Ingeborg Bachmann
Ingeborg Bachmann; drawing by David Levine

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.1 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 novel, Malina, for instance—one feels that the writer herself may be going out of control.

In 1950 Bachmann finished her studies with a dissertation on Heidegger—against, not for him. She worked briefly for the US Control Commission and then as an editor for Austrian radio. Her first radio play was broadcast in 1952, and so was her first complete cycle of poems, Ausfahrt (“Voyage Out”). By 1953 she was able to give up her job and to travel. She published more collections of poems, radio plays, and libretti for two operas by Hans Werner Henze, who had become a close friend and set some of her poems to music. She shuttled about lecturing and attending international conferences in Europe and the US. In the late Fifties and early Sixties she divided her time between Rome and Zurich, the home of her lover, the Swiss writer Max Frisch.

She was not an aspiring provincial anymore, but a multilingual cosmopolitan. Airports, long-distance buses, and cars hired abroad crop up all over the stories she began to publish from 1961 onward. She finally settled in Rome in 1965. In 1973 her flat went up in flames and she died of burns three weeks later. Her friends disagreed about whether she had started the fire deliberately or not. She drank and used drugs; an accident would have been in the cards. On the other hand, with hindsight one cannot help being struck by how many metaphors of fire there are in her writing; and just before the end of Malina, the heroine thinks about death by burning as she makes coffee:

The hot plate on my stove…is beginning to glow, while the rest of the water drips through the filter…I have to watch out that I don’t fall face first onto the hot plate, that I don’t disfigure myself, burn myself, then Malina would have to call the police and the ambulance.

Malina was planned as one of a triptych of novels with the overall title Todesarten (“Ways of Death”). The other two—Der Fall Franza (“The Franza Case”) and Requiem für Fanny Goldmann—were not completed, but have been published in fragmentary form. They are all set among the Viennese intelligentsia, with peripheral characters from one novel becoming central in the next. Some of these characters have already appeared in the short story collection Three Paths to the Lake.2 The pattern is Balzacian, but the result not quite an Austrian Comédie Humaine because it is confined to one class.


Malina just on its own is as manylayered as a strudel: everything is seen from a single character’s point of view, but narration, meditation, dreams, invocations, and a fairy tale are interleaved with staccato telephone conversations and exchanges printed as dramatic dialogue. Parodies go on page after page as Bachmann mimics the jargon of advertising, newspaper editorials, magazine quizzes, radio commentaries, civil service memos, and trendy conversation: all of them offenses against the language which she bitterly resents. And there are so many allusions to the literature of almost every European language that one needs a commentary.

The narrator’s own language, when she is not fantasizing, inveighing, or delirious, has a peculiar charm which comes partly from her diffident delivery and partly from the Viennese inflection—nothing so crude as dialect or even idiom. It is not quite translatable. The sentences can be long—a page and a half sometimes, but the rhythm is fast. Language still “counts”—for the reader, if not for the writer who was trying to overcome her addiction to it. She chooses ordinary words, sometimes—deliberately—hackneyed ones; but they go on making dramatic, stunning entrances, each one an unforeseeable mot juste in its context, full of resonances from unexpected spheres. A passage from The Franza Case—it happens to be about language—may illustrate this faculty: “in the fossil’s case [the fossil is the hero’s nickname for his hated brother-in-law] it was a special mixture of educated-class nasal and authority nasal, whereas Martin had to rely on a younger, recently cleaned-up German, full of brittleness and infested with a few decomposed consonants.”

Even here, something needs to be explained: the German for special mixture, Spezialmischung, evokes more strongly than the English does the marketing language of tobacconists and coffee merchants. It seems there is nothing Bachmann cannot do with words, although she came to regard doing it as a self-indulgence. Still, one might feel that there were too many of them; whereas Bachmann’s poems, though coded and difficult, are beautifully spare and controlled in structure:

Wach im Zigeunerlager und wach im Wüstenzelt,
es rinnt uns der Sand aus den Haaren,
dein und mein Alter und das Alter der Welt
misst man nicht mit den Jahren.

Awake in the gypsy camp and awake in the desert tent,
the sand runs out of our hair,
your age and my age and the age of the world
cannot be measured in years.

It is not that she did not organize her stories, and especially her novels, with the greatest care—according to the principles of musical composition, she said. But perhaps she lacked a sense of proportion, of how much space one passage should occupy in relation to others, of the danger of monotony. Only the story “The Barking” in Three Paths to the Lake is quite free from heaviness, longueur, and verbal over-kill. It tells what happened to Franza before the period of The Franza Case, and it is a masterpiece—perfect like a perfect poem or a perfect murder mystery, which is what it is.

