Jenny Erpenbeck: The author who is hardly known in Germany

Jenny Erpenbeck
The internationally celebrated German author who hardly anyone knows in Germany

There it is! Jenny Erpenbeck was visibly pleased about the prestigious award.

© Alberto Pezzali/AP/dpa

She has long been celebrated abroad, and her latest novel won the Booker Prize – and yet Jenny Erpenbeck flies under the radar in Germany. The author writes about German history in a way that is as personal and political as only the greats can.

The German writer Jenny Erpenbeck received the International Booker Prize on Tuesday for her novel “Kairos”. The award is considered one of the most prestigious literary prizes in the world, Erpenbeck is the first German among the winners – and she has been nominated more often than any other German author. It was also the first time that a man was honored as a translator: Michael Hofmann translated “Kairos”, which was published in this country in 2021, into English.

The novel is about an unequal love affair and abuse of power between a 19-year-old and a 50-year-old author; the panorama unfolds during the last days of the GDR. The author has interwoven love and politics into what the jury believes is an epic that is worthy of a prize. The statement continues: “Erpenbeck invites you to make the connection between these generation-defining political developments and a devastating, even brutal love affair, while questioning the nature of fate and agency.” As with the GDR itself, the work begins with optimism and trust and eventually dissolves.

Jenny Erpenbeck is considered for the Nobel Prize for Literature

For an international audience, Jenny Erpenbeck’s award comes as little surprise. Two months ago, the “New York Times”, Erpenbeck is the most likely candidate for the next Nobel Prize in Literature. In Germany, however, the author receives little recognition. She never received the German book prize. In the comment columns on the announcement of the Booker Prize it was said, among other things: “That I am the author until “I didn’t know that before, it definitely needs to be corrected.”

So who is this most unknown acquaintance in literature?

Jenny Erpenbeck was born in East Berlin in 1967 as the daughter of an Arabic translator. The father was a physicist, philosopher and writer, and his paternal grandparents were also writers. And this already laid out a lot of things that would influence Erpenbeck’s work: the family’s writing, growing up in the GDR. Childhood and youth in East Germany in particular often play an important role in Erpenbeck’s texts. She processes what she has experienced. Also in “Kairos”.

Freedom wasn’t given. It had a price, and the price was my entire life so far.

In this excellent novel, the author describes the fall of the GDR as a story of loss, a swan song – but without romanticizing the GDR. Erpenbeck was 22 years old when the Wall fell. It still seems to resonate today. She is said to have once said of her own experience of the fall of the Wall: “Freedom was not a gift. It had a price, and the price was my entire life up to that point.”

After graduating from high school, she trained as a bookbinder, then spent a practical year as a prop master at the Kleist Theater in Frankfurt an der Oder and as a dresser at the Berlin State Opera. She studied theater studies at the Humboldt University and musical theater directing at the Hanns Eisler University in Berlin. Afterwards, from 1997, she worked as a director.

She is said to have started writing around the same time, perhaps to fill her father’s gap. He had given up writing with the change. In 1999, Erpenbeck’s first novel, entitled “The Story of the Old Child”, was published. 25 years later, she is internationally considered the most important German author.

In one Interview with RBB Erpenbeck herself recently provided a possible answer to the question of why her works receive more attention abroad than in Germany. In the USA and England there is “a lot of thinking” about whether there is a way out of capitalism, she mused. “And there is actually a great interest in understanding why, for example, this supposed alternative, the GDR, failed.”

In Germany, the East-West issue is met with rejection

In Germany it is different. Here she experienced that German readers felt repelled by the East-West issue. In western Germany in particular, people are tired of the topic. “It is also difficult in a country where both halves are involved in the problem but have not had the same experiences,” said Erpenbeck at RBB. Looking at the experience from the outside is easier. Nevertheless, the author repeatedly emphasized that she also received attention and recognition here in Germany.

The fact that Jenny Erpenbeck is considered a candidate for the Nobel Prize is obviously rather unpleasant for her. She was afraid, she said in the interview, that she would walk around with the label “hope for the Nobel Prize” until she was old – without ever receiving the prize.

Transparency note: Penguin Random House, like Stern, is part of the Bertelsmann Group.

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