Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Georg Büchner: Lenz

Literary representations of madness and melancholia are not that uncommon but not many can rival Georg Buchner's short story Lenz in the truthfulness of its depiction and insights into a mind coming apart. (Buchner's play Woyzeck is another masterpiece of the genre, and Werner Herzog's movie adaptation is excellent too.) Lenz is based on the real life events from the life of the eponymous German writer (wiki page here) who was Goethe's contemporary. Lenz, after an attack of paranoid schizophrenia and following an advice from a friend, visited an evangelical minister and philanthropist by the name of Oberlin in the hope of getting some relief. The story describes Lenz's visions, torments and thoughts once he arrives in that mountainous region and ends with his departure for the town of Strasbourgh. Lenz later died in a state of complete madness.

What is most remarkable is that though the account is written in third person, it is so completely allied with Lenz's skewed perspective that it creates an uncanny feeling of inhabiting Lenz's mind and yet maintaining a detached understanding of the subject. For example this passage, it will seem as if it is being described by a detached narrator who is just trying to create a background "effect" before the arrival of the hero, but soon it turns out that it is supposed to show the mental state of Lenz and everything is filtered through Lenz's fractured consciousness. It is breathtaking long sentence...

Only once or twice, when the storm forced the clouds down into the valleys and the mist rose from below, and voices echoed from the rocks, sometimes like distant thunder, sometimes in a mighty rush like wild songs in celebration of the earth; or when the clouds reared up like wildly whinnying horses and the sun's rays shone through, drawing their glittering sword across the snowy slopes, so that a blinding light sliced downwards from peak to valley; or when the stormwind blew the clouds down and away, tearing into them a pale blue lake of sky, until the wind abated and a humming sound like a lullaby or the ringing of the bells floated upwards from the gorges far below and from the tops of the fir trees, and a gentle red crept across the deep blue , and tiny clouds drifted past on silver wings, and all the peaks shone and glistened sharp and clear far across the landscape; at such moments he felt a tugging in his breast and he stood panting, his body leaned forward, eyes and mouth torn open; he felt as though he would have to suck up the storm and receive it within him. He would stretch himself flat on the ground, communing with nature with a joyfulness that caused pain. Or he would stand still and lay his head on the moss, half closing his eyes, and then everything seemed to recede, the earth contracted under him, it grew as small as a wandering star and plunged into a rushing stream that sparkled by beneath him, But these were only moments, and then he would get up clear-headed, stable and calm, as though a shadow-play had passed before him. He had forgotten it all.

Also interesting is that how Buchner presents nature as a destabilising and oppressive force, something diametrically opposite to the romantics, or even the nature descriptions in Goethe's Young Werther.

The story also touches on an interesting philosophical debate surrounding an aesthetic issue. Lenz is vehemently critical of idealists and thinks that only simple mimetic representational role of art is valuable:

He said: God has created the world the way it should be, and we cannot cobble together anything better, we should just try to copy it as best we can. I demand in all things - life, the possibility of existence, and then all is well. There is then no point in asking whether something is beautiful or ugly; the feeling that something has been created possesses life stands above these qualities and is the only criterion in the matters of art. Besides, this is quite a rarity; you can find it in Shakespeare, and we encounter it totally in folk-songs and sometimes in Goethe. All the rest can be thrown in the fire.

It is interesting because the story itself is far from a representation of the objective world. Indeed, one of the sources of Lenz's madness is that he is not able to extricate his own consciousness from that of the outside world and that he thinks the whole world is just a figment of his imagination and extension of his own mind.

I had read Woyzeck before but I am yet to read his other plays. He didn't write much, in fact it comes as a shock to learn that he died at a ridiculously young age of 23 from Typhus. It is even more surprising because he doesn't come across as just another intuitive genius, or at least not just that, but someone who had spent a lot of time reading and thinking about other people's ideas and forming his own opinions before expressing it in his writing. I will post about some of his other works later.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Filmgoing Notes

If you are a movie-lover and live in and around New York City there are busy weekends ahead for you. First the wonderful BAM cinemathek is holding a retrospective of films by Japanese director Shohei Imamura who died last year. Shamefully I haven't seen any of his films yet. I will definitely try to be there as and when it is possible.

Also, fans of Abbas Kiarostami should head over to the Museum of Modern Art which is organizing a complete exhibition of his works (first ever in the US), including his early didactic short films and recent video installations. I have already seen his major films, A Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, Close-up and Ten (the first and the last are my favourites, the two "car-movies") but will see if I can make it to some other movies that I have not seen.