In “The Barking,” Franza is the second wife of a ruthless, ambitious star psychiatrist called Leo Jordan who neglects her. He also neglects his mother. It is Franza who visits and cares for the old woman—not at all a nice old woman. When her mother-in-law grows more infirm, Franza arranges for a car hire firm to be at her disposal. The old woman retreats more and more into herself, and barely notices that Franza’s visits have stopped. It is only when Leo promises to introduce her to someone called Elfi that the reader realizes he has abandoned Franza for another woman. The last paragraph begins: “One day nearly two years after the death of his sister Franziska, Dr. Martin Ranner received a bill from a company by the name of Pineider for taxi services.” The Franza Case describes Martin Ranner’s unsuccessful attempt to rehabilitate his suicidal sister who has escaped from a mental hospital: Leo Jordan is responsible for her death; his callousness was a form of murder.


Malina is a murder story too. The victim is the first-person narrator, a woman writer. In the cast list at the beginning of the novel this “I” is described as “Eyes—br., Hair—blnd.; born in Klagenfurt; some dates follow and a profession (crossed out twice and written over); addresses (crossed out three times); above which in clear block letters: Ungargasse 6, Vienna III.” Ungargasse is where Bachmann lived; there is no doubt about who “I” can be. Malina himself is “forty years old today…author of an ‘Apocrypha’ no longer obtainable in bookstores, but which sold a few copies in the late Fifties. As a disguise he has assumed the status of a Class A Civil Servant employed in the Austrian Army Museum.”

Malina is unobtrusive, almost invisible. He shares the narrator’s flat, but he is not her lover—her lover is Ivan, a bouncy Hungarian with two little boys, who lives down the street at Ungargasse 9 and works in “an Institute for Extremely Urgent Affairs, since it deals with money.” Malina is the narrator’s Doppelgänger, though you are not supposed to realize it until some way into the novel. Some readers never realize it at all, Bachmann said in an interview, and that doesn’t matter either. Very roughly, Malina is the rational self, and “I” the irrational.

The first of the novel’s three sections is called “Happy with Ivan,” but the affair doesn’t seem to be going very well. Ivan tells his mistress he can never love anyone except his children. Her interior monologues are sometimes ecstatic, more often panicky. On the telephone Ivan is always in a hurry, has to work late, is just off to catch a plane, or else to the dentist or gymnastic classes with the children. “I” tries to please them with ice cream and visits to the movies, and to please Ivan by cooking him typical Austrian meals from a cookbook specially bought for the purpose. When she takes the children away for the summer, “I” goes to stay with Count and Countess Altenwyl on the Wolfgangssee, where the intellectual and artistic beau monde has its summer chalets and the triptych’s other characters are paraded. The Wolfgangssee episode is biting, bitchy social comedy—Bachmann is a good hater.

Part I contains a fairy tale, mysterious, haunting, and printed in italics, about a beautiful Danubian princess in the Dark Ages. She is kidnapped by wild Hungarian tribesmen and befriended by a dark stranger. In an illuminating afterword to the American edition, Mark Anderson explains that the dark stranger is the Jewish poet Paul Celan. Other passages in italics begin with a repetition of the words “and a day will come.” In biblical cadences they invoke a golden future where people with golden hair and golden eyes will be beautiful, good, kind to one another and to the environment, and sex will regain its poetry. Just before her death, Bachmann said:

“I don’t believe in materialism, this consumer society, this capitalism, this monstrosity that goes on here, these people getting rich, who have no right to get rich at our expense. I really do believe in something, and I call it ‘a day will come.’ And one day it will come. Well, it probably won’t come, because they’ve always destroyed it for us, for so many thousands of years they’ve always destroyed it. It won’t come, and yet I believe in it. For if I can’t go on believing in it, then I can’t go on writing either.”

This pronouncement comes from a collection of interviews and conversations with Bachmann collected by her German editors and published after her death.3 The interviewers did a good job and forced her into a much needed exegesis of her own work. She despised them for it: her replies are often scornful, sometimes tetchy, and some of them are recycled in Malina when an evening paper hack comes to interview the narrator. He asks idiotic questions, changes the tape at inappropriate moments, and wipes out important passages by mistake. In the end she throws him out: “You slave of your paper…your slavishly dependent paper for thousands of slaves.”

