The Thirtieth Year
Every Man a Murderer
The Long Voyage
Three of the four works of fiction considered here are of Austrian origin. (It is curious that, in the spate of books, articles, whole issues of magazines, dealing with change or non-change in Germany, so little attention goes to Austria, which, in this century, is second only to Germany as West European agent of disruption.) Pre-eminent is a collection of seven stories by Ingeborg Bachmann, two of which examine the aftermath of the Second War, one of them in the particular muted voice of those who were children during the early Forties, who came later to realization of what it was they had lived through in those days of hugger-mugger above their heads and behind doors.
The first matter on which to congratulate Miss Bachmann is one usually given slight reference: her good luck in her translator. Michael Bullock has provided English of a delicacy and music that indicates gifts in himself and is a tribute to the effect of these stories on him. We respond with his response. Already known as a poet, Miss Bachmann has the vision in her stories to see hell in a wild flower, eternity in ten or twenty pages; has an instinct for freighted ellipsis, an eye to select the small, telling detail of environment or agony. Much that her Austrian contemporary Ilse Aichinger attempted honestly and earnestly in her book Herod’s Children is accomplished in Miss Bachmann’s brief opening story, “Youth in an Austrian Town.” The discoveries, stubbornness, private kingdoms that are universal in childhood are brushed in swiftly, reticently; then the universals narrow to specifics with the coming of war, its duration, its finish.
And one day nobody gives the children report cards any more, and they can go. They are called upon to step into life. Spring descends with clear, raging waters and gives birth to a blade of grass. There is no need to tell the children it is peace. They go away with their hands in their ragged pockets and a whistle that is meant as a warning to themselves.
The other story about the consequences of war, “Among Murderers and Madmen,” is a close-packed inquest of responsibility, of desire to understand and shoulder guilt, with a final act that dramatizes the futility of fixing and finishing it.
The title story, which is the longest, deals with what is now such a trite subject that it raises apprehension: a crisis of spiritual malaise à la Camus, in a man turning thirty. Indeed Miss Bachmann has nothing intrinsically new to say on the subject, but she treats it with such immediacy, she crystallizes it in such continuously taking metaphor,that the story strikes home. “Everything” also deals with a man of thirty, a father, before the birth of his child and through the son’s short life, during which the father sees everything differently, expects much, learns to straiten his hopes.’ (“He was taking after us. But not only after Hanna and me, no, after mankind in general …