Ingeborg Bachmann’s writing career follows an unorthodox curve. She published her first poems in Vienna in 1948, when she was twenty-two. A literary Wunderkind, she quickly became an icon, occupying a niche somewhere between Marilyn Monroe and Simone de Beauvoir. She combined beauty and vulnerability with moral insight and authority. Prizes, honors, and invitations rained upon her. Ten years later she virtually gave up poetry for prose. She had never read much poetry, she said afterward, or enjoyed reading it. What she liked was writing it, and reading prose—Tolstoy, Kafka, Musil, Josef Roth, Flaubert, Proust. She told an interviewer that
in order to write a real poem, one doesn’t need years of experience, one doesn’t need to know how to observe. It’s a very pure state, in which only language counts. The impetus for poetry comes from the emergence of a word…. But in the end what enables you to write prose is what you have seen and lived through, what we describe by the inept word “experience.” So that comes fairly late in life.
It was in the last decade of hers that Bachmann wrote the fiction that has been translated into English over the past few years. The novels, and most of the stories too, are closely—topographically—autobiographical, beginning with the first piece in her first collection, The Thirtieth Year. This story is not really fiction at all, but reminiscence: “Youth in an Austrian Town.” “People rarely moved to this town from another town, because its attractions were too few.” The dim town is Bachmann’s birthplace, Klagenfurt. The translator seems never to have heard of it, and doesn’t know the difference between der See (the lake) and die See (the sea); so he puts it close to the sea—whereas its landlocked, shut-off position near the Slovenian border contributes to the author’s sense of oppression in her oppressive petit bourgeois milieu. The children have to speak low and play in stockinged feet so as not to disturb the landlord in the flat below; at school, on the other hand, the teachers bawl them out for not speaking up. “Between the reproach for talking too loud and the reproach for talking too softly, they settle down in silence.”
As soon as the war was over, Bachmann escaped. She enrolled at the University of Innsbruck, then at Graz, and finally in Vienna, where she lived for the next twelve years. Even after she moved away, the city remained her spiritual base and the setting for most of her fiction. She studied philosophy, psychology, and psychotherapy; this included a practical spell in a psychiatric hospital. Several of her characters go mad in one way or another, while the most villainous and loathsome of them is a famous psychiatrist. She herself was to suffer a breakdown. She knew madness from the inside and the outside. Her writing is full of hallucination and irrational panic; sometimes—toward the end of her only completed …