Ingeborg Bachmann, whose novels cast a pitiless light on the relationship between patriarchy and fascism, was born in 1926 and died in 1973, after she fell asleep smoking and lit herself on fire. At the time, she was working on a novel cycle called the Todesarten, “Ways of Dying,” and the sad, operatic circumstances of her death brought her writing to life with a violence and extremity no one could have anticipated. Her novels The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, as well as what she called her “imaginary autobiography,” the surreal and frantic Malina, all end with a woman dying in some suspicious incident—a fall, a disappearance, a sudden illness. Always, the woman’s death is preceded by a betrayal. Always, a man lurks who has treated her with cruelty, injustice, or mere indifference to her well-being.
“Fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman,” Bachmann declared in an interview given just before her death. While it would be wrong to read her literally, she was not quite speaking figuratively, either. Bachmann, who spent much of her life renouncing her Nazi upbringing, would never have invoked fascism as only a histrionic metaphor—she was no Sylvia Plath, gleefully blackening daddy’s brogues. Today her novels remain unnerving for how desperately they struggle to give visible form to the invisible and private injustices perpetrated by men, to name them with the same certain horror that attends to accusations of fascism. Though no one pulls a trigger or slashes a knife or even lays hands on the women in her novels, Bachmann calls them “victims” and describes the betrayals that preceded their deaths as “crimes.” “It was murder,” proclaims the last sentence of Malina—a murder for which no one will be held accountable because no one appears to have done anything wrong.
For Bachmann, the betrayal of a woman by a man rarely involved anything as overt or demonstrable as physical abuse. In The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, it is an act of literary appropriation: the woman who dies learns that a man has written about her without her knowledge or consent. Franza learns that her discreetly sadistic husband, Leo Jordan, a psychiatrist and the author of a book about the Nazis’ experiments on female prisoners, has been keeping a journal detailing her moods and sexual appetites. Its entries are lurid, chilling: “F’s self-confidence, something that still needs to be shaken. Her self-awareness, her lust, her vitality.” Fanny Goldmann, the most beautiful woman in Vienna, helps her unfaithful lover Marek publish his first novel, only to find the stories she told him about her childhood parroted in its pages, her life made piteous and thin: “She felt robbed, stripped of all her sentences and judgments, and herself in pajamas or on a bicycle or at a concert. Where was her life? Here.”
The crimes committed against Franza and Fanny are injustices of representation—injustices that attend to cruel thoughts as well as cruel words, to gossip and gaslighting and the production of biographically parasitic novels generally. Why do we take it so lightly when male novelists seize the experiences that a woman has shared with discretion and vulnerability and use them to turn her life into a story, a spectacle? To insist that his account of her is not only true but beautiful? Bachmann knew women lacked a language to counter these injustices, a form to convert the unethical—the withdrawal of sympathy, the invasion of privacy, the ascent of caricature—into the criminal, the sanctionable. Amassing evidence of men’s bad intentions and their even worse writing, Bachmann’s novels sought restitution for the women whom men had claimed first as their subjects, then as their victims.
Ironic, then, that she should have acquired a reputation as a muse, ravishing and wild and just otherworldly enough to stir the imagination. The men who loved her were famous. They wrote about her with the awe and fear that evangelists use to summon their God, or banish the devil. She appears in Thomas Bernhard’s novel Extinction as Maria, “my first woman poet, my greatest poet at the time,” dressed in a red smoking jacket and black velvet trousers with white bows below the knees, running barefoot through the streets of Vienna, kissing the men she likes and esteems, mocking those she finds stupid and hypocritical. She is hailed in Paul Celan’s anguished poems as “the alien woman,” in Henry Kissinger’s clumsy and ardent letters (the two met at a seminar Kissinger organized at Harvard in 1955) as “a bizarre poetess.” She seems most herself in Max Frisch’s memoir Montauk—radiant, independent, proud; secretive, but never dishonest. She and Frisch lived together for four years, from 1958 to 1962. When she found Frisch’s diary, containing his undisguised impressions of her, she set it on fire, destroying the version of her he had stolen away with, and never spoke to him again. To read her life alongside her art is to hear her speak of how love can turn to ashes in one’s mouth, how, in the ugly, false language of men, there burns an evil that, left unextinguished, will destroy everything and everyone it touches.