Sunday, February 25, 2007


Susan Sontag said she wanted to see it every year for the rest of her life. For me I think two times will be enough. I was at the BAM cinemathek yesterday and saw it for the second time (first time on big screen). There were two intervals of fifteen minutes each but still a major sitzfleisch test, but I passed it successfully, from three in the afternoon to almost eleven in the night, sitting and staring at the screen in the dark! Surprisingly the theatre was completely packed and I don't think anybody walked out before the end, except perhaps for one cat-lover. Tarr has said somewhere that there was vet on the set and the cat wasn't harmed during the filming of the scene. The cat now lives with him.

It is no doubt a great film but as with Werckmeister Harmonies I felt it is too formalist an approach to the subject, eschewing the social, political and philosophical elements of the story, which makes it something of a comparatively limited interest than the source book. I am of course extrapolating from Krasznahorkai's two other books The Melancholy of Resistance and War and War that I have read so far. I hope it gets translated too. It sure will be funnier and even bleaker than the other two.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

"Death of a Reader"

Bhupinder has an apt and a great title for the post. Veteran Journalist and columnist Sham Lal passed away yesterday. The Hindu has more details.

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, in a condolence message, remembered Mr. Sham Lal as a "great editor, a thoughtful writer and a voice of reason, liberal values and patriotism."

Describing him as a "media icon of my generation," Dr. Singh said: "Generations of his readers looked forward to reading his columns for his wit and wisdom and his erudition. I hope his inspiring example will continue to guide Indian journalism."

I read his collection of previously published columns, book reviews and essays "A Hundred Encounters" with great interest and enthusiasm. It was difficult to believe that such erudite and wide ranging articles were published in a newspaper, that too in The Times of India, which has now virtually become the symbol of the death of mainstream intellectual culture in India.

The most impressive and easily recognisable thing about his writing was the manner in which he distanced himself from his subject and yet remain committed to essenntial values of freedom, justice and truth. That was the reason why they remained of great interest even years after they were first written and published. It was in that book that I first came across names of people like Derrida, Adorno, Hobsbawm and so many others. A review of the book from The Tribune and The Hindu.

Fat Girl

What a brilliant film! I just saw it again for the second time. In a way perfect film for valentine's day! Just over eighty minutes, this film has enough vitriol to dissolve year long supply of sentimental mush about sexuality and gender relations. It succeeds because all the rhetorical flourishes are not empty and shallow misanthropic posturing but is built up organically from the roots of the characters, who are also very identifiable types. In this sense it is very different from Breillat's earlier film Romance, which is a complete failure. It is of course extremely cynical and the last scene, with its perverse interpretations of the act of rape may drive even full time feminists crazy. But then they will be missing the main strand of her argument. Her main targets are the the "soar bar theory" and "corked bottle theory" of female sexuality (not my phrases; Anais, the titular fat girl, in a scene says "she is not a soap bar" to her imaginary lovers who are jealous because of her imaginary promiscuities), and it is these ridiculous ideas about sexuality that forces people to invent sentimental lies about themselves and other people. In the process the sexual act and sexuality becomes alienating, rather than a genuine and authentic self-expressionm as it should be. Very highly recommeded! Jim Hoberman has a nice review of the film. (he discusses the whale movie too, just scroll down) Two interviews from Guardian and Village Voice and a profile from Senses of Cinema.

Friday, February 23, 2007

An Excerpt from Anatomy of Melancholy

(A little harsh in my opinion...!)

What breach of vows and oaths, fury, dotage, madness, might I reckon up? Yet this is more tolerable in youth, and such as are still in their hot blood; but for an old fool to dote, to see an old lecher, what more odious, what can be more absurd? and yet what so common? Who so furious? Amare ea aetate si occiperint, multo insaniunt acrius. Some dote then more than ever they did in their youth. How many decrepit, hoary, harsh, writhen, bursten-bellied, crooked, toothless, bald, blear-eyed, impotent, rotten, old men shall you see flickering still in every place? One gets him a young wife, another a courtesan, and when he can scarce lift his leg over a sill, and hath one foot already in Charon's boat, when he hath the trembling in his joints, the gout in his feet, a perpetual rheum in his head, a continuate cough, his sight fails him, thick of hearing, his breath stinks, all his moisture is dried up and gone, may not spit from him, a very child again, that cannot dress himself, or cut his own meat, yet he will be dreaming of, and honing after wenches, what can be more unseemly? Worse it is in women than in men, when she is aetate declivis, diu vidua, mater olim, parum decore matrimonium sequi videtur, an old widow, a mother so long since (in Pliny's opinion), she doth very unseemly seek to marry, yet whilst she is so old a crone, a beldam, she can neither see, nor hear, go nor stand, a mere carcass, a witch, and scarce feel; she caterwauls, and must have a stallion, a champion, she must and will marry again, and betroth herself to some young man, that hates to look on, but for her goods; abhors the sight of her, to the prejudice of her good name, her own undoing, grief of friends, and ruin of her children.

