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Visitation
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2017 Book Discussions > Visitation - Whole Book Discussion (spoilers permitted) (Oct 2017)

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message 1: by Carol (last edited Oct 01, 2017 12:54PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments You've finished Visitation or are willing to participate in a spoiler-rich environment. This thread is for sharing your thoughts about the novel as a whole, for questions, opinions on what worked or didn't work for you.

To get us started,

1. Does the character of the wordless gardener successfully bridge the occupants' individual stories? Does the repetition of his labors and efforts move you? Do his appearances and (futile?) actions make you sad as the novel and, necessarily, the estate, progress toward their conclusions?

2. In Faber's review, linked in the "Background" thread, he states the following: “Indeed, the amount of emotional engagement Erpenbeck manages to win from us, in a mere 150 pages, is just one proof of her mastery. In marked contrast to the unearned love that inflated novels so often demand, Visitation allows us to feel we've known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place, without authorial pestering or pathos-cranking.”

Do you agree with Faber? Why or why not?


Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Two powerful chapters entitled The Girl, telling the story of the end of 12-year-old Doris's life, and The Red Army Officer, telling the story of the architect's wife's violent encounter of a Russian soldier, are presented back-to-back in the middle of the novel.

I found the first haunting and one of the most effective versions of a child's experience of the Holocaust I have read.

The Red Army Officer has several layers and aspects worth discussing. I am still processing my thoughts.

Thoughts on either or both chapters?


SueLucie | 33 comments These two chapters have stayed with me long after I finished the book a few days ago. Both set in dark, enclosed spaces and both incredibly moving.

I also found myself thinking about this area of Germany after reunification. Of course restitution must be made to the Holocaust victims or their descendants but I had great sympathy for 'The Illegitimate Owner' of the final chapter. A difficult one and the structure of the book really brought out the poignancy of different people's experiences in the same location.

I would probably not have discovered this book without the prompting of this group - so pleased I'm a member.


Beverly | 141 comments Carol wrote: "Two powerful chapters entitled The Girl, telling the story of the end of 12-year-old Doris's life, and The Red Army Officer, telling the story of the architect's wife's violent encounter of a Russi..."

Yes, I thought the chapter on the 12-year old girl was so heartbreaking. I kept hoping she would be spared but deep in my heart I knew that was not going to happen.

That is as far as I have gotten in the book so far.

I am glad that this book was chosen as I am enjoying this reading experience.


Calzean I thought this to be an unique way of telling Germany's history. While the gardener was a constant he does eventually disappear - like all things, people and even the way the continents are formed. It's this message of the temporary nature of things that stuck me most about the book, along with the way the story is told.


Beverly | 141 comments Calzean wrote: "I thought this to be an unique way of telling Germany's history. While the gardener was a constant he does eventually disappear - like all things, people and even the way the continents are formed...."

I agree.
When I finished reading I thought how interesting to tell the history through the inhabitants of the house - for what ever reason they were there. It made Germany's history much more personal instead of the political reasons for the changing of the residents.

I was rooting for the Gardener to survive the last transition and destruction of the house to become a connection to the next life of the area/new house but that was me being optimist and what actually happens in the book is reality.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 241 comments I finished the book this morning--I guess I'm the wet blanket here. While Doris' chapter was indeed moving, I felt mostly ambivalent about the rest. I was pretty excited to finally read this, so maybe there were some unrealistic, or at least high, expectations.

Structurally and as far as mastery of her craft, Erpenbeck is pretty impressive--I thought there were few missteps (except-- and again, here I am in the minority--the confrontation between the Russian Major and the woman hiding in the closet. The idea that the young man would have gotten into a position to be urinated on seems farfetched and designed only to parallel the ideas developed earlier about urine and feces being weapons of war. It may seem a minor point, but it jolted me out of the story.)

I guess my biggest problem links back to what Faber said in his review: "Indeed, the amount of emotional engagement Erpenbeck manages to win from us, in a mere 150 pages, is just one proof of her mastery." The book does seem designed to engage us emotionally, which is fine, but not really what I was looking for. I'd say I probably never look primarily for emotional engagement in a book--I'm less interested in 'feeling' for the characters than I am for them to provide some insight into the world. All of Erpenbeck's characters are reacting to the forces around them like Ping-Pong balls--and it is a very sad world they lived in, but I doubt anyone reading this didn't know that the injustice and unfairness of the world--especially in Germany in the 20th century--can reach monstrous heights.