Injustice is everywhere, but it is difficult to imagine Bachmann’s novels emerging from anywhere other than postwar Austria. Here was a country whose status as the Nazis’ first victim had allowed its leaders to smooth over its history of populist fascism, conveniently forgetting how meekly they had turned their people and lands over to Hitler’s armies. Bachmann grew up in Klagenfurt, in Carinthia, just over the Slovenian border. She was the oldest daughter of a housewife and a high school teacher. Her father joined the Austrian branch of the Nazi Party in 1932, the year it became the largest parliamentary party in the Weimar Republic. Membership in the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM), the German League of Girls, was expected of Aryan children like Bachmann and her younger sister, Isolde. Bachmann skipped the annual swearing-in ceremony—it was held on Hitler’s birthday—and never attended meetings. Later, she would date the end of her childhood to April 1938, when the Nazis invaded Klagenfurt, “shouting, singing, and marching,” descending with hateful revelry upon her “quiet, peaceful Carinthia.”
When her father enlisted in the army, then was captured by the Allied forces, she stopped speaking about him to her mother and siblings. Yet her War Diary, which she kept during the spring and summer of 1945, reveals her tightly wound rage at men like him, “these grown-ups, these high-and-mighty ‘educators,’ who want to let us get killed.” (The figure of the Nazi father, absent from her life and speech, haunts all her novels.) Bombs fell around the children of Klagenfurt as they dug trenches to protect the Nazis from air raids, while the Hitler Youth peered down at their bleak, dusty labor. When she was done digging, Bachmann would climb to her attic to retrieve the banned books she had hidden there—poetry by Baudelaire and Rilke, novels by Mann and Zweig, essays by Marx—then run to the edge of the woods and lie in the sun reading, pausing only to listen for the whine of low-flying planes. “I have firmly resolved to carry on reading when the bombs come,” she wrote in her diary. “The Studenbuch is already creased and smudged. It’s my only comfort. And Baudelaire!”
Soon it was April 1945, and she was still alive. The Soviets had declared Austria’s independence from the Nazis. Her father had been released and come home. In May the British arrived to receive the surrendering troops and rebuild civic life in Carinthia. When Bachmann visited the local security office to pick up a new identity card, she met Jack Hamesh, an English soldier: Jewish, bespectacled, “short,” “ugly,” she wrote thoughtlessly. He spoke fluent German with a Viennese accent, and soon thereafter he visited her at home, where they sat under an apple tree in the garden. (“The Jew,” the neighbors whispered behind the fence when he arrived. “The Jew,” her mother repeated later that night.) She told him about the books she was reading, and he expressed his admiration that a girl with a Nazi upbringing was so well read. He entrusted to her the story of his suffering: a fatherless birth in Austria; his mother’s death of tuberculosis; memories of the orphanage; his hasty departure for England on a Kindertransport. Before he left the garden, he kissed her hand. After she closed the gate, she climbed up the apple tree and wept. “No one’s ever kissed my hand before,” she wrote. “It was already dark and I cried my eyes out and thought I never wanted to wash my hand again.”
Though some of her friends aspired to marry English soldiers to escape Austria, she entertained no illusions about marriage or England. Hamesh’s letters to her, collected alongside her writing in War Diary, reveal that they cultivated a nobler, more philosophical interest in each other than most adolescent romances. Here were two intelligent, lonely young people eager to bestow upon their relationship the literary intensity and political urgency they thought it deserved—to communicate the agonies of the past with compassion and clarity, avoiding the “escape into mysticism” they believed had befallen both Austrians and Jews. “For we understood each other at a time when none of the rest could free themselves from people’s hatred for each other,” Hamesh wrote to her. “For me it wasn’t just an encounter, for me it was proof that despite everything that has overtaken our two peoples there is still a way—the way of love and understanding.”
Bachmann’s relationship with Hamesh laid the ground for the life-giving joys and the annihilating disappointments produced by communication in her novels. They both believed in language as an ordinary act capable of bringing about extraordinary things. When used carefully, it could begin to replenish the arid intellectual world that had emerged after the war. Hamesh imagined it would start at the smallest scale—a Jewish boy and a German girl sit under an apple tree talking about literature—and ripple outward: to Jerusalem, where he would settle permanently; to Vienna, where she would enroll in a graduate program in philosophy. “A new Vienna must arise, a free, progressive Vienna, and that means above all a new attitude,” he wrote to her once he had arrived in Jerusalem. “Much will depend on you.”
