She explains -- specifically, here, though much of this also comes across in the other pieces themselves --:

My writing began with reflections on borders, reflections on how we change over the course of our lives, voluntarily or involuntarily, reflections on what identity is, and how much we can lose without losing ourselves.
       The prize acceptance speeches -- alas, again, far from all the ones included in the German edition ... -- provide opportunities for her to speak about the authors the prizes are named after, and her relationship with their works: Hans Fallada and Thomas Mann, for example, or Ovid, when she receives the Premio Strega Europeo. These are interesting glimpses of her own reading and influences -- and more of this would certainly also have been welcome.
       Familiarity with Erpenbeck's fiction is not necessary to appreciate this collection -- though there are certainly insights into her work that are enriched by her discussion of some of it here. Many of the pieces cover similar terrain, the areas of particular interest to her that she also addresses in her fiction, from language itself to more social-political issues such as that of migration, and the thoughtfulness to her fiction comes across similarly in these well-turned pieces. There's a refreshing variety to her approaches, too; some of these are small, even incidental pieces -- a few hundred words on a particular theme or subject -- but pretty much all of them are at least in some way distinctive, as Erpenbeck puts a great deal of effort into finding just the right way to present and frame the piece in question.
       Not a Novel is a very good little collection, and while perhaps some opportunity has been missed in not translating the entire German original, the volume one really must look forward to is the 'memoir in full' -- rather than put together from pieces, as here -- that one hopes Erpenbeck will eventually write. As this collection already makes clear, hers is a life (and writing-life) well worth examining -- and she is very good at putting things -- her own life and experiences included -- under the lens.

- M.A.Orthofer, 14 August 2020

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Not a Novel: Reviews: Other books by Jenny Erpenbeck under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

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

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© 2020-2021 the complete review

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