Malina  by  Ingeborg Bachmann  tr.  Philip Boehm  (New Directions, June 2019)  Reviewed by  Jessie Ferguson

by Ingeborg Bachmann
tr. Philip Boehm
(New Directions, June 2019)

Reviewed by Jessie Ferguson

I first read Malina twenty years ago, more than half my life ago, on the sixth floor of a university library where I didn’t have borrowing privileges. The edition I read was the out-of-print 1990 Holmes & Meier hardcover, just months before its re-release in paperback. The translator, Philip Boehm, has updated his text for this new release from New Directions, Malina’s third foray into the English-speaking market. It was such a deeply familiar and congenial book, from the very first page, that I was certain that many more like it were waiting for me. But two decades later, it remains the only one of its kind, unique in its paradox of familiarity and strangeness.

It’s sui generis within Bachmann’s own body of work as well, and was written in part to address an issue—how female subjectivity is menaced and ultimately extinguished—that posed a problem of narrative within that work. As her most experimental fiction and also one of the last texts she would finish, Malina can be an incongruous introduction to Bachmann’s writing. It is an allegory, written as if indifferent to allegory, with unnerving immediacy and detail.

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria, near the Slovene border, and died at the young age of 47 in the midst of a prodigious and productive career: in her early twenties a star of postwar German poetry, later a versatile critic, short story writer, author of libretti and many pieces for radio, a novelist as a final act. In her last decade she began work on a series of novels bound together by the title Ways of Dying, concerning a cast of elite Viennese characters in the postwar decades. She completed only the first book, which was Malina.

Malina is usually read, somewhat reductively, as the stream of consciousness, or monologue, of a woman writer who is in love with one man but obscurely bound to another; who is falling apart, tormented by personal and historical nightmares. The relationships between and among these characters grow steadily more abstract until it seems that the narrator and Malina may not be two strictly separate characters, for all that they remain locked in intimate struggle. The narrator is clearly unreliable, but the book leaves open the question of how reliable any possible narrator could be, to discomfiting effect.

Malina is a constant shapeshifter, drawing on multiple genres to create a coherent form. The three sections of the book can be understood as acts in a play, or movements of a musical work. (To compromise we could call it operatic: a Gesamtkunstwerk, starved and damaged.) In its dramatic aspect, it plays cat-and-mouse with the unities of time, place, and action. The cast of characters that begins the book, which is incomplete (Ivan, Malina, the narrator, Ivan’s children), frames those characters within a kind of play-within-a-novel. Conversely, the setting, Vienna, is depicted in overwhelming detail, which is one of the book’s more traditionally novelistic qualities: prose making space. But Vienna aside, the opening is full of smoke and mirrors. Some details are incommensurable: Ivan has a first name and birth date (1935), Malina a surname and age (“over 40”), the narrator neither. The relationship between Malina and the narrator is left ambiguous: late in the novel she writes: “There are people who think that Malina and I are married. We never considered that we might be married, that such a possibility could exist . . .”

The first part, “Happy with Ivan,” centers on the quotidian details of her affair with Ivan, a younger Hungarian man who seems to sincerely do his best to make her feel good about herself, and whose complete failure to understand her is a feature of his attractiveness. It is so unerotic a portrait of overpowering, obsessive desire that it seems almost perverse. We have no idea what he looks like. The narrator’s “happiness” with Ivan is deeply ironic: it is lashed together with misery and fear. Although clearly something under the happiness is seriously wrong, even the Freudian tour de force of the second section doesn’t lay the problem entirely bare.

We could call her happiness self-deception, for simplicity, but the narrator’s creative powers complicate things: behind that deception lies the thwarted power of invention and inspiration. This is nowhere clearer than when she and Ivan argue about what sort of book she should be writing:

I’ve left a few pages lying on the armchair. Merrily he takes one and reads: DEATHSTYLES. And from another piece of paper: THE EGYPTIAN DARKNESS. Isn’t that your writing, did you write that? Since I don’t answer, Ivan says: I don’t like it, I suspected something like this was going on, and nobody wants all these books lying around in your crypt, why isn’t there anything else, there must be other books, like EXSULTATE JUBILATE, which make you mad with joy, you’re always mad with joy yourself, so why don’t you write like that. . . .

The details of the narrator’s Bachmannesque writing career mark the book as a particularly twisted autofiction: “twisted” in that this novel’s protagonist seems incapable of writing any of Bachmann’s work. Bachmann’s portrait of her narrator often seems to be self-parody; but the act of extending self-parody to novel length raises the tension nearly to the snapping point. (Extending self-parody through tragedy, moreover, ends up producing a meditation on cruelty.) Individual readers will vary greatly in the mixture of tolerance, bemusement, compassion, transfixed empathy, and pure frustration they bring to the reading. But they may see their own frustrations performed as well. The product of a lifetime, decades, of being condescended to by men, Bachmann’s mimicry is expert and the skeptical, dismissive male lines are full of real conviction.

