Emptiness would move in, first into her favourite places

Next World NovellaNext World Novella
by Matthias Politycki
translated from German by Anthea Bell

I’ve had this book on my wishlist since it was published, as it got great reviews from people I trust. I did enjoy it, but it didn’t quite live up to my high expectations. This is my Germany selection for the EU Reading Challenge.

The story is simple but completely original. Hinrich Schepp wakes up one morning to find his wife Doro dead at her desk. Rather than call a doctor or undertaker, he decides he must read the papers she had been working on, as a goodbye gesture. So begins a process of memory, re-evaluation and inter-textual analysis that’s both sweet and…creepy.

Doro had dug out an old short story of Hinrich’s and annotated it. They’re both scholars of Chinese; this is Hinrich’s only attempt at fiction and he knows it isn’t good. (We’re treated to the full story, in chunks, to judge just how clunky his writing is.) But it isn’t the writing quality that Doro is commenting on. She appears to have been convinced that Hinrich was fictionalising an episode from their life together, one that has caused them both pain for many years.

“Yes, he ought to have called to have called a doctor to fill out a death certificate. But…then it really would have been over, they’d take what was left of her away, and emptiness would move in, first into her favourite places, soon even into the most remote nooks and crannies – no! There was time enough for that in what life he had left.”

Like so many marriages, Doro and Hinrich’s decades together have contained misunderstandings, disappointments and unspoken wishes. They have both made assumptions that shaped their lives. Of course, aside from Doro’s notes we only have Hinrich’s viewpoint, and it becomes apparent that his memory of events does not match hers.

Hinrich’s expression of grief is genuinely moving. He vacillates between anger, tenderness and melancholy. He knows he is not an exceptional man in any way, and when it comes to his own ambition he is fine with that. His anger is a little scary, his tenderness (to Doro’s dead body) a little creepy. It’s realistic enough to be uncomfortable.

“To be dead, he thought, means above all that that you can’t answer questions, you can’t clear things up, you can’t get things straight and see that you may have misunderstood them…Schepp stood there savouring this idea, which made him feel both mild and melancholy, and if he wasn’t to weep aloud and hide, that was how he wanted to feel today.”

I’m not sure why I didn’t love this genuinely well-written book. The only thing I can think of is that it reminded me a lot of Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending, or Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, both of which I thought contained beautiful language but were too slow and ponderous for me. There’s a certain attitude to the narrators – the dull, self-important thoughts of middle-aged men – that annoys me slightly. I don’t need to like the characters I read about, but I do prefer to be interested in them.

Jenseitsnovelle published 2009 by Hoffmann und Campe Verlag.
This translation published 2011 by Peirene Press.

Source: Waterstones.