“Peirene books have become recognisable due to their quality of prose, clear as glass, succinct like poetry. Exquisitely translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Matthias Politycki’s novella is a literary lovesong, where the boundaries between dream and reality, between this world and the next, are constantly being rewritten.”
If only it hadn’t been for that smell! As if Doro had forgotten to change the water for the flowers, as if their stems had begun to rot overnight, filling the air with the sweet-sour aroma of decay.
In the first pages of this novella the reader gazes, alongside the narrator Schepp, into a room, early morning, where his wife sits leant over her desk, having apparently fallen asleep over her editing. Schepp looks on, prolonging the moment prior to awakening her, prior to planting a kiss on her neck, prior to stealing up quietly like a man newly in love. And the reader too remains, still, in gentle contemplation, in this gentle gaze onto the room where Doro sleeps. This gaze has the generosity of young love, of love that has aged but remains tender as first love.
Then he bent over Doro. Once again the smell hit him, an entirely strange smell now, a sweetish aroma mingled with the odour of sweat and urine and – he shrank back, his mouth gaping.
Doro has died in the night. Her slouch having apparently fallen asleep in her chair, having forgotten to put the lid on her pen, having forgotten to change the water in the flowers, is in fact her slouch in death. Schepp wades around her, around the room, in the first floundering moments of understanding.
At least it hadn’t been the rotting flower stems that he had smelt when he came into the room, he knew that now.
These first pages are thick with smell, with senses and sensuality. The room, love and death are exposed not only through their contours but by the meeting of air and light, of smell and texture. It is the stuff of dreams, the dreamstuff of awakening, the stuff too of love. We are drawn further into this sense-rich landscape as we are drawn into the past. Doro was a mystic/academic studying the I-Ching, and had a vision of the next world. This she had confided in Schepp when they first met. A dark lake, its waters motionless, in the midst of a bleak landscape. You might try to swim across, but it is impossible. Sooner or later you are drawn under. This was the next world, and this death. Doro was petrified of it, and Schepp had promised then to die first so that he might scout out the terrain for her.
I read these first pages as a lovesong. Indeed, I was so persuaded the tale was the most poignant one of love that I read long into the book as a lovesong. I have likewise written about it now, drawing out these pungent and painterly sceneries, glossing over detail to instead focus on the romantic touches.
My gaze myopic, for what I have failed to mention are the piles of manuscript on Doro’s desk. These are a piece of Schepp’s earlier work scrawled over by Doro, as editor. Doro’s scrawling reads like a dying note and is in fact a pre-meditated goodbye letter. Schepp’s reading of this divulges a landscape terribly other to that first perceived, and sheds light on the many layers of their relationship concealed from one another. Neither character is as they first appeared, nor is the relationship as it seemed in that first glance. This does not shatter the love theme, but turns the tale several shades darker. Looking on it now, it is rather a tale of secrecy, of obsession, certainly of misreading.
The novella is also a tale of the bliss of ignorance, and more so, the bliss of myopia. The contours of dreams are thus sharper than those, blurred, when awake. It can be read as a eulogy to myopia, to not seeing stark reality but perceiving life behind the eyelids, through the other senses. I am reminded of an essay by Hélène Cixous: ‘Writing Blind’. This too is a eulogy to myopia, to the moment between night and day, to the blurred contours of short sightedness. As Schepp complains about his eye operation, which has been the cause of this grievance, so Cixous writes:
I must escape from the broad daylight which takes me by the eyes, which takes them and fills them with broad raw visions.
In the final pages of the novella, Matthias Politycki again plays with our perceptions. Having drawn us deep into the deceitful web of this relationship, he then offers an alternative version of the tale. The tale has been about readings, about misreadings, about writing and rewriting. As the tale draws to a close, Politycki, in a humourous turn, or in a reassertion of that original lovesong, again rewrites it.
I need not further demonstrate the style and language of the novella, for the lines I have already quoted do this justice. Peirene books have become recognisable due to their quality of prose, clear as glass, succinct like poetry. Exquisitely translated from the German by Anthea Bell, Matthias Politycki’s novella is a literary lovesong, where the boundaries between dream and reality, between this world and the next, are constantly being rewritten.
From the far end of his room autumn sunlight came flooding in, bathing everything in a golden or russet glow – the chaise-longue in the corner was a patch of melting colour. They’d have to open a window to let all that light out later.
‘Writing Blind’ from:
Stigmata by Hélène Cixous
Publ. Routledge 2005