But to enlarge or illustrate this power and effects of love, is to set a candle in the sun. It rageth with all sorts and conditions of men, yet is most evident among such as are young and lusty, in the flower of their years, nobly descended, high fed, such as live idly, and at ease; and for that cause (which our divines call burning lust) this ferinus insanus amor, this mad and beastly passion, as I have said, is named by our physicians heroical love, and a more honourable title put upon it, Amor nobilis, as [4747]Savanarola styles it, because noble men and women make a common practice of it, and are so ordinarily affected with it. Avicenna, lib. 3. Fen, 1. tract. 4. cap. 23. calleth this passion Ilishi, and defines it to be a disease or melancholy vexation, or anguish of mind, in which a man continually meditates of the beauty, gesture, manners of his mistress, and troubles himself about it: desiring, (as Savanarola adds) with all intentions and eagerness of mind, to compass or enjoy her, as commonly hunters trouble themselves about their sports, the covetous about their gold and goods, so is he tormented still about his mistress. Arnoldus Villanovanus, in his book of heroical love, defines it, a continual cogitation of that which he desires, with a confidence or hope of compassing it; which definition his commentator cavils at. For continual cogitation is not the genus but a symptom of love; we continually think of that which we hate and abhor, as well as that which we love; and many things we covet and desire, without all hope of attaining. Carolus a Lorme, in his Questions, makes a doubt, An amor sit morbus, whether this heroical love be a disease: Julius Pollux Onomast. lib. 6. cap. 44. determines it. They that are in love are likewise [4751]sick; lascivus, salax, lasciviens, et qui in venerem furit, vere est aegrotus, Arnoldus will have it improperly so called, and a malady rather of the body than mind. Tully, in his Tusculans, defines it a furious disease of the mind. Plato, madness itself. Ficinus, his Commentator, cap. 12. a species of madness, for many have run mad for women, Esdr. iv. 26. But Rhasis a melancholy passion: and most physicians make it a species or kind of melancholy (as will appear by the symptoms), and treat of it apart; whom I mean to imitate, and to discuss it in all his kinds, to examine his several causes, to show his symptoms, indications, prognostics, effect, that so it may be with more facility cured.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

David Lynch in Cahiers du Cinema

Cahiers du Cinema, the world's most famous film journal, is now available in electronic format (I mean with simulation of print copy and everything and translated into English!) There are lots of goodies for David Lynch fans. If you are one of the heathens the essays and reviews might piss you off. They are a slightly over the top in their praise for his work. There is also an exhibition of David Lynch's paintings and graphic work currently on in Paris. There are images from that too.

Also lots of Lynch related links on this blog.

Also Girish has excerpted an article about the history of the Journal on his blog. There is a nice discussion in the comments section too.

Also I am planning to re-watch Inland Empire when it gets released into the neighbourhood theatre. (I just saw the posters, I don't know the dates.) This time I will try to take down some mental notes. Of course, if you are in New York you can trek down to the IFC Center where it is still going strong after three months since its release.

Update:Greencine Daily points to another magazine which has Lynch on its cover.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Some good news for film lovers living in (and around) New York. Three Bela Tarr films, all masterpieces (I've seen all three), including the seven hour long monster Satantango, are getting screened at the BAM Cinemathek in Brooklyn. I have already got the tickets for Saturday show of Satantango. Whew! It is things like these which somehow keep me excited otherwise I feel like dropping dead just out of tedium vitae.

Also more than two years after its world premiere in the Berlin Film Festival, Tsai Ming-Liang's tale of alienation, loneliness, porn and water melon, The Wayward Cloud is getting its first American theatrical run at the super specialised Anthology Film Archives (scroll down). I don't think I will be able to cram both in this coming weekend but will try. Needless to say, if you are around you shouldn't miss either. I have some doubts about Wayward Cloud, specially after I read about it. Taking potshots at porn from a sociological angle seems, well, a little too easy for me. I will anyway watch it and try to post about it too.

