Reading Ingeborg Bachmann

Context N°13

by John Taylor

When the Austrian writer and poet Ingeborg Bachmann died tragically in 1973 at the age of forty-seven, she had completed only one part of an ambitious novelistic series called Todesarten [Death Styles]. This finished part was Malina, which she had published in 1971 and which, despite a 1990 American translation by Philip Boehm, has never received in English-speaking countries the critical esteem that it enjoys in Europe. I daresay that few novels are further removed in style, narrative structure and philosophical scope from mainstream American fiction.

Reading Malina is like wandering deeper and deeper into a dark, pathless forest. With every step, the temptation is to turn back, yet something invisible and magnetic draws one relentlessly forward at the risk of getting hopelessly lost. And this is the point. As Bachmann explores the origins, manifestations, and consequences of the artistic urge and amorous attraction (in Malina, they are sometimes antagonistic, sometimes intertwined), she depicts a labyrinthine sensibility at once exalted and depressed, desperate and resolved. Yet all along, the nameless “I” (as the narrator soberly designates herself) intends to emerge reunified from what can be likened to a mapless journey through an inferno, both inner and outer.

As in Dante, the reader must abandon all certitudes at the onset. No genuine first sentence opens this elaborate novelistic collage (which German critics have compared to an opera), but instead an intriguing list of characters (“The Cast”), each of whom is briefly and tangentially de-scribed. The narrator, in great part autobiographical, is a female writer working on a book entitled none other than Death Styles. She lives with one Malina, a man whom we come to know only late in the novel, and she loves Ivan, an equally shadowy Hungarian who lives on the same side- street (tellingly termed Ungargasse, or “Hungary Lane”) in Vienna. The time, we are told, is “today.”

After these unsettling stage directions, the reader is immediately immersed, not in the midst of action, but rather in the author’s penetrating yet self-paralyzing doubts about the nature of “today.” But I had to think long and hard about the Time,” commences Bachmann,

since ‘today’ is an impossible word for me. . . . This Today sends me flying into an anxious haste, so that I can only write about it, or at best report whatever’s going on. Actually, anything written about Today should be destroyed immediately, just like all real letters are crumpled up or torn up, unfinished and unmailed, all because they were written, but cannot arrive, Today. Whoever has composed an intensely fervent letter only to tear it to shreds and throw it away knows exactly what it meant by ‘today.’

After this nearly self-destructive incipit, Malina unveils the narrator’s burning infatuation for Ivan, a character who may be modeled partly on the German-writing Jewish poet Paul Celan, with whom Bachmann had an impassioned affair and who also seems to be the “stranger” of the fairy tale, The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran. The writer-narrator is working on this fairy tale, cited in italics in Malina as are other short passages reflecting texts-in-progress that she produces and revises in troubling ways. In the tale, the princess meets up with a stranger who “kept his face hidden in the night.” “She knew that it was he who had lamented her plight and had sung for her so full of hope,” adds the narrator, “in a voice never heard before, and now he had come to set her free. . . . She had fallen in love . . . she obeyed him, because she had to obey him. . . . Then he turned and disappeared into the night.” Elsewhere, the narrator superimposes her and Ivan’s “identical, high-pitched first initials,” an alphabetic coincidence that could of course not involve Paul (Celan), but which is true of ich (“I”), Ingeborg and Ivan.

This symbolic triad of characters—I, Malina, Ivan—is central, not only to the barely perceptible progress of the plot (which resembles more an excavation of I’s conscious and unconscious turmoil), but also and especially to Bachmann’s meticulous investigation of what it means to be a person. The author explores the ever-shifting boundaries between a human being’s inner and outer worlds, but even more so those that separate and distinguish two human beings who are intimately linked. As the narrator remarks in one of several cryptic passages, “Ivan and I: the world converging. Malina and I, since we are one: the world diverging.”