Whatever you think of Rachel Kushner’s introductory claim that this is a true portrait in language of female consciousness, it certainly is a portrait of consciousness, unrelenting and terrifying—even the narrator’s dreams are snatched out of sleep and pushed into the flow of text and interpretation. In place of Wittgenstein’s language as city, Malina creates a vision of Vienna as language, one might even say as mind: to what extent it may be feminine, masculine, or otherwise is impossible to discern.

How will all of this be received in the Anglophone world, where novels by women have been central to the literary canon for so long? Kushner’s introduction takes pains to portray Bachmann as an “honorary man,” an impression I found surprising even with the added irony. Bachmann’s literary tradition—of Austria, of the German-speaking world, of postwar letters in Europe, of Hermann Broch’s “epistemological novel”—is overwhelmingly masculine, however, and a full understanding of Malina depends on immersing oneself uncomfortably in its time and place. Psychoanalysis is still in ascendancy; the Austrian tradition in particular has a mixture of intense fascination with women’s psyches and a hatred of them. The cultural force of this assault has dissipated significantly since 1971. There’s still misogyny and plenty of it, in intellectual as well as popular culture, but the narrator’s shocking lack of ready weapons against patriarchy seems hard to fathom in 2019. Over the course of the narrative, she must improvise her own, an excruciating process to witness in which one longs to intervene, but in vain.

The political/nationalistic dimension of the story may also seem unfamiliar. Talk of women’s writing generally implies a coherent idea of a woman’s inner life, however troubled by mental illness, trauma, or by whatever parts of the political can be personalized. The very first thing we read about Malina’s narrator, though, is: “Austrian passport, issued by the Ministry of the Interior. Official Austrian I.D.” It’s a peculiar focus for a longtime resident of Vienna to choose; less peculiar for the novel’s longtime expatriate author, writing in Rome. The narrator’s idyll with Ivan is a political utopia as well—her “Ungargassenland,” as she calls it, after their street that bears the name of Ivan’s homeland—but it can’t stave off war forever.

Finally, much of the constellation of genres surrounding Malina may seem obscure. Bachmann wrote several radio plays and opera libretti, the latter with her close friend and collaborator Hans Werner Henze; she was an opera devotée and a great fan of Maria Callas. These auditory modes, carried more by voice and sound than by visuals, influence the novel both through explicit quotations (the passage from Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, the dynamic notations in “Last Things”) and in shaping the narrative gestalt.

The interruption of the narrative by an embedded text, “The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran,” is a singular moment. (Kagran is a suburb of Vienna; you can substitute any of your own least favorite commuter rail stops to reproduce the effect of this title.) Title aside, it’s all the more unsettling to see anyone play a princess story straight after the endless array of détournements in the last fifty years, from Elfriede Jelinek’s Princess Dramas to Ralph Breaks the Internet. It is the zero-Kelvin antithesis of camp, and it gave me chills twenty years ago; even now it unnerves me when the narrator stops stock-still and refuses to keep performing sophistication. It’s also an eerie moment at which the two male characters, Ivan and Malina, seem to fuse and fade, replaced by another ideal outside the narrator’s conscious mind. More than anything else in Malina, it recalls Bachmann’s first books of poetry, laced through with fairy tale and landscape, and it recalls her thirst for truth and wisdom that it seems, throughout a lifetime of searching, she was never able to slake. No lyric idyll ever returns once the nightmare of language and explanation continues; the dreams in “The Third Man” are as chopped-up and discursive as the dialogue.

A throwaway line I read once compared Bachmann’s literary stature in the German-speaking world to that of Virginia Woolf in English. The two writers are wildly different; but in thinking of Woolf’s great Künstlerinroman together with Bachmann’s, I considered Lily Briscoe’s vision in To the Lighthouse, concluded and conclusive. Even after all her own triumphs, it was impossible for Bachmann to grant her narrator a corresponding note of unequivocal triumph. Bachmann’s final poem and famous farewell to poetry, translated as “No Delicacies,” ends with the line “Mein Teil, es soll verloren gehen”: my part, let it be lost, or, in another translation: my share, let it be dispersed. In an earlier poem, “Songs in Flight,” she ends with an image of “the song above the dust [that] will one day rise above us.” Malina is the dark side of those visions of transcendence and succession; its focus is sharply trained on loss. Malina would like to be a gift, but it can’t forget the thefts that placed it in the giver’s hands (and the receivers’, one and all). Its song may endure, but not before it finally, briefly, resolves itself into the human shape of its absent singer.

Jessie Ferguson holds a Ph.D. in comparative literature and has written for The Quarterly Conversation and others. She lives in California.