Society Is the Biggest Murder Scene of All: Adrian Nathan West on Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Malina”

By Adrian Nathan WestOctober 30, 2019

Society Is the Biggest Murder Scene of All: Adrian Nathan West on Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Malina”

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann

IF NIETZSCHE WAS the first to call prominently into question the truth of the true, and in this way to peel words away from their presumed significance, it was the Viennese Hugo von Hofmannsthal, in his Letter of Lord Chandos, who spun out the mistrust of language into an insatiate pathology of the will. The dark side, as it were, of the logical positivists’ attempt to formulate a new semantics insusceptible to the fuzziness of ordinary language, this tale of a friend of Francis Bacon’s whose pretensions to comprehensive knowledge drive him to enervation and despair found an admirer in Ludwig Wittgenstein, who would begin by considering philosophical problems as failures to bring language into line with its logical foundations, and in his late philosophy would see language itself as an epiphenomenon of practices and rituals for which the question of meaning was barely relevant.

An obsession with linguistic entanglements and the redemptive possibilities of purified language were the hallmark of the leading intellectuals of the Austrian capital from the turn of the century to World War II, and combined with misgivings about the German tongue, which had been the vehicle of the ideology of genocide, it lay at the core of the work of Ingeborg Bachmann, whose only completed novel, Malina, has been recently rereleased in English in Philip Boehm’s translation. Bachmann was not Viennese but Carinthian, born in Klagenfurt near the Slovenian border in 1926. She did not even reside in Vienna for a notable length of time — she moved there to complete her doctorate in 1946, and by 1953 had traveled on to Rome, the city where she would reside, with interruptions, until her death in 1973. Yet Vienna remained her subject, the matrix of her artistic concerns, while Rome, if anything, afforded her the necessary distance to contemplate it more lucidly. The philosophical problems that beset the Vienna Circle were her own, and her contribution to their elaboration, particularly in Malina, is to depict in pitiless detail the spiritual and psychological sequelae of the struggle with language’s inadequacy at a moment when the encapsulation of horror, a historical horror embodied in, but not limited to, the crimes of the Greater German Reich, appeared as a moral necessity.

Malina’s first-person narrator is unnamed, or her name is simply I (the psychoanalytically inclined — a category that includes Bachmann — may recall that James Strachey’s Latin coinages ego and id traduce Freud’s far more familiar Ich and Es or It and I). She resides in the Ungargasse in the city’s Third District with Malina, an aloof, at times stern confidante whose independent life as a historian in the Austrian Army Museum never quite dispels his aura of irreality. I is in love with Ivan, a Hungarian father of two who reciprocates her affections by nit-picking at her clothing, drinking her whiskey, and forcing her into endless games of chess. In a dilemma familiar to any who have ever been desperately infatuated, he burdens her with demands she struggles frantically to meet, then upbraids her with the words, “I don’t want you to always do what I want.”

The first half of the novel narrates the erosion of I’s selfhood as her relationship with Ivan unfolds. Its vagueness is frustrating, but intentional, giving a sense of the narrator’s floundering amid her commitments and contradictory emotions, and showing how the disparate elements of her surroundings congeal for her into a single, abstract, contrary force. “When nothing more occurred to you to say about your life, then you spoke the truth, but only then,” Bachmann writes elsewhere, in the conviction that the most practiced conceptions and descriptions, the thoughts that occur most readily, work to conceal rather than illuminate our biographies. That this section bears the title “Happy with Ivan” feels less like sarcasm than the forlorn yearning for sorrow past from the depths of a sorrow greater still. Dejected, I discerns in Ivan the traits of a prince in a fairy tale she has composed, “The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran.” In its mythic world, a prince serenades a princess in an unspoiled, unknown language, and pierces her heart with a thorn to bring about her “first death,” before they are due to meet again, 20 centuries thence.

Outwardly, I maintains a hectic life of travel and correspondence. Inwardly, she is decaying, suffering a curtailment of whatever psychic resources might furnish her with security. She despairs of justice, speaks of feelings as a “commercial exchange,” sees her opinions as “rented” and herself as an entity propagated through words alone; as a woman, she is “created for a dress,” and in her nightmares is imprisoned “within a sentence written in the snow.”

I depicts as “the stations of my Passion” the walk between Ivan’s house and hers. The crucifixion follows in the book’s middle section. By night, she dreams of her father, who is lover, state, and executioner: he brings her to “the cemetery of the murdered daughters,” seals her in a gas chamber, freezes her alive, while she can neither strike him nor even spit in his face. She recounts her visions to Malina, who alternately consoles and humiliates her: on one page, he holds her while she cries, telling her gently to catch her breath; on another, he grows bored with her stories, and reminds her before retiring to bed, “Please get up on time. I’m dead tired. And I’d appreciate it this time if my egg weren’t too soft or too hard.”

As an ersatz counselor, Malina demands truth from I’s confessions. Their discussions are not therapeutic, but rehearse traumatic insights that push the narrator toward her inevitable end. “Once you have survived something,” he tells her, “then survival itself interferes with understanding,” thereby urging her on toward the clarity of death.

As her demise approaches, I recognizes the feminine nature of her fate. Every man, for her, is “an incurable clinical case,” and women “are more or less marked by the contaminations they have contracted sympathizing with male suffering.” To Malina’s protest, “You’re not claiming that women are more unhappy than men, are you!” she responds, “Of course not. I’m only saying that women face an unhappiness which is particularly inevitable and absolutely unnecessary.”