I didn't mind the book--it was put together in an interesting way, and I think Erpenbeck is a good craftsman. I would try something else from her.


Lagullande | 17 comments Bryan wrote: "....All of Erpenbeck's characters are reacting to the forces around them like Ping-Pong balls--and it is a very sad world they lived in, but I doubt anyone reading this didn't know that the injustice and unfairness of the world--especially in Germany in the 20th century--can reach monstrous heights...."

Even though we know it, it is so important to be reminded of it. One of my fears about the way the world is headed, is what will happen when the generation that lived through the 1930s/40s has gone, and there are no first hand witnesses left.

This is my first Erpenbeck, and I am two-thirds of the way through. Like others, I am super-impressed with the author's skill. Carol asked for opinions on the device of the gardener. I like him - he provides both comfort of the familiar, but also highlights the changes over time. It reminds me a little of Reservoir 13, in that it is a slightly repetitive element, and seen through the lens of the natural world around us.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 241 comments Lagullande wrote: "Even though we know it, it is so important to be reminded of it...."

No argument there.

One of the strengths of Erpenbeck's book is that she addresses--accurately, I think--the idea that suffering during this period eventually reached out and enveloped everyone. That the war in Eastern Europe is much less discussed where I am, in the U.S, makes this an interesting contribution to the literature of that time and place--it may be eye-opening to some readers. (Anyone wanting their eyes opened to the absolutely gut-wrenching horror of the Eastern Front could hardly do worse than to read the first chapter of Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones. Or even read the whole book, which is gut-wrenching through and through, albeit--I thought--flawed in a lot of ways.)

But overall, I was largely resistant to Erpenbeck's emotional appeal. Maybe I'm just cynical


Beverly | 141 comments I did like the Gardener.

To me he was the continuity in the story.
As we did not know his name and no his feelings - it seems like he was an Everyman. He existed despite of everything around him which is what people do when there is war/violence going on around them.

He took orders from the inhabitants but he knew what needed to be done to survive.

As readers we learn the specific stories on the inhabitants which were specific to them - so we could or not be emotionally moved by their story and may or may not connect to these stories and gives us the reasons why "this" should not happen again.

The Gardener without his specific story shows us that this is a cycle of life - just like the environment keeps on doing the same thing over and over again regardless....

I have the author's latest book translated to English, Go, Went, Gone, I am curious to compare the writing styles between the two, If what I liked about Visitation is present.

Also curious to see how Visitation compares to The Glass Room.


Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments interesting and varied comments.

I didn't get the sense that Erpenbeck's goal was to engage us emotionally, but to tell the stories in a matter-of-fact manner. I resist and avoid books that are emotionally manipulative (Boy in the Striped Pajamas - I'm looking at you) or seek to dwell on every agony or tragedy their characters experience. What I thought was so powerful here was -- starting perhaps with the death of the grandparents - Erpenbeck lays the facts out and let's the reader respond as he/she responds, without belaboring the horror. She also doesn't sugar coat the deaths of her Jewish characters either, though.

In the US, the Diary of Anne Frank is required reading in almost every school district for 7th graders. I am the outlier and willing to say I don't think Diary is effective at bringing home the horror to 13 year olds. Doris' chapter? That was real, for me.

What worked best for me about Visitation was Erpenbeck's efficiency. She used repetition in a way I thought was marvelous, and didn't overdo it. I loved the complexity of her sentences as they methodically told each person's story. She didn't focus on motivations, explanations, feelings, responses. She described facts and events. I was largely unaware of the Russian invasion of Germany, the extent of the rape of German women, and entirely unaware of any of the fallout of unification for East Germans. If I have ever thought about it, it was probably with the uninformed, quite American assumption that they must all of cheered unification daily and be universally and forever delighted to be part of a democracy (cue the Stars and Stripes). Visitation cured me of a portion of my ignorance.

