The tension between the critic’s high expectations and the book’s low visibility tells you a good deal. On one, fairly banal, level, it points to a predictable disparity between the author’s popularity at home and her profile abroad ... And yet, in contrast to the large and roiling themes, there is Erpenbeck’s manner: coolly precise, leached of emotionality, almost disconcertingly austere ... much of the force of her fiction flows from the way she situates her female characters in time and history ... the publication of a 'memoir in pieces,' consisting wholly of nonfiction essays, promised to fill some gaps and thereby enhance her profile. But whatever satisfactions some of those pieces provide, Not a Novel is too uneven overall—partly by design, partly not—to do anything but raise more questions than it answers ... Not a Novel is literally as well as figuratively uneven. 'Life' is unsatisfyingly scant, while 'Literature and Music' makes up more than two thirds of the book; 'Society,' which comprised seven essays in the original, is reduced to just two pieces ... the resultant unevenness, the casual, occasionally sketchy quality of some of the work—to say nothing of the irritating verbatim repetitions of entire passages from piece to piece, from one magazine article or prize acceptance speech to another—suggests that the process of compilation was not as meticulous as you’d expect from Erpenbeck.When you’re a busy writer in midcareer, it’s easy to assemble enough material for a collection like this one; but a good collection is much more than a grab bag. Still, there is much here of great interest and high quality.
... the reminiscences have a crackling vitality ... memories are expressed with masterful touches of repetition, achieving a telegraphic poetry. Nevertheless, the section comes to no more than a handful of pieces, a number of them only a couple of pages. Meatier by far is the group that follows, 'Literature and Music.' These investigations into Erpenbeck’s joint calling (she directs opera, as well as writing novels) bristle with erudite allusion, not to mention sheer smarts. Repetition remains a hallmark of her style, but here it turns canny, yielding aphoristic gems ... the impact is of a master at work, someone who ought to be considered for the Nobel ... 'Society,' just two essays...pack a terrific punch...as they confront one of our moment’s most pressing issues, namely, the untold millions of displaced people seeking asylum ... 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.
... very little about this book resembles a traditional memoir. We walk briefly among shadows and memories of her childhood in East Berlin, but there is nothing in the way of immersive personal detail save her granular memories of losing her mother and managing the inventory of her belongings and apartment after her death ... Artistic craft and influence occupy the bulk of the text ... A deeply deliberate writer in possession of a keen sense of tempo, it’s telling that she trained and worked as an opera director for years before concentrating on fiction, a detail that reveals itself in relation to her development as a writer ... Erpenbeck tackles enormous, complex topics in the memoir—freedom, citizenship, humanity, refugees, asylum, identity. But she’s in no way didactic. Rather, she takes these subjects presumably because she finds herself at an impasse ... A child of the Cold War as well as a survivor of the ruins of the Third Reich, Erpenbeck considers our contemporary moment with an especially sharp lens ... In so far as this is a memoir, it’s one that perhaps argues that all personal histories are significant when you consider lives through unifying perspectives. Concluding with a sharp focus on society, her memoir closes with a haunting look at individuals who are stateless, giving ample space to an obituary for Bashir Zakaryau ... Erpenbeck is a virtuoso whose eye for detail depends entirely on a refusal to write what’s easy or straightforward. It’s a perspective conditioned by losing one identity and watching an entire country disappear in the name of freedom.
Erpenbeck’s refreshing frankness and incisive thinking permeate this collection ... The essays explore the subjects – walls and borders, truth and silence, identity and memory and the limitations of language – present in her fiction while her autobiographical accounts give valuable context ... Erpenbeck’s anger is palpable and this collection reveals both her creative process and the injustices that drive her to write.
... this short volume did not entirely live up to my desire for it. It does not continue the journey of Go, Went, Gone, which I realise now was complete in itself, but it yields some insights, both into that novel and into her earlier fictional works, and into some of the influences and experiences that have forged Erpenbeck’s vision ... Erpenbeck’s talent comes across in the gradual accretion of detail ... It is this ability both to recognise the ways that political realities define us, and also to pay so much attention to the emotional and aesthetic experiences that may lie slantwise or in contradiction to those realities, that gives Erpenbeck’s writing its precious flavour ... 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.
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.
A memoir from one of Europe’s most original and accomplished writers ... In the last section, Erpenbeck the activist is front and center. 'Blind Spots,' a keynote speech, powerfully addresses borders, refugees...and the 'concept of freedom.' An ideal introduction to the life and work of an exceptional artist.