They were young, and now lived hundreds of miles away from each other, and in a matter of months all that remained between them was the handful of letters that would preserve their touchingly grand vision of world-making. But the vision would linger. Twenty years later, in The Book of Franza, Bachmann imagined an English captain, a man whose memory offered Franza a reprieve from her husband’s cruelty. He had helped to liberate her hometown of Klagenfurt after the war, had “never laughed at her and always took care of her.” Before he left Austria, they had kissed ten times, ten attempts to say, “Thank you” and “You’re welcome.” She would remember these kisses not as “real kisses,” but as what she would call “English kisses”: violent, close-lipped, an imperfect articulation of what two people wanted for each other.
She carried Hamesh’s warning against mysticism with her when she arrived at the University of Vienna in 1946, “shy, very reserved, with very red lips and very charming,” recalled one classmate. As a twenty-year-old philosophy student, she had one mission: to destroy Martin Heidegger, author of Being and Time and briefly a member of the Nazi Party—“to bring this man down!”* She had little patience for his Existenz philosophy: his conviction that the individual would find himself, as her friend and admirer Hannah Arendt put it, in “permanent contradiction to the explained world” and, to participate in authentic selfhood, would have to withdraw from its “idle talk” into solitude. Heidegger’s radical isolation of the individual struck Bachmann as inadequate for understanding the shared experience of humanity, or for articulating any “feeling about life,” she wrote in her dissertation. All it expressed was fear—the same fear she believed had motivated Nazism. Both represented “a revolt of the threatened petty bourgeoisie,” she argued, “which in its despair emphasizes all subjective values to work against modern collectivizing tendencies and to hold up the inexorable course of history.”
Against Heidegger’s Angst, she turned to Ludwig Wittgenstein and the radical spirit of communication she glimpsed in his later writings. She was captivated by Wittgenstein’s belief that language is a living thing—not the ideal and inaccessible realm of meaning, but an everyday practice, something to be worked at diligently and seriously, in the company of others. The problem of making one’s self intelligible to the world would begin to dissolve “if our language functions well and sensibly, if it lives and breathes in use,” Bachmann wrote in a 1951 radio essay on Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations. To make language live, one had to be willing to traverse the “rough ground” of ordinary use—to accept that meaning would invariably shift under one’s feet, sending forth tremors of uncertainty, waves of painful speech and fearful silence. A living language risked these disturbances. Its speakers attended to confusion and misunderstanding with honesty, compassion, responsibility, and what Bachmann called “Unheimlicher Präzision,” or “uncanny precision.”
The roughest ground of her education came not at school but from her relationship with the Jewish poet Paul Celan, then twenty-seven, who had arrived in Vienna after two years in a Romanian labor camp. His parents had perished in an internment camp. They met on a late spring afternoon in 1948 at the house of the surrealist painter Edgar Jené. “The surrealist poet Paul Celan…who is very fascinating, has, splendidly enough, fallen in love with me, which adds a little spice to my dreary work,” she wrote to her parents later that week. They spent a month together, during which she introduced him to her dreary work on Heidegger’s writing, before Celan left Vienna for Paris. The day before he left was her twenty-second birthday. During the day, he filled her flat with poppies. At night, they went out for dinner and a little wine. He gave her two volumes of French paintings, a book of poems by G.K. Chesterton, cigarettes, more flowers—“my room is a poppy field,” she wrote—a photograph of himself reading, and the first poem he wrote about her, “In Egypt.” The dedication read, “To the meticulous one, 22 years after her birth, From the unmeticulous one.”
“Meticulous” in the German (peinlich genau) means “painfully (or embarrassingly) precise,” notes Wieland Hoban, the translator of Bachmann and Celan’s Correspondence, most of which was exchanged between 1948 and 1961. She wrote Celan on Christmas Day, 1948:
I still do not know what last spring meant.—You know me, I always want to know everything very precisely.—It was lovely—and so were the poems, and the poem we made together.