@ Beverly - I like your description of the Gardener as Everyman. I saw him as the person who finds a way to survive constant change. For some time I was distracted by the wood shed and the items he stored in his living space, but ultimately, those were unimportant details for me to focus on. The wonder of the Gardener was that he remains in place no matter how the property's owners are displaced. The (economically) lowliest survives all regime changes, while those who thought they had made it in their respective societies are exiled, forgotten or worse.

Because Erpenbeck chose to tell her story chronologically, The Girl and the Red Army Officer are in the middle of the book. Did that fact take some of the intensity out of the later chapters? The Childhood Friend was one of my favorite chapters, but it can't match the tension of the threat of and eventual execution or war-time rape. Are we swept forward to the end simply because we are going along with the progress of time? Would the book have been stronger if the author could have found a way to shift those events to later in the book?


Carol (carolfromnc) | 452 comments Beverly wrote: "I did like the Gardener.

To me he was the continuity in the story.
As we did not know his name and no his feelings - it seems like he was an Everyman. He existed despite of everything around him w..."


I am also very much looking forward to our read and discussion of the Glass Room, and comparing it to Visitation.


message 13: by Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (last edited Oct 09, 2017 04:01PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 241 comments Carol wrote: "I didn't get the sense that Erpenbeck's goal was to engage us emotionally, but to tell the stories in a matter-of-fact manner..."

Carol, you make some cogent points. {I should also add that I didn't mean to compare Visitation to such books as The Boy in the Striped Pajamas. If anything, I probably still have a bit too much of Beloved and The God of Small Things on my mind [of which, Visitation is still better (to me)]}


message 14: by Hugh (new) - rated it 4 stars

Hugh (bodachliath) | 2597 comments Mod
Some fascinating comments here. I am not sure whether I will find time to re-read this but I was very impressed when I read it last year. I don't want to preempt the discussion of The Glass Room, but for me this book was more profound if less accessible.


SueLucie | 33 comments Carol's final paragraph above raises an interesting point about the chronological structure and the effect that might have on later chapters and our perception of individuals' experiences post-WWII. I wouldn't argue for any change in sequence (and certainly no time-shift element). I found The Childhood Friend and The Illegitimate Owner poignant, perhaps even more so for coming at the end when the house is falling into disrepair and the gardener becoming frailer until they both disappear, along with the memories of those summers.
I'm not planning to reread The Glass Room but look forward to being reminded of it when discussion starts. It hasn't stayed with me in the way I expect Visitation will.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2307 comments There are some great comments and questions in this thread. Carol's start off questions are excellent. With respect to The Gardiner question -- I think the use of him as a constant and a bridge was a perfect way to tie the individual stories together while keeping the reader focused on the place and its individual story. With respect to the Faber comment -- I agree completely with the portion of the quote that says "Visitation allows us to feel we've known real individuals, experienced the slow unfolding of history, and bonded unconditionally with a place, without authorial pestering or pathos-cranking.” With respect to his comment "the amount of emotional engagement Erpenbeck manages to win from us, in a mere 150 pages, is just one proof of her mastery" has validity. I don't think he is saying that the book was, as Bryan felt, "designed to engage us emotionally," but rather that unlike books designed to do so, Visitation actually does it by just telling the stories of this place and various people connected to the place over a period of time. It was a realistic look at how the events of the period the book spans impacted the lives of real people. The characters and the place were realistic. The characters weren't made to be other than they were.

As to the Russian officer chapter -- As I was reading it, I thought it was overdone until I reached (p.78) where it says "In fact all he did was open a closet. Now he shuts the closet door again." This makes me question whether anything took place between him and the architect's wife. I ended up concluding that she wrote what might have happened and perhaps what both characters imagined could have happened. If I were the architect's wife, just knowing the Russian soldier knew she was there would have freaked me out with fear, even if ultimately she was not touched. Maybe he just called her mother and that destroyed her, since she was childless?


