Sunday, January 14, 2007

Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina

Finally after much struggle I have managed to read the whole novel. It took lot of effort and it is all a little more than I can chew. There is a very useful essay in the afterword of the book by Mark Anderson. He says in the beginning:

Ingeborg Bachmann's novel Malina, presented here for the first time in English, in a translation by Philip Boehmm, is not a book one picks up--or puts down--lightly. Narrated in an unremittingly fragmented stream-of-consciousness, filled with references to Austrian history and culture, to psychoanalysis, twelve-tone music and contemporary philosophies of language, this passionately experimental novel presents all the stylistic and intellectual challenges of the most rigorous modernist and postmodernist prose texts of the century. Nor is the novel's historical content, which fuses the heroine's personal trauma with her country's collective guilt in the Holocaust, intended for merely pleasurable consumption. Once the reader does pick up Malina and enters its first pages, a curious mix of pleasure, fascination and horror makes it impossible to leave.

Also the English translation comes with many untranslated German idioms and also words and phrases in many French, Italian and Latin all of whose meanings are given in a glossary in the end. There are some references to music too which I didn't understand.

There are many other background details which are needed to understand the book. Malina was a part of a cycle of novels called "Ways of Dying" or "Death Styles" that Bachmann was planning to write. She could finish only this novel before her death in a fire accident and the other two novels, The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldman were published from her unfinished manuscripts. They are available in English translations too. At a few places Malina references Fanny Goldman which will confound readers who are not familiar with the character from the other book. All these books were supposed be about the death of women in patriarchal society. Death here is not the physical extinction but rather extinction of an authentic voice. In the dramatic ending of Malina the "I" representing the feminine voice disappears in a crack in the wall and Malina, her masculine counterpart then denies that she ever existed after a phone call asks for her. These are the final lines of the novel:

Steps, Malina's incessant steps, quieter steps, the most quiet steps. A standing still. No alarm, no sirens. No on comes to help. Not the ambulance and not the police. It is a very old wall, a very strong wall, from which no one can fall, which no one can break open, from which nothing can be heard again.

It was murder.

The most interesting (though not easy to read at all) part of the book was the middle chapter titled The Third Man (which Anderson says is a reference to the great film also set in Vienna) which is a collection of fragmented nightmarish scenes in which the narrator is repeatedly humiliated, raped, murdered by her (symbolic) father and then consigned to "a cemetery of murdered daughters." The father is a Nazi figure and in one of the scenes the narrator finds herself in a gas chamber:

My father calmly takes the first hose off the wall, I see a round hole through which it's blowing inside, and I duck down, my father walks on, taking down one hose after the other, and before I can scream I'm already inhaling the gas, more and more gas. My father has disappeared, he knew where the door was and didn't show me, and while I am dying my wish to see him once more and tell him just one thing dies as well.

I can't say anything, since I have to escape my father and get over the marble wall, but in another language I say: Ne! Ne! And in many languages: No! No! Non! Non! Nyet! Nyet! No! Nem! Nem! Nein! For in our language, too, I can only say no, I can't find any other word in any language. A rack on wheels, perhaps the giant Ferris wheel that dumps excrement from the gondolas, approached me and I say: Ne! Nem! But to stop me from crying out my no, my father drives hi short, firm, hard fingers into my eyes, I am blinded, but I must go on. It's unbearable. I have to smile, since my father is reaching for my tongue and wants to pull it out to stop anyone here from hearing my no, despite the fact there's no one to hear me, but before he can tear my tongue out something horrible happens, a huge blue splotch runs into my mouth, so that I can no longer utter a sound.

It is tempting to read these horrifying passages as tirades against the fascism of patriarchy but I think it is not that easy. Many of these scenes are interspersed with narrator's "dialogues" with Malina which indicate that the passages work more as a portrait of a psychic disintegration, it is not that she is not saying anything about women's experience under patriarchy just that we can't take her exaggerations and paranoia at the face value. That she is losing her mind and finally her voice in the end, is itself a powerful comment against it. It is also interesting to compare these passages to Sylvia Plath's poem Daddy. The nazi daddy metaphor there always felt "borrowed" to me, unlike in this novel where it works as a political comment also. Like her other fellow Austrian writers she bitterly resented her national identity too. She mentions this in the novel too -- in one the answers to the questions of a faux journalist interview which forms a part of the first chapter (it is based on real life event too. Anderson says that Bachmann was subjected to long and detailed interviews by her editors. Her answers in the book are quite caustic).