Three months earlier, a friend had given her Celan’s newly published collection The Sand from the Urns (“I didn’t know it had come out,” she confesses), which contained several poems that alluded to their time together. She wonders if she should meet him “somewhere in Paris,” but the inexactness of the phrase stops her from buying a ticket, boarding a train, and seeing him again. It even stops her from sending the letter. “What does that mean anyway—‘somewhere in Paris?’” she asks.
Her letters to Celan are exercises in precision, full of revisions, reversals, qualifications, bringing not just language but her philosophy of language to life. She crosses out sentences, wonders if she is using the right word, writes letters she cannot send, believing that silence will speak with greater force. If the pain of precision comes from the desire to speak with absolute clarity, then its embarrassment surfaces from the impossibility of perfect understanding: the failure to anticipate another’s reading, the vulnerability of realizing that one’s mind has been breached by another’s thoughts, the confusion of emotion that makes exactness both more urgent and more unattainable. They cannot decide if they should see each other, each refusing to take responsibility for the other’s decisions. “Perhaps we are evading each other in the very place where we would so like to meet,” Celan writes to her in August 1949, after Bachmann asked if she should continue her studies in Paris. “You know: one must always make the big decisions alone.” She disagrees, insisting on communication as the path to clarity even if it fails. “I am saying a great deal, much too much for me, for you must still know how hard it is for me to find any words,” she writes. She urges Celan to do the same: “Try it, write to me, ask me, write everything off your chest that is burdening you!”
In Malina, the narrator, an unnamed, uneasy, and brilliant writer, details her strange affinity for mailmen. “What I owe these marsupial men, who carry in their pouches tidings of most precious joy or unbearable calamities…remains to be said,” she thinks. In Bachmann’s life, the mailman brought increasingly bitter, recriminating letters from Celan after they spent the autumn of 1950 in Paris together. More of a Heideggerian than he may have acknowledged, his commitment was to the unspeakable, the silent, the concealed. He had little patience for her unending efforts to speak precisely.
Unsurprisingly, then, life had failed to live up to the ideals of the letters. Now back in Vienna, she implores him “to not write too vaguely” of their future. He accuses her of wanting to make their relationship “exemplary”—of Wittgenstein’s philosophy, of literature’s capacity to transcend her family’s crimes and his family’s suffering:
If I were not involved—how fascinating it would be, and how fruitful, to follow these moments of reaching beyond oneself on both sides, this dialectically heightened indistinctness of our realities which have been fed with our blood nonetheless!
He mocks her tendency to turn love into a pointless language game, feeding words with a “sense and significance” that reveals her obliviousness to the genocide he has lived through as a Jew.
For three years, their correspondence hobbles on, irritated and occasionally sadistic on his end (except when he asks her to help him publish his poems; then he is solicitous and quite sweet); tender, pitying, and excoriating on hers. He demands that she stop trying to “speak of things that are irretrievable.” “With a few words scattered before you by time at intervals that are not exactly small,” he writes, “you create elements of confusion that I must deal with as mercilessly as I dealt with you in the past.” “In order to cope with a disappointment, you are compelled to destroy the other, the one who caused this disappointment, so thoroughly before your own eyes and those of the others,” she rages, after he sends a friend to retrieve the ring he gave her, the ring his mother had given him before the Nazis deported her. He does not reply.
From the same friend, she learns that he is engaged to Gisèle de Lestrange, the Parisian graphic artist who would devote her life to illustrating his poems. “It chills me so deeply to think that this had already happened long ago and I did not sense it, that I was so unsuspecting,” Bachmann writes him. He does not respond to her then, or to any of the letters she sends just before and after he gets married. She hears from him again in March 1953, when the mailman brings her a copy of his new poetry collection, Poppy and Memory. The dedication reads, “For Ingeborg, a little jug of blue.”
In 1953 she moves to Rome, where silence descends between them. It is filled over the next four years by the clamor of her success: a series of radio plays; a prize for her 1953 poetry collection, Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time; she sends him a copy inscribed: “For Paul—exchanged in order to be consoled”); another for her 1956 collection Anrufung des großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear); her rapid transformation into die Dichterin, the First Lady of German literature.
