... 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.
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.
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.