Matthias Politycki certainly made the most of his stay in London as writer in residence at Queen Mary’s University in 2009 – not only appearing at one of Peirene Press’s now legendary salons, but also writing a beautifully illustrated book of poetry about East End pubs and real ale, London für Helden. And in between he must have convinced the Peirene nymph of the merits of his Next World Novella, which was promptly translated by Anthea Bell.
Peirene, as you may know, do excellent, short books in translation. I reviewed their first German title, Friedrich Christian Delius’ Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, last year. And just to take all the tension out of this review, I’ll tell you right now that this is another good solid piece of writing.
It’s a clever book that plays out on various levels – what’s that cliché about Chinese boxes? So I suspect the Chinese element of the story is no coincidence. The protagonist Schepp, you see, is a scholar of ancient Chinese literature and his wife is an expert on the I Ching. She firmly believes that when she dies, she will find herself on the banks of a huge lake, which she will have to cross or enter in order to truly put an end to her life. And now Schepp finds her dead over an old manuscript of his and determines to keep her body company while her soul makes its last journey – reading her notes on his writing as he does so.
Only it turns out that what she corrected was not an academic paper, but an ancient attempt of his at fiction, dating from his student days. A story of a beautiful but untouchable barmaid who turns all the regulars’ heads and gets one punter in a bit of a tizz. This piece of writing is teeth-clenchingly awful, I assume deliberately. Bell renders it in dreadful seventies hipster prose, all missing pronouns and coppers and petrolheads. This doesn’t endear us to Schepp. And nor, as the novella unfolds, do the details of his life.
Because it emerges that reality echoed fiction and Schepp himself was rather fond of a genuine barmaid. And as well as editing his gruesome prose, his wife Doro wrote him a thing or two in the margins of the manuscript.
As the stricken man reads he recalls the events as he saw them, starting from an operation to correct his eyesight that literally changed his outlook on life. And all the while Doro’s corpse is beside him, gradually slipping into rigor mortis (if that’s the right verb). Politycki very cleverly evokes physical disgust at Schepp’s dealings with the body, accompanied by growing moral disgust at his past deeds. We flit from his comfortable home made unpleasant only by the smell of his wife's corpse and the two smoke-ridden bars full of drunks. Again, these contrasts are clever stuff and add some great texture to the short book.
But unlike in Pletzinger’s Funeral for a Dog, the story within the story comes across as a mere device here, a vehicle for Doro to comment on her husband’s misbehaviour from beyond the grave. I’m not one to care much about feasibility in fiction, but the likelihood of a man writing his own later story as a student is fairly slim, I’d say. What makes up for this is the twists at the end of Politycki’s tale, first revealing a more three-dimensional Doro than the shy, self-sacrificing wife as Schepp sees her, and then – well, read it and see.
Perhaps because of the chopping and changing from manuscript to framework and the short length, I didn’t get a particular feel for Politycki’s style. He writes poetry, but I can’t say I noticed any strong rhythm or sound until the closing pages, which are beautifully done. Otherwise, the writing seemed straight-forward and slightly old-fashioned in Bell’s translation, as befits the characters.
I haven’t read any of Politycki’s other writing beyond dipping into the pub poems. But I have to say I rather missed the humour of that book in his Next World Novella. It felt slightly dry, no doubt because of the characters and the subject matter. The only laughs it raised were at the awfulness of Schepp’s writing, which made me feel just as much of a snob as he is.
And yet it is that terribly impressive thing, an unrelenting look at relationships within a novella of ideas that leaves you thinking and turning the book over in your head for some time afterwards. Perhaps not one that will accompany me personally for months, but a fine read nonetheless.
Read an interview that went some way to endearing me to the author – about what it was like to be translated, among other things – on Politycki's website.