The Palimpsests

#34 of 2011 • Next World Novella, by Matthias Politycki
— translated from the German by Anthea Bell.


Hinrich Schepp, a happy-enough unremarkable man, finds his wife dead. Quite dead, on his desk—presumably, her last breaths were exhaled over his long-buried fiction manuscript, now festooned with her scribbled edits and notes for revision. What is a man to do? This is what our Hinrich does:

Finally he looked back at the stack of paper that Doro had left for him. Yes—it hit him like a sudden revelation—that was the first, the most important thing to do. He had to read those pages, find out what her last message was. How relieved he felt all at once! As if some kind of hope could be derived from that act. The idea that another action might be more appropriate, considering that he had spent half his life with the deceased, did not cross his mind.

His forgotten manuscript is now a palimpsest—his faux-fiction framed by his fresh-dead wife’s commentary, her marginalia, her editorial input, and her revelations. It goes beyond the I never loved you, husband device that one would expect. It’s much more complex than that—which is truly an impressive feat for its length [this welcome surprise, this magnified accomplishment is what I deeply appreciate about all the good novellas].


This is a doozy of a book. It’s intertexuality with a domestic, ceaseless swing to it. One detail cloaked in another and another and another, that one risks forgetting the truth, and even the author plays on this forgetting and manipulates it to serve his purpose. Playful and experimental without drawing too much attention to its structure, without belaboring it—grounded on the chilling fact of how we must never take familiarity for granted, how we can’t even be certain of what is familiar to us anymore, what is real.


Politycki’s novella is one of the best, most impressive, most remarkable books I have ever come across, frustrating flaw [that’s singular, okay?] notwithstanding. Couple that rock-solid vision of his, and that light tone with the constant undercurrent of doom—and the language, good lord, the language: it was seamless, and fluid and just right.


Reading Anthea Bell’s masterful translation of Politycki has had me thinking long and hard about the peculiar relationship between translator and reader. Yes, the translator and the author have their own beef between them—but the reader encounters the translator’s version, her view, her language first. It is through her words that the reader encounters the author’s vision [further removed from the usual distance of us encountering that vision through the author’s own words].

See, I realized that a terse trust is at the center of this relationship. You have to trust the translator’s capabilities to articulate that vision, not necessarily the author’s language. And when something is off, that’s when the trust starts to waver. When the rhythm falls clumsy, for example. As mediator, the translator is tasked to coordinate the relationship between that author and us holding the book.

When I read Politycki through Bell, not once did I wonder if I was missing something. Not once did I wonder if she’d thought it wrong, if she was disloyal to Politycki’s language or his vision. I never thought that her comprehension-assimilation-delivery offended the original text. I never thought she deviated wildly, nor did I think that she woodenly conjured the corresponding word. It was all just right. I completely trusted Bell. Completely.

[I suspect that this is partly the reason why I find it so difficult to extract quotes from this tidy little book—the story it relays and its delivery are so finely attuned to each other, it’s awkward at best to snip a passage. Read the book, dammit.]


Here is the dorkery version, quite helpful if you refresh yourself with B.—behold, a diagram. [I apologize, but this is how it appears in my companion notebook—I get pretty fussy here, obviously.]

So. Next World Novella, a book of shifting realities, opposing revelations, and the continual shattering of Hinrich Schepp’s truths:

# — I appreciate, very much, the sheer complexity of the details and their relationship with each other. I appreciate the details as they are, and most especially when Politycki uses them to form his different-hued parallelisms—also, how they play in the larger, shifting, overlapping realties scheme of things.

## — What is impressive about the novella is how, even though the realities are ever-changing for the characters and the reader, they never feel at odds. Sure, there is contrast, of course—but this isn’t a versus thing, despite the essentially contradictory nature of the revelations. Instead, they complement each other—it’s a whole, tight, careful novella. Yes, even the clumsy execution of that ending.


Ah, that ending, which is a bone of contention for many who have read it and talked about it. Okay. I am aware of the author’s possible intention—quite noble, actually, to employ a cliché so horrendous—it’s in keeping with that whole shifting realties shtick. Yes, I understand. Still, it was horrendous. A cop-out. I’ve tried finding some grace in it, but I can’t. Although I have thought of a better alternative—why not echo the theme of last hundred-or-so pages, and simply install another reality. Why refer to the majority of the novella? Why not simply move one and—gah, if you are interested in duking it out with me, I have theories, muwahaha.


I think I have said what I needed to say, although I teetered dangerously close to spoiling all the fun and wonder for anyone who hasn’t read this yet. So. If you need a summary, please refer to C.—and if you need an even shorter version, here it is: Yes to Next World Novella, a thousand times yes.

5 thoughts on “The Palimpsests

  1. As I mentioned on twitter, I’m always so pleasantly surprised in how you manage to give us such an original view on each book you read. And the diagram? Don’t worry about it, I think it makes the post even better :P

    Ah, that ending.. yes, I agree. I’d like to know your theories, really.

    I really liked your ideas on translation too. I can´t really describe it better than you did. I tried to type something up myself in response, but it really was just a weirdly/formulated version of what you said.

    So, maybe I should just stick to: Great post!

  2. I have to echo Iris here and say what a fantastic review. I agree with you on the endings. I’m still… ah I’m still undecided on it! But really really enjoyed the book!


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