What is this strange “oneness”? In fact, Malina is not always distinct from the narrator, who is a famous writer in the story—as Bachmann herself was, her early poems, essays and radio plays having rocketed her to fame. Yet by now, years, even a decade or so, have passed. One of Bachmann’s tours de force is to describe what goes on in a mature writer’s mind when he or she is not writing. In this sense, Malina is a meta-novel describing how another novel—ostensibly belonging to the Todesarten project—is being written or, rather more frequently, not getting written because the narrator is so obsessed with her elusive, busy lover. Perhaps that other novel is a more realistic, chronologically ordered version of Malina, a sort of ur-text of the book we have in hand; or perhaps it is The Book of Franza or Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, two unfinished novels that belonged to the same project and that were published posthumously in 1979. Still, the distractions of love—chiefly, as they torment the mind—do not always keep the narrator from her oeuvre. She even exclaims that Ivan “has come to make consonants constant once again and comprehensible, to unlock vowels to their full resounding, to let words come over my lips once more.”

Be this as it may, the most intriguing quandary for the reader remains Malina’s ontological independence with respect to the narrator. In his well-informed and in-sightful afterword to the American translation, Mark Anderson reports critics’ speculations “that [Malina] forms an anagram for ‘animal,’ and a partial anagram for ‘anima’ . . . while the narrator appropriately remains an unnamed persona, a mask and simple pronoun.”

Malina surely seems to often represent, not a full-rounded character, but rather the rational side of the narrator’s mind—what Jung termed, for better or worse, the “male” side of a woman’s personality. “He never forgets anything, I never have to ask,” declares the narrator in one telltale scene, when she is looking for money to pay her housekeeper yet ultimately finds the envelope “very conspicuously stuck in the Grosser Duden Dictionary, secretly marked by Malina.” Yet who really has put the envelope there, Malina or the narrator? “I am double,” she confesses at one point, “I am also Malina’s creation.” Paradoxically, the narrator also declares that she created Malina. “You came after me,” she reminds him in one of the many dialogues, “you can’t have preceded me, you’re completely inconceivable before me.”

These mutually contradictory remarks—reminiscent of the mystical relationship between God and Christ as it is expounded by John in his Gospel—represent just one of several Biblical allusions woven into Malina. For example, as the narrator tries to increase her “patience” as she awaits a message from the oft-silent Ivan, she observes: “It has happened to my body against all reason, my body which now only moves in one continuous, soft, painful crucifixion on him.” The three at once independent and mutually inter-blending characters evidently form a sort of Trinity. In early passages, the exalted amorous atmosphere of Malina recalls Solomon’s Song. This is particularly telling in that the beloved Shulamith (which in Hebrew suggests “plenitude,” “peace,” pacification”) of Solomon’s Song appears starkly in Celan’s most famous poem, “Deathfugue” (1945), with its intersecting images of literary creation, the Shoah, and “writing,” as Theodor Adorno phrased it, “after Auschwitz”:

Black milk of daybreak we drink youat night

we drink you at morning and midday

we drink you at evening

we drink and we drink

A man lives in the house he plays with

vipers he writes

he writes when it grows dark to

Deutschland your gold hair


Your ashen hair Shulamith we shovel

a grave in the air where you won’t

lie too cramped.

This interplay between Christianity and Judaism grips the reader whenever Bachmann alludes to the Shoah (“before I can scream, I’m already inhaling the gas, more and more gas”), especially in the second, “dream-journal” part of the novel. All the while, the narrator contemplates the possibilities both of “redemption” and of composing, not a work called Death Styles, but rather a “beautiful book,” in accordance with Ivan’s wishes. This affirming, healing work is to be given the title of Mozart’s motet for soprano, Exsultate, Jubilate. But this wish, like her love, will remain unfulfilled. The dialectics of negativity and affirmation, so typical of modern European literature and certainly one of its outstanding achievements, foster no easy, comfortable solutions.

Despite the extremely precise details brought forth, which range from minutely dissected feelings to acute perceptions of the outside world and its “trivia,” we never obtain clear pictures of the three main characters. We observe each particle of an atom, as it were, without being able to deduce what the atom looks like. This is a literary and philosophical position—one that Bachmann takes great narrative risks to maintain. The characters are not ultimately definable in any psychoanalytical shorthand, although Bachmann alludes often, if at times ironically, to Freud and other Viennese psychoanalysts. Even the appealing Jungian anima-paradigm cannot consistently obtain; Malina seems more individualized, that is, ontologically separate from the narrator, in the third part (which is entitled “Last Things,” in probable homage to the Viennese psychoanalyst Otto Weininger). We gradually observe Malina acting more often in the world in ways that seem describable as distinct events, not just symbolic projections of the narrator’s rational or social capabilities.

