Matthias Politycki - Next World Novella
It would be terrible, and must surely form some part of the dark nightmares we experience in the early hours of the night, when the person beside us breathes ever slowly, their chest seeming to take an infinity to expand and contract as the seconds tick by and our own breath becomes held in sympathy, and we wonder if they might in fact be dead and not just suspended before the next inhalation. Imagine, the person we love dying, just like that, in between breaths, and we find them, and we are suddenly alone, and it wasn't supposed to be end that way, and now we can't find out all that we wished to know. Hinrich Schepp, the protagonist of German writer Matthias Politycki's Next World Novella (trans. Anthea Bell), discovers that his wife has died in their study immediately after mentally chastising her for leaving the flowers out too long until they had become rotten, their sweetish, sickly smell permeating the room. The smell isn't from the flowers but her, and as he moves closer it becomes mingled with sweat and takes on a sour note. Schepp grips her hand: “At least say something,” he whispers to her. “Just one word."
But his wife, Doro, is of course unable to speak. Politycki's novella begins with this horrifying premise and uses it as a vehicle to comment upon the years-ago disintegrated relationship of Schepp, a university lecturer in ancient Chinese script, and Doro, the comparatively more brilliant researcher who gave it all up to become a mother and wife. Doro, now deceased, is unable to speak to Schepp but she has left something behind – a series of scribbled notes criss-crossing over and through an abandoned novel written by Schepp years ago titled Marek the Drunkard, and a long letter, written where Schepp's piece breaks off, which serves as accusation, indictment and condemnation.
She sat there before him, her features relaxed, entirely at peace, her skin grey. The left-hand corner of her mouth drooped, a thread of saliva hanging from it. It had dried where it ended on her chin. Her lips were slightly open, her tongue lolled awkwardly in her mouth, looking swollen. But worst of all were her eyes, almost but not entirely closed, so that you could see the whites and a bit of the irises, as if she had pulled her lower lids down at the last moment.
I don't understand, thought Schepp, understanding.
It's not true, Schepp decided.
With Doro's death comes understandings that were not possible while she was alive. Marek the Drunkard is the story of Marek's pathetic attempts to woo a young, attractive, and rather amoral young woman, Hinna, who works in a bar and is happy to take advantage of this lovesick fool. The story is clumsy and rings false; Anthea Bell's superlative translation artfully captures the inelegance of the amateur writer and their penchant for brazenly flagging the scaffolding of their writing. Marek the Drunkard is of course a transparently written retelling of Schepp's own (desired) indiscretion, and in fact Doro before she died took the time to cross out “Marek” and write “Schepp” and cross out “Hinna” and write “Dana”. As is so often the case, one's partner in an intimate relationship is never as blind as we'd like.
Schepp had himself spent much of his life blind or near enough, eking out his existence with poor eyesight and limited ambitions. It was easy to be the No 1 expert in ancient Chinese script in German because, as he freely admits, there wasn't a No 2. He was comfortable being the master of something nobody else cared about, and comfortable too in the fact that he had to be right by virtue of there being no-one else in Germany who could actually prove him wrong. His life may not have been happy but he had a place for himself, or at least that's what he thought until he decided, in his middle-age, to correct his vision with laser surgery.
It was terrible to see the world in such detail, so sharply outlined, all of a sudden! It had always been so comfortably impersonal in its remote milkiness; Schepp hadn't felt he was missing anything. Now it dazzled him with a confusingly large number of details – could someone like Doro, who had never had any problems with her eyes, ever have imagined that? Overnight his life had seemed like one long missed opportunity
Immediately the world changes, and from the perspective of his relationship with his wife, not for the better. Schepp takes to visiting bars with colleagues and (much) younger students, and it is there he falls in love with a bartender. But he is older, paunchy, not terribly attractive and, for all his sudden clarity brought about from the surgery, not particularly receptive toward the signals other people make via body language and unspoken communication, and nor is he very charismatic. Thus, he falls in love with an irresponsible, unappealing young woman who may be a thief and is certainly of crooked morals but, because he doesn't really have much backbone at all, he plays out his fantasies largely through text – hence, Marek the Drunkard. It's a pathetic act and Doro, when she discovers his story – for she is nowhere near as unperceptive as he – she quickly links it to his shift in personality and judges accordingly.
Politycki understands that a relationship is as much about what is not said as what is; Next World Novella, by using the protagonist-stand-in story within a story, Marek the Drunkard, and Doro's comments in relation to it, allows two characters who would never be able to reveal and wallow within each other's secrets the opportunity to do exactly that. For all that the novella begins with a death and becomes preoccupied with a flawed and destructive relationship, this is a fantasy, a “what-if” on a grand and terrible scale. Husbands and wives die all the time, but what rarely occurs is a complete baring of one's soul after the fact. There is usually no diary to look through, no letters to read, no emails to peruse, that will shed immediate and honest light upon the relationship. More accurately – nobody ever writes a lengthy missive to their partner immediately before accidentally dying. Again, it's a fantasy, and what it makes Next World Novella particularly appealing is that both Doro and Schepp have engaged in similar confessional writings. Marek the Drunkard is a more hidden confession, but that is purely due to the fact that it was never explicitly intended by its author as a message from him to her – whereas Doro's letter had an certain audience of one.
The manner in which Next World Novella is written requires a “looking-back” approach, that is, this is a story impossible to tell forward. Politcky fills in the background to his story through memory, letters, and notes, which serves to distance the reader from the immediacy of Doro's death and Schepp's reaction to it. More often than not we are embroiled within the commented-upon text of Marek the Drunkard, or being made witness to Schepp's recollection of his time with his wife or, toward the end, Doro's own writing. Much less time is spent with Doro and Schepp on the day of Doro's death, and what little time there is on that day functions as a kind of reactionary segue from the previous set piece and into the next. We only ever return to the present to observe Schepp's reaction to his most recent discovery, which acts as a propellant to the next dramatic revelation and a summary of the previous. The effect of this is at times to lose the reader in digression, particularly during the middle stretch when it isn't clear how the pieces will play out and we wish for a firm anchor upon which to retain our bearings. It remains a credit to Politycki and Anthea Bell that this happens but rarely, and particular mention should be made once more of Bell's ability to clearly define the narrative voice of Schepp, of Marek, and of Doro through her writing. The same melancholy tone runs through each but the voices are distinct and recognisable.
It's strange to say but Politycki's novella is a cheat and it shows – but isn't at all the worse for it. From a startlingly dramatic beginning the novella becomes, as noted above, an extended fantasy, a deconstruction of what might happen were the secrets in a relationship to come bursting out. But this never happens; people become very good at hiding their secret yearnings, their hidden dislikes and, though they may argue and though they may yell, their disappointments. We never much talk about these things unless the relationship has reached its catastrophic end, and by then of course it's too late, the arguments too saddled with emotion to retain sense and compassion. Next World Novella skirts this by having one of the participants in the relationship dead and thus silent – but they've both left the other, in written form, the confessions of their deepest hearts. Politycki's dissection of the relationship is unpleasant in its accuracy, and though none of his characters come off particularly well by the end of it, one is left with a certain sense of compassion for the people they both wished to be. But they weren't, and they knew it, and now so too does their partner. Terrible, really, and in its own way worse than dying. Ignorance remains bliss, for how could we look our partner in the face if we truly knew every mean and small thing about them, and they us?