It was most unlike me NOT to be among the first to cross the threshold of this year’s Edinburgh Book Festival at its new home in the Edinburgh College of Art. But this year it is a hybrid festival, and I have decided to be a hybrid visitor. I will turn up in person but not until midway through the second week. Key to my deciding not to go on day one was that the opening adult event featured Jenny Erpenbeck. As she was in Berlin, her interviewer, Daniel Hahn somewhere in the south of England, I decided to stay put in Lanarkshire.

This was the view of my first event of 2021.

Jenny Erpenbeck was here (there?) to discuss her latest release, Not A Novel, which is a selection of her essays and speeches. The first thing to note is that the English edition is much shorter than the German original. This is because her US/British publishers wanted the pieces in the book to be closely connected to the author as a person, to her development from then to now, and not a compendium of all her non-fictional writings. Their assumption being that the general reader wouldn’t be interested in the intricacies of why Siegfried lost his memories of his wife. (Possibly so, but I am. Oh dear, cue reread of The Niebelunglied.)

So does Not A Novel fulfil the publisher’s purpose? Its three sections on Life, Literature and Music, and Society do provide a rounded out view of the person that is Erpenbeck.

The biographical details in Life include stories of her childhood in East Berlin and show that not everyone was miserable there. A child is a child and will go rollerskating down the safest street, not worrying too much if it is cut off by the Berlin Wall. “Not every tree had a Stasi agent hiding behind it,” she said during the event. Her mother’s death has forced her to accept that she is a hoarder, and she is grateful that, having an archive, she can offload her flatware (paperwork, inherited diaries, etc) and know they are kept safely. 3D objects are a problem, however.

The essays and speeches in Literature and Music show Erpenbeck’s highly cultured side. I particularly liked her insights to her first two novels, The Old Child and The Book of Words. With regards to the latter, I’ll admit now I didn’t really understand it at the time of reading, and it put me off reading her debut, but I’m ready now. Her acceptance speech for the Thomas Mann prize was a highlight. It is full of passion for the plight of refugees (Mann himself found himself a refugee from Nazi Germany overnight), and I found the sincerity in this and the pieces about modern day refugees in Germany (contained in the Society section) much more moving than the fictional depiction in Go, Went, Gone, which felt preachy to me.

So much material to cover and Daniel Hahn had only an hour in which to cover it. The result was a thoughtful hour, focused more on biography and politics than literature, in which Erpenbeck admitted that she never would have become a writer if it had not been for the fall of the Wall. As for her concerns about freedom: What use is her freedom to write, if no-one is reading? “I’ve never met a right-wing person at one of my events,” she said. “What use are my writings and speeches, if they’re not reading or listening?” (Perhaps we should tell her in comments.)

Not A Novel translated from German by Kurt Beals

Erpenbeck’s Edinburgh Book Festival event is available to watch on demand here.

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