Sunday, March 6, 2011

Sat and gazed into the eternal process of birth and decay . . .

Next World Novella
By Matthias Politycki
Translated from German by Anthea Bell
138 pages
Peirene Press
February 2011

. . . or whatever it was all fundamentally about, linking one thing with another, that one with yet another, flowing over and into it, mingling and dispersing and in the end leaving only a continuous grey expanse

Matthias Politycki (1955-) is considered one of Germany's most successful contemporary authors. He has published twenty novels and poetry collections that have sold over 200,000 copies and been translated into several languages. Jenseits-novelle (Next World Novella) came out in 2009.

Hinrich Schepp is a renown authority on ancient Chinese. He has been married for the past thirty years to Doro, a fellow Chinese scholar who gave up a promising career to be a wife and mother. With the children gone, they have a content but tranquil marriage, or so Hinrich thinks. He wakes up one day to the sickly sweet scent of decay and finds Doro dead of a stroke at her desk. A series of notes on a forgotten manuscript of Hinrich's reveals that not all was what it seemed.

Hinrich had had surgery several years previous to correct his vision. Since then, a new world had opened up to him of bars and social gatherings. He was never unfaithful to Doro, who remained home as he spent his evenings hanging with students or enjoying a flirtation with Dana, a Polish waitress at La Pfiff. Ironically, however, Hinrich is afflicted with another form of blindness: the inability to recognize Doro's increasing unhappiness as the wife who sacrificed and is rewarded by being left behind. He is also ignorant of the friendship formed between her and Dana in which his pathetic old-man foolishness was a recurring topic. The narrative starts to take an odd circular motion as people and events turn out to be linked in more ways than one. Hinrich's brief, aborted manuscript for a novel called Marek the Drunkard is an almost exact retelling of events at La Pfiff despite having been written before said events took place. Hinrich knows Dana who also knew Doro.

Throughout it all there is the recurring image of the dark lake you must cross after death. It appears to be a subdued place - "there are no colours, no smells, not a breath of wind, not a sound" - and so still as to be unreal. In the early days of their relationship, Doro had shown Hinrich a painting that she believed to be a portrayal of this lake of her nightmares. "Anyone could see, she said, that the painting was intended to be surreal; it skillfully kept its real subject hidden; the island was nothing but a reflection, an illusion that the painter had added as a kind of consolation." Dream, reality, and reflection blend into one another, as symbolized by the mystical body of water whose unreachable far shores promise renewal and whose immovability conceals the struggles of a swimmer. The short length of Next World Novella only reinforces its dreamlike atmosphere.

Although the thoughts and ideas raised by Politycki on life, death, relationships, and interconnectedness are poignant and beautifully unfolded, I still found myself not quite satisfied with the Next World Novella overall. I hate to say that it was because I could not identify with an older male protagonist and his marriage and mid-life crises - Hermann Hesse once described his Steppenwolf as being primarily concerned with the anxieties of middle age and I enjoyed that one immensely. But that seems to have been my issue, which is admittedly a very shallow one. So I'm left in the unusual position of appreciating yet not quite liking a novel yet still able to recommend it. In conclusion, I will say that Next World Novella will doubtlessly appeal to other readers and even if it does not, Mattias Politycki raises many thought-provoking subjects and invites a post-read meditation.


Review Copy


Richard said...

E.L. Fay, I don't think your complaint is necessarily misguided as different things can appeal to us in the books that really grab us. Maybe the "fault" lies with the novelist for not making the situation more universal or more compelling somehow. Read another review of this on a different blog and am interested in checking it out though not entirely so. Even though I'm an older, disaffected male, ha!

E. L. Fay said...

Honestly, I don't fault Politycki
for anything at all. Everyone else seems to have loved this one unreservedly. It just didn't "click" with me. But for a book of this complexity, I feel like I need to have a better argument than a vague, pop-culturey phrase like that.

Incidentally, Silence in October, which I'm reading now, is very similar to Next World Novella. The protagonist is a 44-year-old married father whose wife abruptly left, ostensibly for a vacation. He had thought they had a good marriage but maybe not? Anyway, I'm loving it so far. Grondahl is very Woolf-esque.

Emily said...

I'm intrigued by what you say about the recurring, cyclical themes here and the echoes-out-of-time (e.g. the manuscript that seems to re-tell something that hasn't happened yet), but I have to say that I very much relate to the difficulty of connecting to male-centric midlife-crisis novels. I normally avoid them like the plague. I know it's petty and that a good book can be about anything, but the fact remains. So, I don't know - you're not alone, at least! :-)

E. L. Fay said...

Well, the male midlife crisis is really less than half the story. But you're right: that particular genre has been done to death.

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