Nor are Malina and the narrator stable sexually. “Am I a woman or something dimorphic,” the narrator asks herself toward the end of the novel, “what am I, anyway?” Almost the same degree of sexual ambivalence defines Malina, whose name can, moreover, be a family name or a first name. Requiem for Fanny Goldmann in fact brings forth another Malina, who is a woman; in Slavic countries, Malina or its cognates is a common female first name. As for Ivan, equally elusive and ever on the brink of departure, he is nonetheless a more solid human entity than either Malina or the narrator. “Are Ivan and I a dark story?” she wonders at one point. “No, he isn’t, I alone am a dark story.” Ivan is an object of ardent love and is more or less imaginable in this respect, but he represents above all the painful presence of absence. He rarely has time for the narrator. They talk on the telephone much more often than they meet. His mysterious, mesmerizing aloofness suggests that all we yearn for, all that really counts for us in the end, is hopelessly out of reach.

In this decidedly dark story, the side street, Hungary Lane, is the narrator’s “only country”—”which I must keep secure, which I defend, for which I tremble, for which I fight”—and provides an oblique vantage point from which post-World War II Vienna can be evoked. Like other Austrian writers (notably Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard), Bachmann must struggle not only with Austria’s collaborationist, anti-Semitic past, but also and especially with the corruption of the German language by Nazism. Spatially, temporally, and linguistically, Bachmann is estranged; and in Malina, she delves headlong into this estrangement.

Her answer to remnant Nazi linguistic perversions—a dilemma that likewise engaged Celan—is above all her powerful, idiosyncratic style, partly based on stream-of-consciousness techniques; but her ultimate response can more simply be extolled as an obstinate labor with language. The narrator’s rambling, exhausting, frenetic monologues (“a shower of words starts in my head”) are by no means gratuitous; they represent much more than literary experiments. Language is used not only to tell a story; the language used is that story.

Malina illustrates more elaborately and graphically than the short stories of The Thirtieth Year (1961) and even those of Three Paths to the Lake (published in German as Simultan in 1972) Bachmann’s concept of a “utopia of language.” She developed this notion in five important lectures given at the University of Frankfurt in 1959-60. In her fifth lecture, she notably observes that literature “cannot itself say what it is.” Then, appealing implicitly to the Heideggerean analysis of the anonymous “one” (the German word man), she adds that literature “presents itself as a thousand-fold, many-thousand-year-old affront to ‘bad language’ (schlechte Sprache),” by which she means badly made, mediocre, ordinary, daily language. In her view, “life possesses only this schlechte Sprache,” against which writers must oppose a “utopia of language,” even when the language they forge ultimately depends closely on the present and its mediocre speech. Even though the failure to achieve this ideal is inevitable, literature should “be praised for its desperate march toward this Language . . . [which] offers humanity a reason to hope.”

Having written her doctoral dissertation on Heidegger’s existential philosophy, Bachmann was also fully cognizant of his idea of a genuine writer’s or poet’s getting unterwegs zur Sprache (“on the way to Language”). And it is as a description of how a writer “heads toward Lan-guage” that Malina, as a meta-novel, must also be read.

Yet herein lies another paradox. This principal, most significant activity of the narrator’s life cannot be observed; the novel can only attempt to help us see what cannot be seen. In her acceptance speech for the Anton-Wildgans-Preis, received in 1972, Bachmann pointedly commented: “I exist only when I am writing. I am nothing when I am not writing. I am fully a stranger to myself, when I am not writing. Yet when I am writing, you cannot see me. No one can see me. You can watch a director directing, a singer singing, an actor acting, but no one can see what writing is.” In this sense, the narrator and perhaps also Malina are “nothing,” “no one,” in the novel. At best, they are apparitions or strangers. They exist authentically only in what is unstated, in what cannot be told. Bachmann leaves us with the redoubtable task of grasping their essence “behind the novel,” as vital sources that can be intuited yet not named.