A variation on the detective novel, Malina proceeds, via what philosopher Ernst Bloch calls “the pathos of small clues, of the trivialities the policeman’s mind so often overlooks” from the “universal prostitution” of Vienna to the proximate causes of her destruction. Through insults, through the inability to get a word in edgewise, her love affair with Ivan consummates that fascism that is for Bachmann “the first thing in the relationship between man and woman.” Its character is not, or not entirely, one of coercion — I speaks of inhabiting Ivan and Malina, of living in the one and dying in the other, and even as she says someone has killed her, or tried to, she admits to the murderous bent of her own ruminations. I consorts with murderers, considers writing a study of them, but Ivan dissuades her; when she reads news of women strangled to death on the edges of town, she thinks to herself, not entirely ruefully, “that could be you, that will be you.”

Society is the biggest murder scene of all. In it, the seeds of the most incredible crimes are sown in the subtlest manner, crimes which remain forever unknown to the courts of this world.

The crime I falls victim to is a death by disappearance into a crack in the wall in her apartment. I absolves Malina, even laments, on the far side of absence, her failure to leave a note behind exonerating him. Her voice persists long enough to describe how Malina clears the apartment of her belongings, drops her glasses in the trash, hides her candelabra, and when Ivan calls, he tells him no woman lives there, nobody who answers to the narrator’s name. Her last words are, “It was murder,” and it is not clear whether blame lies with I, with the author, with Vienna, or with the world at large.

Already in the 1962, Bachmann had begun a novel entitled Todesarten — Ways of Dying or Death Styles in Philip Boehm’s translation. She would eventually conceive of it as a multi-volume cycle beginning with Malina and incorporating in some form the fragments The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann. Her aim was to analyze “the virus of criminality, which after twenty years is no less active than in the days when murder, authorized and obligatory, was the order of the day.” Her private turmoil and the subject’s breadth hindered her progress, but it is also true that from quite early in her career, she was chastised for those writings that brought her intellect to the fore. Exemplary is the reception of Bachmann’s Frankfurt lectures on poetics, delivered at the invitation of Theodor Adorno. A candid confrontation with the aesthetic problems of her time, they are impassioned, severe, erudite, and determined, and yet her attempts, in her words, to “awaken something” exasperated her audience of students and professors, some of whom insinuated she had only shown up to publicize her own books. Bachmann had good fortune of a kind: her early poems were praised effusively, she won numerous major prizes, reviewers did not shy away from anointing her a savior of German lyric. But for many, it was with lyric that she ought to have remained, and more than one writer who had lauded her early books of verse took her abandonment of poetry in the ’60s as an affront. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, the great critic and canon-builder, a sort of more crotchety Harold Bloom, scorned her a “fallen poetess” and Malina as a “pathetic and utterly failed novel.” The invidious overtone of the “fallen woman” is equally present in German and in English.

Malina does have the feel of a draft, of the commencement of a middle period Bachmann wouldn’t live to realize. She wrote it in a moment of extreme psychological and physical debility, addicted to drugs and alcohol and struggling to find solace for her breakups with the writers Max Frisch and Paul Celan, the latter of whom drowned himself just as she was finishing the manuscript. Two years after its publication, she would accidentally set fire to her nightgown with a cigarette, and would die three weeks later from her injuries and from convulsions brought on by barbiturate withdrawal. Readers frequently view the book as veiled autobiography, and this tendency will surely strengthen as the 30 projected volumes of her collected writings appear; already, the publication of her dream journals in 2017, while affording insight into the origins of “The Third Man,” Malina’s long second chapter, threatens to demote it to a byproduct of the author’s malaise. Such reductionism would be an error, but a parochial avoidance of biography — however often its invocation has cast doubt on the sovereignty of women writers over their creations — is no less ill advised. Bachmann saw fiction as something more than storytelling: it was a mode of thinking particularly suited to universal problems that become palpable through individual experience. Her torments were not only subjective, but the consequence of a history that tended, in her view, toward devastation, and so excessive claims for the objectivity of her writing diminish its special significance. In her acceptance speech for Radio Play Prize of the War Blind, she advocated for a writing that would put the experience of pain in evidence as a missive from a concrete I to a concrete you. Her climactic phrase “Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar” is often translated as “Mankind can bear the truth,” which is pithy, but leaves out the uncertainty — it means that it is reasonable to expect mankind to bear the truth. That is not the same thing as saying it is possible. The truth Bachmann sought to bear in her Ways of Dying seems in the end to have been too much, but Malina is a stark relic of her steadfast attempt to do so.


Adrian Nathan West is the author of The Aesthetics of Degradation and translator of more than a dozen books, among them Juan Benet’s Construction of the Tower of Babel and Marianne Fritz’s Weight of Things.

LARB Contributor

Adrian Nathan West is a novelist, essayist, and translator based in Spain. His works have appeared in numerous journals in print and online, including 3:AM, Words Without Borders, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Review of Contemporary Fiction. He has translated books from German, Catalan, and Spanish, as well as short pieces from Portuguese, French, and Italian, by authors ranging from Josef Winkler to Pere Gimferrer to Enrique Vila-Matas, and has worked with a wide array of publishers both small and large, including NYRB Classics. He is also a contributing editor at the online translation journal Asymptote.


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