SueLucie | 33 comments LindaJ^ wrote: "There are some great comments and questions in this thread. Carol's start off questions are excellent. With respect to The Gardiner question -- I think the use of him as a constant and a bridge was..."
I think you're right about the Red Army officer, LindaJ^, it hadn't occurred to me at the time but now seems obvious. After I went back to check that chapter, I found myself re-reading the whole book, so many things I missed first time around.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2307 comments Sue, I agree about needing to re-read, as this little book has so many layers, the first read just cannot reveal them all. The nice thing about discussing it is that others will point out things that we may have missed.

After writing my comment, I went back and reread the Architect's Wife's chapter. Her less than specific account would seem more in inline with what the officer first relays than merely an encounter. But I still think that both were just shocked by the encounter and what did not happen - that he did not rape or kill her but retreated to the first floor and then left her bread.


LindaJ^ (lindajs) | 2307 comments Lagullande wrote: "It reminds me a little of Reservoir 13, in that it is a slightly repetitive element, and seen through the lens of the natural world around us."

You caused me to go to my review of Reservior 13 - https://www.goodreads.com/review/show... - and reading it reminded me of how much it also was about place.


Bryan--The Bee’s Knees (theindefatigablebertmcguinn) | 241 comments The conversation about this one seems to have slowed down.

I've been thinking about it some, especially as my thoughts on the book were at a variance with most everyone else's. Ultimately, I suppose it doesn't matter--it just never grabbed me. That doesn't mean I think Erperbeck made any missteps, because I don't think she did, but I've went back over it in my mind, and I can't help feeling the book was designed to evoke a sense of loss and melancholy, at which I think it was quite successful.

But I had a hard time pulling anything else out of the story. If the figure of the gardener is a way of representing the slow but inexorable movement of time and nature, where change is almost imperceptible in the course of weeks and months, but dramatic over decades, and the human characters set in opposition to him are a way of picturing the often violent shifts attributable to man's attempt to direct the flow of events, then perhaps as the reader I could draw some conclusions from that; but as innovative and stylistically intriguing as it was, I'm not sure it really says much that's new.

Each time I read something about Eastern Europe during this period, I'm amazed again at the sheer magnitude of the calamity--it is frankly beyond my imagination. This book barely scratches that surface, though I think the chapter on Doris is more forceful because of its individual focus. But the most of the rest of the vignettes seem to be concerned with mourning this loss of place, which seems to represent either peace or happiness to its inhabitants (except, ironically, to the gardener, who embodies to me the Old Testament idea Man's role as Steward of the Earth. He seems neither happy or mournful, but rather content because he isn't trying to extract any personal meaning from the environment. He is a part of it in a way none of the other characters attempt except in a superficial way.)

In the end, I feel the Erpenbeck wanted to communicate to the reader her own personal sense of loss associated with this place, and saw a way to place the personal within the context of the historical. Whether the Gardener represented any of the things I mentioned above, or was just a device created in order to provide a sense of continuity isn't really important--though he was the aspect of the book that I liked the most--the only thing I'm left with at the end of the book is a mournful and melancholy feeling. Artfully done, but ultimately disappointing when I thought there would be something more. And if there was more, I missed it.


message 21: by Casceil (new)

Casceil | 1692 comments Mod
I did not finish this book, because I found it was taking too much of an emotional toll on me. I got as far as the chapter about the Architect's wife. That, and the chapter before it about the twelve year old girl, were moving enough that I was a little worried about where the book might be going. There were too many sources of stress in my real life at the time, and I felt like not finishing the book was safer if I wanted to keep my spirits up. I may finish the book someday, but not just yet. Reading the comments, it seems like I may have quit at some kind of peak.

I find the comments above very interesting. I liked the gardener, and the way the gardener was used. Someone commented that he was like the chorus, and I found it a useful way to think about him. He is a reminder that life goes on, and caring for the land requires constant attention, and that these background tasks always need to done regardless of what dramatic events are taking place. I like Carol's comment on Beverly's comments about the gardener, particularly the observation that "The (economically) lowliest survives all regime changes, while those who thought they had made it in their respective societies are exiled, forgotten or worse."


message 22: by Robert (last edited Oct 30, 2017 01:24AM) (new)

Robert | 414 comments I read half of this book then found it difficult to keep going. It just didn't do anything for me.

I always give books a second chance so it just wasn't the right time (plus I am going through a post booker slump, which doesn't help).


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