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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Thomas Melle’s The World at My Back

Thomas Melle
The World at My Back
(Biblioasis, 2023)

“The more perfect the artist,” wrote T.S. Eliot, “the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” Eliot’s is a pithy dictum, one with an appealing, almost intuitive logic. But what if it’s artificial, constricting in its divide? What if the poet had it wrong? 

For the German writer Thomas Melle, suffering and creation are inexorably intertwined. Melle, a celebrated novelist and playwright, suffers from a severe case of bipolar disorder.  “Everything,” he writes, “has been damaged” by this condition. For years, Melle attempted a version of Eliot’s refrain, fictionalizing his manic phases, detaching himself from the disasters he described. But his protagonists “have all been versions of [himself],” and the false distance of these faces left him wanting. Melle was “weighed down by those doppelgängers, who in the end keep referring back” to him, while “at the same time concealing [him].” In The World at My Back, his English language debut (Biblioasis, May 2023), Melle tries on a new form. He grapples with his condition directly, striving to “write [him]self free.”

Bipolar disorder, according to the American Psychiatric Association, can be divided into two variants. There’s Bipolar II, typically characterized by hypomania (a “persistently elevated, expansive” mood) which collapses into a ‘major depressive episode.’ Then there’s the more severe Bipolar I, which Melle suffers, which amplifies these symptoms into mania and introduces psychotic episodes. For years, this condition was known as ‘manic depression,’ a name Melle prefers. The old term, he says, better charted the parabolic form of his condition. “I am manic first, then I am depressed,” he writes. “It’s very simple.”

Melle, over the course of three bipolar episodes in the past twenty-five years, has been to hell and back. First manic, then depressed, he has been arrested and committed, and he has been disconsolate and suicidal. He has sold off his prized possessions, lost his money, and destroyed his friendships. He has been tossed from clubs, accused of stalking, and mistaken for a school shooter. He has stolen goods, started fires, and even bum-rushed his publisher at a literary event, convinced, in a manic episode, that her broken arm was ensconced in a fake cast. Melle later made the papers as an anonymous madman (“perhaps an author who’d been rejected?” wondered one daily) and was compared to the murderous protagonist of Berlin Alexanderplatz. The publisher, unsurprisingly, dropped him.

The man in these moments was Melle, but so, too, was it someone else. This is the crisis of the disease, as much a literary problem as a living one. The manic depressive, Melle explains, lives in a state of total discontinuity, unable to trust their memories, make sense of their past, or anticipate their future. Recollections are unstable, inconsistent: Melle knows he’s responsible for these “catastrophes,” but it’s nearly impossible to recognize himself in these moments. These disastrous scenes “can be connected by memory, but hardly by identity.”

Fiction was long a crutch, a device Melle employed to separate himself from the disease. But he’s no longer “concerned with abstractions”: now, he wants “a kind of truthfulness, a concrete account.” He seeks, in other words, to collapse the distinction between his art and his suffering, to bridge what he lives and what he writes. It isn’t entirely his choice: the disease has closed the gap for him. “My life, my works,” he writes, “everything I ever wanted to be” has been scarred by the condition. “But maybe, and against my will,” he considers, “it also made me a writer.” Writing has been Melle’s method of comprehension, his means of organization, and his sole source of continuity in a life of otherwise aleatory episodes.

Perversely, however, writing is a cure to, but also a cause of, Melle’s torment. Obsessed with text and language, Melle is unmade by the words around him. Manic episodes begin as semiotic breakdowns, days in which “every aspect of language—and what is not language?—is twisted and unruly.” The relationship between sign and meaning, the structuralists taught us, is forever “arbitrary.” Yet Melle’s disease stretches this principle to its extreme. Mania, he writes, is the complete “dissolution of meanings and the connections between them.” Words come unmoored from their referents, and Melle begins to believe that everything refers to him directly. Books and letters are “ciphers,” and pop singers whispering a breathless ‘you’ address Melle alone.

What Melle describes is consistent with clinical descriptions of messianic delusion and psychosis. But it’s different for Melle, whose life, as a writer, is already predominantly linguistic. When Melle writes obsessively on his blog, “minuscule, mutating detail[s]” metastasize into elaborate, unreal worlds, and mania takes root. What language giveth, it also taketh away: the mind which creates is responsible for the man who suffers.

Not that it’s all suffering: Melle keeps a welcome sense of humor, and The World at My Back retains a picaresque quality. Luise von Flotow’s translation is flowing and vivid, though sometimes it does stiffen Melle’s sentences. Melle means for his book to be funny: he implored Der Spiegel that “you can, you should, you must” laugh while reading. That isn’t always clear in English. When, for example, Melle concludes that his words are “like a prayer,” he means to wink, not to kneel. That line pokes fun of an earlier episode in which a manic Melle believed he’d bedded Madonna. Yet even the book’s press packet refers to Melle’s “prayer.” Deprived of humor, some passages can be more punishing than intended.

Still, by equal measures frightening, enthralling, and—yes—even funny, The World at My Back is a gripping, unusual book, a striking meditation on both illness and language, suffering and creation. This is an “anti-Bildungsroman,” Melle writes, a book whose resolution is beyond reach. This “search for reasons,” he told Der Spiegel, maintains “full awareness that you will never come to these reasons.” That isn’t such a bad thing: Melle’s questions are far more interesting than any answers.


Michael Shorris

Michael Shorris is a writer in New York working in documentary film.


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