title: The Old Child & Other Stories [support an independent bookseller and purchase at Strand]
author: Jenny Erpenbeck
translated from German by: Susan Bernofsky
genre: novella, short stories
published: 2005 (translation date)
source: New York Public Library
“The girl used to be constantly looking around to the right and left to be sure of doing whatever the right thing was, but now that she can see more clearly and perceives the great variety of human beings moving all around her in a thousand different ways, she can no longer choose what is right, she no longer knows what the right thing is. Everything she does seems to her wrong even while she is doing it, so utterly wrong that she’d like to take it back again–never would she have wished to offer offense to anyone, but now she is forced to realize that there is virtually no action at all that is free of the possibility of causing offense. At the same time, this state of being prevented from acting cannot merely be described as a lack of independence, as is so often done by the girl’s teachers with pedagogical intent, it is more like a paralysis. Even transforming a simple thought into action, such as, for example, wanting to lift one’s hand, is becoming more and more impossible for the girl the longer she remains in the institution. If you lift your hand, you must, a moment before, have wanted to lift your hand, if you laugh, you must have wanted to laugh, if you say no or yes, you must have wanted to say no or yes, in other words every time you do something, you must have wanted, a moment earlier, to do what you are doing. The moment you do anything at all, your volition can be seen standing naked behind it, and this the girl finds so utterly embarrassing that she chooses to want nothing. She wants what all the others want, but there is no such thing. And the moment she realizes this, she realizes also that her strength is waning.” (p. 65, The Old Child).
If Melissa Pritchard, Anne Carson and Herta Müller could somehow procreate, their child’s writing might sound like Jenny Erpenbeck, which in my book is a wholehearted compliment.
In this collection of short stories and a novella, Erpenbeck’s characters are hauntingly memorable and scenes vividly dreamlike.
The title novella, The Old Child, tells the story of a young girl, found standing in the street, devoid of memory, with an empty bucket in her hand. The girl is then taken by the authorities to an children’s institution where all possessions are communal, and she finds comfort in the anonymity of routine and procedure. Throughout the novella, the reader watches the girl gain, then lose, discover then reject parts of her authentic self as she struggles to find her place among the other children. The telling of the story was so nuanced and the character of the girl so complex…I have a feeling I’ll discover something new with each reading, which is the mark of true craftsmanship on the part of Erpenbeck. I keep coming across the phrase “verbal economy” associated with Erpenbeck’s writing, and it’s an apt one; what she is able to accomplish in 120 pages, lesser authors spend 300+ pages attempting.
Hale and Hallowed: The story of a woman who pays an unexpected nighttime visit to the woman she shared a hospital room with at the birth of her son, and the pace/cadence of this story was phenomenal.
Light a Fire or Leave: Erpenbeck is supremely skilled at dropping right in to the core of the matter in a way that just reverberates for the rest of the story. The first few lines: “That I was going to die, this I always knew. Already at ten, at twelve, I could see myself lying there: in the deepest forest, in a puddle, unburied, my body a home to vermin. What I didn’t know is that I could grow old. My life seemed to me only a rough draft, a sketch to which I could keep applying the eraser, it seemed to me I was simultaneously at home in all my ages, I saw the phases of my life sitting in a circle around Death, the way the twelve months in the fairy tale sit around the fire. I never believed age could really drive two people apart, I thought everyone knew everything at all times, and the only difference was in the concrete shapes this knowledge assumed. I always felt I had plenty of time.” (page 117).
Rubric rating: 9. Reading this collection was like taking a master class. Erpenbeck is ridiculously talented and I’m absolutely going to read everything of hers I can get my hands on, such as Visitation and The Book of Words.