Title: Next World Novella
Author: Matthias Politycki
Publisher: Peirene Press
This latest publication from Peirene is a fascinating dissection of misunderstandings and failure to communicate that can lead to the failure of a marriage. But Hinrich Schepp doesn’t realise any of this until after the death of his beloved Doro, when it is too late.
`Being dead, he thought, means first and foremost that you can’t apologize, can’t forgive and be reconciled, there’s nothing left to be forgiven, only to be forgotten. Or rather, there’s nothing to be forgotten, only forgiven.’
It’s short, a novella rather than a novel, as implied in the title, but its 138 pages contain a depth of miscommunication and loss. The book begins after Doro has died, when Schepp discovers her sitting at an awkward angle in her chair, as if she had fallen asleep while editing the manuscript that lay on her desk. His sense of shock and disbelief as the realisation dawns is beautifully and sensitively described:
`I don’t understand, thought Schepp, understanding.
`It’s not true, Schepp decided.
`Everything will be all right again, Schepp assured himself, and at the same time he was overcome by the certainty that he was choking.
“At least say something,’ he whispered finally. `Just one word.”
The story is a mere snapshot, one day in the life of Schepp, an academic in an arcane field of ancient Chinese language. It is through Schepp’s recollections and the notes on the manuscript Doro was editing before she died that we experience the depth of feeling and misunderstandings, and how they had arisen. The details of pertinent points in their relationship are portrayed in detail such that there is no need for more, no need to know what happened during the intervening years, and it is exquisitely translated from the German, occasionally wry, occasionally with a light touch of humour. For instance, in the early days Schepp habitually took Doro a pot of green tea in her room at the university, .
So the story is told through his reading of the manuscript and Doro’s notes on it about the marriage and sometimes about the lives they lead. What I loved is the story within the story so to say. The man who has a crush on the waitress is her husband as she is editing the manuscript. As he reads Doro’s notes and corrections, he understands that she knew all about the things he thought he had kept secret.
At one and the same time he dissects the narrative of the putrefying corpse of a failed marriage and clinically examines the role of the writer and reader in making texts. He interweaves three story strands to explore where writing comes from and who makes and owns meanings. The uber- narrative of the unfolding of Hinrich Schepp’s and Doro’s disintegrating relationship is interrupted by a story Schepp wrote decades previously, before his marriage. It portrays a semi-erotic fantasy of unrequited lust, which is dramatically realised in more recent years, yet unrequited in real life, apparently. Politycki’s main protagonists interface only in writing and rewriting. Fact, fiction and memory seem ironically unstable. Doro, in the shifting course of events has moved from editing Schepp’s work to correcting it and ultimately rewriting and continuing the story, making it her story, her version.
Perhaps the authorial choice to provide two endings to the novella can be seen as an assertion of writerly authority. Yet again all we have are versions of events and some readers, disrupted and unsettled by what they may perceive as an intrusion of a second ending may choose to privilege ending number one. Of course, some readers will prefer the second ending’s less macabre implications and seek some readerly solace in a more fantastical return to the radiant beginning of Hinrich and Doro’s love. Before the rot set in.
Readers will not feel neutral at this point of the book. In the end, Politycki shows himself equally to be a reader’s writer. For what more could we wish for? A page-turning twister of a tale, playing with versions of reality, whilst its literary tentacles wrap us around in this fantastical and stylish twenty-first century exploration of nothing less than our own Momento Mori.
`Next World Novella’ is a great two hour read. And an even better two hour re-read.
And last but not least, I would like to celebrate Anthea Bell’s remarkable translation of this wry, poignant and very telling tale. I felt the intense pathos when two people in a marriage are not able to tell each of their feelings, when a marriage breaks apart due to it and changes forever.