Part II is called “The Third Man.” It is a paranoid nightmare of terrifying visions, part Jungian, part Freudian. Mass torture (gas chambers) alternates with individual torture (shock treatment). Both are forms of fascism. The torturer, the third man, is the narrator’s father. He pursues her, blinds her, pulls out her tongue, rapes her, kills her, and consigns her to the “cemetery for murdered daughters.” He can turn into a crocodile with scraps of female flesh stuck to its teeth. The crocodile lives not in the Nile, but in the mouth of the Danube. This is because, as the narrator tells the hack, Austria, with the necropolis of Vienna at its center, is her world: not little postwar Austria, but the old, defunct, destroyed “House of Austria”:

The expression “the House of Austria” has always been my favorite because it best explained my ties to Austria…. I must have lived in this house at different times, as I can immediately call to mind the streets of Prague and the port in Trieste, I dream in Czech, in Windish, in Bosnian, I have always been at home in this House.

The female flesh on the crocodile’s teeth looks like a feminist fantasy, and certainly each of the three novels in the triptych is about the destruction of a woman by men. But although feminists acclaimed Bachmann’s novels, she wasn’t really one of them. In one of her interviews she said she “didn’t think much of the whole emancipation business. The pseudo-modern woman with her grinding efficiency and energy has always been highly strange and incomprehensible to me.” What matters is

the phenomenon of love—how you love. This woman [i.e. the narrator] loves in such an extraordinary, supreme way that nothing on the man’s side can correspond to it.

This is a Rilkean theme. Bachmann doesn’t acknowledge Rilke (or any of her innumerable other allusions: in a novel, why should she?); but she cites two of his saints of love, the Portuguese Nun and Gaspara Stampa; in fact, the narrator quotes from Gaspara Stampa’s letters to her lover: “Vivere ardendo e non sentire il male.”

But men destroying women is only one aspect of the general fascism of human behavior. “We don’t really die of diseases,” Bachmann said. “We die from what others do to us.” And at the end of Part II the narrator admits to Malina, “People don’t die here, they are murdered.”

Malina: So you’ll never again say:

War and Peace.

Me: Never again.

It’s always war.

Here there is always violence.

Here there is always struggle.

It is the eternal war.

Part III bears the devotional title “Last Things.” It begins with a halfcomical fantasia about postmen, which gradually modulates into horror. Then there is a long reflection about the impossibility of love. All men are sick: they are governed by their sexual proclivity, their kinkiness. All they want is to satisfy it. Every woman they sleep with is the same to them. They never see her as an individual. Women look for love, but they are doomed never to find it. This may not be an original idea, but Bachmann’s development of it is a tour de force. It ends with a fast-forward reprise of Schnitzler’s Reigen (La Ronde), danced by characters from the novels and later short stories.

After that, the novel becomes very opaque. The narrator is distraught because Ivan neglects, then leaves her. Malina is patient and solicitous and takes her out to dinner. He encourages her to wear a dress he once gave her, but when she puts it on it burns her like a shirt of Nessus. In a series of dialogues he tries to bring her around to his nihilistic view of things. Her replies are scored like music: arioso dolente, cantabile assai, senza pedale, and so on. Just before the end, he turns savage and destroys her most treasured belongings while she is in the kitchen making coffee. Then she kills herself—not by falling on the stove, but by disappearing through a crack which opens in the wall. The last sentence reads, “It was murder.” The murderer is not Ivan, but Malina, and you hear his footsteps recede. “At the end,” Bachmann said, “the thinking ‘I’ helps her to find death, because she can’t go on any longer.” The crack in the wall is not very convincing. All the same, the end is sufficiently desperate and dramatic to leave one stunned.

What is Malina about? “Our time. And the sickness, the torture of it, and the sickness of the world, and the sickness of this person—for me it is the sickness of our time. And if that doesn’t come through, then my book is a failure. But if it does, then perhaps it isn’t.” Well, a sense of horror and despair certainly comes through. Too much, really. There is too much lamentation, imprecation, and admonishment; and too often self-pity leaks into the tears of compassion for the world. It’s certainly a mistake for the narrator herself to keep telling us how compassionate she is: for instance when she describes leaving bottles of wine for the derelicts asleep on the Paris Metro vents to find when they wake up.

Malina is too programmatic and explicit to work as a novel. There is overkill and an absence of aesthetic pudeur. On the other hand—perversely, in fact—it is also excessively cryptic. Full of amazing images, visions, concepts, and symbols, it is a philosopher-poet’s novel, too dense for fiction. Reading it is like chewing one’s way through a packet of boullion cubes that need to be diluted before they can be absorbed.

This Issue

March 5, 1992