On Borrowed Time

In October 1999 the London Guardian published an article by a columnist called Joan Smith. It was entitled “Death and the Maidens,” and its theme was that “we live in a culture that fetishizes dead women.” In the article Smith points to Marilyn Monroe’s suicide as the start of this phenomenon, but doesn’t go on naming names: so the Princess of Wales is spared, and so is her almost look-alike, the popular blond TV newscaster Jill Dando, who was mysteriously shot outside her home in a London suburb earlier last year. Her murderer has still not been identified, and her name and face continue to crop up in the British media, sometimes as “the second Diana.” Relentless coverage of the more recent murder of a Suffolk schoolgirl was the trigger for Smith’s piece.

The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann might have identified the syndrome as a variation on her own obsessive theme: men murder women. She didn’t mean murder by shooting or stabbing or poison, but by cruelty and oppression. Her only completed novel, Malina, famously ends with the words “It was murder,” after the nameless first-person heroine, a writer, disappears surreally into a crack in the wall, leaving behind the man (or men) responsible for her death. One of these is the lover who left her; the other—possibly more immediately responsible because he has been breaking up her belongings—is—again only possibly—her alter ego. Few things in Bachmann’s novels are ever unequivocally clear: it is part of her trademark mystery. She herself died mysteriously and became and still is the kind of fetish Smith seems to have in mind.

She was a wonderful poet who also translated poetry and wrote, aside from Malina, radio plays, essays on literary subjects, opera libretti for Hans Werner Henze (who set some of her poems to music), short stories, and three unfinished novels. Characters from earlier works appear in later ones, and take turns at major and minor roles. She herself was a star, invited to lecture all over Europe, and to collect what sounds like a record number of literary prizes. A book of photographs of her (Ingeborg Bachmann: Bilder aus ihren Leben by Andreas Hapkemeyer ) was published in 1983 and reissued in 1997. It begins with snaps from her dim childhood in the dim Carinthian town of Klagenfurt near the Slovenian border (dim is how she saw it), and follows her metamorphosis into a chic, attractive Viennese; and finally into a woman who is still beautifully blond and well dressed, but has a disturbingly bloated face.

The photographs also reveal what a tireless participant she was in international writers’ conferences, symposia, and glamorous intellectual get-togethers of one kind and another, including a seminar organized by Henry Kissinger at Harvard in 1955, when she was twenty-nine. She appears smiling on group platforms and at outdoor café tables, surrounded by other Prominente of the artistic and literary world: Henze, of course; Paul Celan; Max …

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