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.