For those who don't know, Peirene Press is a small London publishing house which specialises in publishing the most celebrated and innovative European novellas which have not been translated into English prior to now. Peirene novellas are organised into groups of three because of thematic and other similarities, the idea being that they inform and comment on each other.
Next World Novella is about Hinrich Schepp, an ageing university Sinologist, and his wife Doro, who he finds dead at her desk at the very beginning of the book, having died in the act of editing some of his writing. He doesn't call an ambulance - clearly the moment for that has passed - and is surprised to find that she had been editing a forgotten fiction manuscript of his that he'd deemed to be a failure, so he'd never shown it to his wife. The story progresses therefore with her dead in the room beside him whilst he reads her comments on his semi-autobiographical manuscript and realises that in many ways both his wife and marriage were really not as they seemed. The story works as a story within a story, as excerpts of Hinrich's manuscript are inserted into the narrative so the reader can draw their own conclusions about Hinrich's rather pathetic mid-life crisis, whilst also reading Doro's increasingly harsh and damning comments upon it, which reveal that she knew much more of what was going on than Hinrich suspected.
Never have a read a book where a dead character holds the story in such a choke-hold, or has so much to contribute: though dead, Doro is presented as a fascinating, beautiful, aristocratic woman who feared being alone in death so much that she married Hinrich, a promising but ultimately mediocre academic, abandoning her own burgeoning academic career in favour of raising their children and editing his papers. It is made clear that their channels of communication dwindled over the course of their marriage to the extent that Hinrich, re-enamoured with life after mid-aged laser eye surgery, spends his night drinking and mooning over a waitress without realising the effect that this is having on both his marriage or his wife. The fact that Doro is lying dead, first at the desk, then rearranged on the chaise longue, whilst he realises this lends a macabre, slightly comical air to the story, although I felt full-on nauseated when a fly crawls out of her nostril, and I could happily live my life without reading about the details of livor and rigor mortis ever again, thank you very much.
I enjoyed the tone of this book - it is wry, ironic and slightly mystical - and thought a lot was added by the Chinese elements that quietly illuminate parts of the story. The Sinology department described tallies closely with my memory of four years studying in an East Asian Studies department, so there was an extra smile for me there too. The set-up was also very original, decaying bodies and all, and the book moved along at a good rate, with some great twists and turns. The characterisation is also great: Hinrich is utterly pathetic next to Doro's vengeful, circling anger, and both are very well-drawn.
I wasn't so sure about the motif of the lake that one must cross when one dies though, based on Arnold Böcklin's painting Isle of the Dead and presented as Doro's feared vision of the afterlife and also one of her main motivations for companionship: I found it hard to believe that she'd marry a man like Hinrich Schepp just for the peace of mind that they'd wait for each other in death, so neither one would have to cross the lake, where one experiences a second death, alone. I thought as an academic she'd been more inquiring about her fears, rather than coming to one slightly out-there conclusion. Also, I wasn't keen on the big twist at the end; I found it undermined the main elements of the story in an unnecessary and, frankly, slightly bewildering way, which also felt a bit dated.
So, this is a good read with an unusual and well-thought-out set-up and tone, but for me the novella was let down by several of the plot points. Never will I allow flower stems to go fusty in a vase again though, that's for sure!
Previous Peirene post readathon links:
Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Stone in a Landslide by Maria Barbal (mine) ¦(Sam's)
Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman by Friedrich Christian Delius (mine) ¦ (Sam's)
Next World Novella by Matthias Politycki (Sam's)
Title: Next World Novella
Author: Matthias Politycki, translated from the German by Anthea Bell
Date: Original version 2009, translation 2011
Format: Paperback, 138 pages and I was sent it by Peirene Press as part of this readathon series.