When she and Celan encounter each other again in 1957, at a conference in Wuppertal, the second act of their relationship, their affair opens with an acknowledgment of injustice. “Oh, I was so unjust toward you all these years,” he writes to her in November 1957. He would write to her almost every day for the next nine months. They would see each other three times, then part as friends when she fell in love with Max Frisch. Their friendship was an uneven arrangement, with him soliciting her help to break into Germany’s anti-Semitic literary scene, while ignoring her growing psychological troubles. She started to withdraw from him in 1961, feeling, as she wrote in a letter she never sent to him, “You want to be the victim, but it is up to you not to be.”
When she started writing fiction, her experience of injustice and her demands for precision would make their way into the Todesarten novels. It would begin with Malina, which she waited to publish until 1971, the year after Celan’s suicide.
The Nazis, the banned books; the poppies, the ring; the injustices suffered by women who attempt to communicate with men—all this swirls around Malina’s story of a woman in love with a man named Ivan and haunted by a male figure called Malina. Malina might be real. Or he might be a voice in the narrator’s mind, second-guessing her every word and confusing, then clarifying her thoughts—her desire for painful precision lodged so deep within her consciousness that she cannot separate herself from it. With Ivan, the narrator believes she must communicate without betraying confusion or embarrassment, or really any feeling at all. The first third of the novel, “Happy with Ivan,” records their telephone conversations, a series of “foolish starts, incomplete phrases, endings, surrounded by the halo of mutual consideration”:
It’s me, who’d you think?
Oh right, of course, sorry
How I am? And you?
I don’t know. This evening?
I can barely understand you
The narrator, we learn, is a writer with a doctorate in philosophy. She is planning a novel cycle called “Deathstyles,” about women who have been destroyed by the cruelty of men. Ivan disapproves of the project and accuses her of putting “misery on the market.” But Malina listens intently as the narrator describes “everything that orbits me, that encircles me.” With him she creates a beautiful fable about an exiled stranger who saves a princess by giving her an enchanted red flower, composes outlandish letters to irresponsible men, grants imaginary interviews about Heidegger’s and Wittgenstein’s philosophies of language. From her incapacity to communicate with Ivan there springs a roaring stream of thought—a novel that grows and branches at extraordinary speed, that stages one conversation after another to capture the delirium and the disappointment of making herself intelligible to others. “I will tell you a terrible secret: language is punishment,” she proclaims.
In the novel’s second section, “The Third Man,” the narrator finds a letter that Ivan has written about her and plunges into madness. It’s a dream sequence whose waking moments take place in a small, dark chamber—perhaps her mind, perhaps a patient’s room, not unlike the ones Bachmann was confined to when she was hospitalized for depression in 1962. Wherever the narrator’s mind turns, it unearths her father, smirking and bloodstained. He wants to kill her—to gas her, whip her, poison her. From her finger, he plucks her dead mother’s ring to marry his new wife. He destroys the beautiful books Malina has given her, hailing the neighbors who watch with a cheerful “Heil Book!”
The father, a figure overloaded with evil, multiplies into an army of fathers, of sadistic men. “It’s not my father. It’s my murderer,” the narrator tells Malina. Some of the father figures are violent, but many are merely self-absorbed or thoughtless. They ignore her, embarrass her, lie to her, use her, then accuse her of misperceiving what they have done and try to silence her complaints. Repeatedly, the narrator tries to speak but discovers that a man has stolen her voice: “I’m screaming but no one hears me, there’s nothing to hear, my mouth is only gaping, he’s taken away my voice as well.” Through her speechless terror, she and Malina try to articulate the precise nature of the relationship between men and women in ordinary life:
Me: The strangest thing was that I knew all the time he was going around with thoughts of murder. I just didn’t know how he was planning to get rid of me. Anything was possible….
Malina: Maybe you didn’t know, but you were in agreement.
Me: I swear to you I was not in agreement, there’s no way you can agree, you want to get away, escape. What are you trying to make me believe? I was never in agreement!
Malina: Don’t swear. Don’t forget, you never swear.