Well, I have already mentioned how the book ends. I hope it is not a spoiler :) Overall, I think it is not the kind of book one reads for pleasure. The prose is austere, the narrative non-existent and fragmented, no conventional psychological portraits, no life-enhancing lessons (and thank God for that!), so why should I read it. Well, apart from the fact that one can boast of reading an experimental feminist German novel on one's blog, the book is in fact quite provocative and has lots of ideas that one can chew on in leisure.

Also a comment on translation. Almost all what I read these is translated, and it is natural to worry when reading a translation that who are you reading, the author or the translator? Sometimes you worry more and sometimes not that much. I think it was one of those cases where I worried more. Though Anderson in his afterword praises the translation ("[it] has been rendered in a translation by Philip Boehm so fluent and consistently inventive that one can easily forget one is not reading the original"), I felt that, specially in the first chapter, the translation falters. The idea must have been to inhabit different voices and different styles of writing -- it contains a melange of different styles -- but the translation reads flatly. So the language of fairy tale almost reads the same as the language of the letters that her secretary sends to many different people, heads of committees, directors of universities etc. And yes, I forgot, the book contains a nice fairy tale about a princess who is abducted by Hungarian tribesmen and is befriended by a dark stranger. But make no mistake, it isn't a lightweight diversion from the grim main narrative. The afterword says that the fairy tale makes many references to Paul Celan's poems and the dark stranger of the tale is modeled on Celan himself, who was a good friend of hers. I think more intelligent people will have more to say about it. I will also add more when I read and understand more.

Here is a nice article about her and a short review of the novel from the new york times. I will try to find more essays and link later.

I will end with this poem by Bachmann (also from the afterword):


I am dead man who wanders
registered nowhere
unknown in the realm of the perfect
superfluous in the golden cities
and the greening land

written off long ago
bequeathed nothing

Save wind and time and sound

I who cannot live among people

I with the German language
this cloud about me
that I keep as a house
drive through all languages

Oh how this cloud darkens
the somber ones the rain notes
only a few fall

Into brighter places it bears the dead man high


orenda said...

If you are able to find it, there's an interesting film -- starring Isabelle Huppert -- based on the novel. It's just as challenging, I have to say, but worth the time.

Thank you for this post...

Alok said...

thanks! i have been looking for the film for some time now but can't find it. I am a big fan of huppert, I am sure she must have been good in it.

Antonia said...

hi alok,this is a very detailed post - from the passages you quoted I can see the translation is quite ok. Yes the dark man is Celan. And the music, this reference is Schoenberg and a connection to the fairy tale....but the book is also so much more than criticism of the should read those interviews of Bachmann, the interviewers asked her the most ridiculous questions...and her answers are often quite so ironic that one does not notice at once...

Alok said...

Yes, one will get disappointed if one looks for ready-to-use feminist slogans in it. and frankly, i started reading it in that vein but then realized it is not so straight forward. It is certainly a feminist novel but more like virginia woolf's novels, and of course she is far more strident and willing to go to extremes than woolf.

Yes i noticed those interviews too. they give a political edge and wider context to the whole story too. in a sense I felt it was also too "Austrian" a book.

Alok said...

you perhaps mean the published "real" interviews and not the one in the novel? I dont think I can find them here. though the essay does quote a few of her answers.

and thanks for recommending the book :)

Antonia said...

yes it is a very austrian book. I meant the published interviews, the real ones...when I remember as I read Malina for the first time I found it really tough going, too.
In 'The Waves' Virginia Woolf goes to the extremes, too...but differently in some sense...
very nice post,alok :)

Alok said...

I want to read The Waves and other virginia woolf books too. I have only read Mrs Dalloway that too in a very shallow way.

Nicolas Poblete said...

Hi ALok, I came across your site looking for Bachmann's info. I have just finished Malina for the second time. It's one of my favorite novels. Thanks for your interest in non-mainstream literature! That's inspiring these days.
ps. Did you know that T. Bernhard took Ingeborg as a main character in one of his latest novels? (He admired her immensely).

Alok said...

Hi Nicolas, Thanks for taking time to read and comment. Yes, I think it was in Bernhard's extinction. he based one of his characters on bachmann. I haven't read it yet but want to.

Red Squirrel said...

Thanks for the review! You helped me understand some things about the novel.

EG said...

great review - I know it's a very difficult novel but I think you did it justice! Have you looked at any of Elfriede Jelinek's novels? She's another feminist austrian writer you might find interesting...