Heading toward language thereby implies pushing words to their limits, nearing them to the ineffable; analogously, of driving the self to its frontiers and perhaps beyond. And in this regard, the ominous pronouncements (“the boundaries of my language mean the boundaries of my world”; “of that which one cannot speak, one must remain silent”) of another salient Viennese personality likewise underlie the very conception and narrative processes of Malina. In her essay on Wittgenstein, Bachmann notably praises the philosopher’s “despairing pains with the inexpressible (das Unaussprechliche), [pains] which charge the Tractatus with tension.” This same tantalizing tension characterizes Malina from beginning to end.

Bachmann’s deep struggle with the German language was, appropriately enough, waged while she was in voluntary exile from her native Austria. Her poem “Exile” bears witness to both her status as a “woman without a country” (even as the narrator’s passport, in Malina, has the addresses crossed out three times) and to her taking shelter, though a polyglot, in her unique possession: “the German language / this cloud about me / that I keep as a house / drive through all languages.” Much of her career was spent in Rome, a city in which she had to live in order to write about Vienna and its Hungary Lane. She once flatly quipped: “I feel better in Vienna because I live in Rome.”

This Roman retreat enabled Bachmann to compose the preeminent modern Viennese novel. The city is obliquely present even in the almost unbearably long second chapter—otherwise set “Everywhere and Nowhere”—because it is entitled “The Third Man,” in homage to Carol Reed’s 1949 film. In Malina, distant parallels with the film are drawn often. In The Third Man, an American writer seeks to track down his friend Harry Lime (whom Orson Welles memorably played) in postwar Vienna. He eventually learns that his friend has become a black-market dealer in penicillin. Rather similarly, Ivan’s profession is never clear. “He pursues his neatly ordered affairs in a building on the Kärtnerring,” writes Bachmann, “an Institute for Extremely Urgent Affairs, since it deals with money.” The film is, moreover, accompanied by Anton Karas’s haunting zither melody, even as music plays an essential role throughout Malina (and especially in the third section, where the author adds Italian musical terms to illustrate how the dialogues should be read). Like the death at the end of The Third Man, Malina abruptly concludes in a murder. Yet is this murder a real or a psychological one?

In contrast to the timeless “today” and the explicit Viennese setting of the first and third sections, in the second part of Malina “Time no longer exists at all.” “It could have been yesterday,” the narrator explains, “it could have been long ago, it could be again, it could continually be, some things will have never been. There is no measure for this Time, which interlocks other times, and there is no measure for the non-times in which things play that were never in Time.” This non-time is that of dreaming, when “the basic elements of the world are still there, but more gruesomely assembled than anyone has ever seen.” The narrator recounts chilling nightmares involving her father, Nazism, death camps, electric-shock therapy, and much more. At one point, she shouts: “A book about Hell!” This dire avowal surely designates, alas not the intensely desired Exult, Be Jubilant, but rather the book that “I” must ultimately come to terms with and write. The dark book, which cannot promise facile redemption but which tries to align “true sentences.” In other words, Malina—which Ingeborg Bachmann did write.


The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann. Trans. Peter Filkins. Northwestern University Press, $30.00.
Letters to Felician. Trans. Damion Searls. Out of Print.
Malina. Trans. Philip Boehm. Holmes & Meier, $15.95.
Selected Prose and Drama. Trans. Michael Bullock et al. Continuum, $24.95.
Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann. Trans. Peter Filkins. Marsilio, $19.95.
Three Paths to the Lake. Trans. Mark Anderson and Mary Fran Gilbert. Holmes & Meier, $14.00.
Three Radio Plays: A Deal in Dreams; The Cicadas; The Good God of Manhattan. Trans. Lilian Friedberg. Ariadne Press, $21.50.
The Thirtieth Year. Trans. Michael Bullock. Holmes & Meier, $12.95.

← Return to index

Comments are closed.