Reviewed by Tim Niedermann
This is a difficult and devastating book. The author, Thomas Melle, is a prize-winning German novelist and playwright. In 1999, when in his mid-twenties, he began exhibiting manic-depressive behaviour due to what was later diagnosed as bipolar disorder. His life since then has been punctuated by these episodes—first, a manic phase lasting months, followed by an even longer depressive period. The World at My Back, first published in German as Die Welt im Rücken in 2016, covers three of these: the first, in 1999; the second, in 2006; and the third, in 2010. Each was longer and more severe than the preceding ones.
Melle’s experiences with manic depression have fuelled his writing. In his collection of short stories Raumforderungen (“Room Required”) (2007) and his first novel Sickster (2011), he created semi-autobiographical characters (his “doppelgängers”) who are similarly afflicted. He admits, however, that he handled those characters in a “controlled, literary, abstract way” and that, to truly tell his story, he needed to pursue “a kind of truthfulness, a concrete account” free of literary devices so that nothing is “qualified, exaggerated, or exoticized.” All of what he has gone through had to be “open and visible, as far as that is possible.”
His goal in The World at My Back, therefore, is to show what being mentally ill is really like from the inside. That he is such a talented writer allows him to pull this off powerfully. The technique he uses is a bit draining, as is the disease itself, and that is the point. He writes as if he is in a frenzy, slowing down for clarification at times, but for the most part, maintaining a relentless rhythm of thoughts and images that immerse the reader in what can only be called another reality. His hallucinations about seeing dead writers alive are presented as fact, as is his supposed sex with the likes of Madonna and Björk. Similarly, he justifies his often extreme emotional reactions to people and situations that may or may not be as he describes them.
Nor are his episodes only private affairs. Quite the opposite: they are very public. He accosts strangers in the street and tangles with the police. He rages on the internet. He embarrasses himself at award ceremonies and other literary events. Friends try to help him, but in the end, he offends and alienates just about all of them. He frequently travels around Germany on a whim. The list of actions and incidents is long and varied. Taken as a whole, they reveal the extent of the destruction a manic-depressive can wreak on all around him.
Despite his condition, though, during his “normal” periods, Melle has been incredibly productive, churning out a large number of plays and several novels, as well as translations and non-fiction.
At the end of The World at My Back, in an epilogue written in 2016, Melle grows more reflective. In thoughtful, slower-paced prose, he writes about the damage the disease has done to his body and mind and reflects on its meaning for the remainder of his life and his career as a writer.
Interestingly, on his Wikipedia page, which is only in German, he has the following quote from The World at My Back, in a passage about his time at a writer’s retreat on the Frisian islands in the North Sea: “Innerlich rase ich, bin Tragödie und Comic in einem, Hulk und Hybris, unter diesem friesischen Meereshimmel.” (“On the inside, I am furious, tragic, and comic, a hulk of hubris under this Frisian ocean sky.”) This is perhaps his own definition of his bipolar life—alone on an island, barking to the infinite heavens above.
The World at My Back was translated from German by Luise von Flotow and published by Biblioasis.