Are women victims? Or have they consented to their suffering at the hands of men? The question, which she cannot resolve, brings her thought to an impasse, and the novel to its end. Malina, the voice of precision, has nothing left to say. On the novel’s final page, he fiddles impatiently with the narrator’s glasses while she considers disappearing forever. “If he doesn’t stop me, it will be murder, and I step away since I can no longer say it,” she thinks. But he makes no effort to stop her, only breaks her glasses and throws them away. “They are my eyes,” she thinks, before stepping into a crack in the wall and vanishing.
Bachmann must have known that “murder” would strike many readers as an imprecise or exaggerated accusation. But it was only imprecise because the language of criminality was too literal-minded, too blunt an instrument to detect the increasingly affable guises that cruelty had assumed now that murder had emerged as an international spectacle, an evil far easier to identify and denounce than when she had been a child. “Today it is infinitely more difficult to commit crimes, and thus these crimes are so subtle that we can hardly perceive or comprehend them,” she wrote:
Crimes that require a sharp mind, that tap our minds and less so our senses, those that most deeply affect us—there no blood flows, but rather the slaughter is granted a place within the morals and customs of a society whose fragile nerves quake.
People lacked the sensitivity to confront these more psychologically refined forms of cruelty, crimes that skulked in the shadow realm of thought—were glimpsed, then lost again, in insinuations and cryptic gestures.
Malina, like The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, exposed the “interior settings” of these murders with uncanny precision. When she turned away from poetry to the novel in the 1960s, it was to produce evidence of “the thinking that leads to a crime,” she wrote. Only the novel could burrow into the squalid chambers of the murderer’s mind. There one would find malignancies sprouting in every corner: contempt, selfishness, cowardice, the will to intimidate, to command, to crush, “armed with the intelligentsia’s tools of torture”—language barbed with every meanness, every callow and destructive formulation a man could wield to press a woman’s thoughts, her life, into the service of his own. In Malina, the narrator and Malina sit in a bar and discuss a beautiful woman named Fanny Goldmann, destroyed by a lover who used her life to write a bad novel. “Is there such a thing as the expropriation of intellectual property?” the narrator wonders. “Does the victim of such expropriation, should it indeed exist, have the right to some final difficulties in thinking?”
By a reciprocal logic, Bachmann held that only the novel could track the victim’s process of self-annihilation: the difficulty of thought that “leads to dying.” Her critics have often used “murdering” and “dying” interchangeably to describe what happens to women in her books, but separating the two is what produces the tremendous, unrelenting anxiety of the Todesarten novels—the sense one gets while reading them of being choked by not one but two invisible pairs of hands. The thinking that leads to crime and the thought that leads to dying are maddeningly estranged from each other. For how can a man’s words kill a woman? Surely, she retains the ability to withdraw her consent, as Malina points out—to walk away, to put down the diary, the letter, the novel, the poem?
But Bachmann knew that thoughts are never so easy to shut out when they debase and corrupt and lead one to doubt the integrity of her own perceptions—her sanity, even. “It’s easy to escape from one another when everything is going well, or nearly well, but it’s not at all possible with this slime that you wipe off your face, so many unanswered questions that I continually pose,” thinks Franza. “Why did you do that?—and when you’ve done it: was that intentional? Why do you want to destroy me?”
Yet the desire for justice, the opportunity to point the finger of blame without hesitation, becomes indistinguishable from a woman’s desire to see violence, real violence, done. Only then can it be punished. “I, for example, was very dissatisfied that I was never raped,” confesses the narrator of Malina, who observes men who have hurt women greeting them politely in the streets of Vienna. “Oh, why didn’t he simply kill me?” Franza laments of her husband. “It’s so unjust.” When Fanny Goldmann confronts Marek with a pistol, her hope is that he will seize it from her hand and shoot her: “She then waited for Marek to kill her. In fact, that’s what she wanted most of all. He should murder her and it should be plain as day that he was her murderer. It was the only way in which she could murder him.” Her characters’ masochism, and, at moments, the reader’s sadism, is elicited by the recognition that there is rarely another way of holding men accountable. They must pull the trigger, must strangle us with their bare hands, simply and precisely. This is the ultimate injustice the Todesarten novels reveal. Women are made to crave victimhood, to court it. In its absence, they must resign themselves to less spectacular ways of dying.
For translations of Bachmann’s unpublished works, I’m grateful to Sara Lennox’s Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters: Feminism, History, and Ingeborg Bachmann (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006). ↩