In other news, the Musil reading project is going fine. I just finished chapter 99, which is around 500 pages. Only 1200 more pages remain. I think I will read the first volume (200 more pages) and leave the rest for a little later. In the meanwhile I have to learn a few basic things about metaphysics in German philosophy, Nietzsche, specially his ethics, philosophy of science and also philosophy of consciousness ("self", "intentionality", "mind-body problem" etc.) Then read at least a few chapters of the first volume again. This is one book meant mostly for people who have a few degrees in philosophy. But it is philosophy done with a great style and that's what has kept me going even though I am mostly vague about all the aforementioned topics.

Also the more I read Austrians, the more I am getting impressed. They are sharp, bilious, intelligent, misanthropic, unsentimental and they don't suffer fools or nonsense gladly. They are all one uncompromising bunch, interested only in extremes, in every sense of the word, whether it is how they say or what they say, no half-measures for them. Next on the line are Peter Handke (one of whose books is called "A Sorrow Beyond Dreams"), Elias Canetti (about whose novel Auto-da-fe, Salman Rushdie says, "In Auto-da-Fé no one is spared. Professor and furniture salesman, doctor, housekeeper, and thief all get it in the neck. The remorseless quality of the comedy builds one of the most terrifying literary worlds of the century") and also Hugo von Hoffmannsthal, who I recently came across and whose novel Lord Chandos Letter looks enormously interesting. Also I have to read the rest of the oeuvre of Thomas Bernhard and Ingeborg Bachmann. And also I have to look for a copy of "Wittgenstein for Idiots" or some similar book. I am excited even though always feeling very tired and sleepy even at work, or actually, specially at work. I am just a little worried about my mental health right now. I fear I will turn into one of those people inside these books. We'll see. I will keep this blog updated.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Proustian Wisdom

Had my parents allowed me, when I read a book, to pay a visit to the country it described, I should have felt that I was making an enormous advance towards the ultimate conquest of truth. For even if we have the sensation of being always enveloped in, surrounded by our own soul, still it does not seem a fixed and immovable prison; rather do we seem to be borne away with it, and perpetually struggling to pass beyond it, to break out into the world, with a perpetual discouragement as we hear endlessly, all around us, that unvarying sound which is no echo from without, but the resonance of a vibration from within. We try to discover in things, endeared to us on that account, the spiritual glamour which we ourselves have cast upon them; we are disillusioned, and learn that they are in themselves barren and devoid of the charm which they owed, in our minds, to the association of certain ideas; sometimes we mobilise all our spiritual forces in a glittering array so as to influence and subjugate other human beings who, as we very well know, are situated outside ourselves, where we can never reach them.

--from Swann's Way, Scott Moncrieff Translation

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Vive L'Amour

This is a scene from Tsai Ming-Liang's Vive L'Amour... a crying scene like no other...

A memorable description from Dennis Lim in Village Voice.

In a scene saturated with the perversely lucid regret of a bleary morning-after, she walks through a desolate park at daybreak, seats herself at a bench, and starts to cry—an implacable tidal wave with a life of its own, going beyond surrender, beyond absurdity, beyond catharsis, right into the realm of fables. The fade to black arrives just as you've convinced yourself she could go on weeping forever.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

Laszlo Krasznahorkai: War and War

Laszlo Krasznahorkai's first novel to be translated into English, The Melancholy of Resistance, won the "Dispatches from Zembla book of the year" award last month (Details here. And yes, its German translation also won the book of the year award in Germany, just in case!). War and War his second and only other novel to be translated was published only last year, more than a decade after it was first published in Hungarian. It is engrossing but very difficult to read and even more difficult to conclude what it all means in the end. Melancholy of Resistance wasn't easy to read either, but since I had seen the movie Werckmeister Harmonies which is adapted from the novel, I was aware of the basic plot and events described in the novel and I could marvel at his style and apocalyptic and satiric tone without distraction. The basic story was easier to decipher too. The dead whale of the circus was obviously the dead Leviathan, which connects it through the pessimistic political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes, to death of authority, to death of God and to anarchy, chaos and destruction. Also the shadowy figure who is known as "Prince" is perhaps "the prince of darkness," which again points to destruction and chaos. The metaphor of the history of western music and the theories of temperament are pretty obvious too. There is no harmony, no order to be found in nature. All is chaos, entropy and doom.

War and War resists such reading. At least for me, I couldn't make much of what was happening. The plot is simple and spare, if a little bizarre and odd. A Hungarian archivist Gyorgy Korin has come across a mysterious manuscript who he thinks is a work of exceptional beauty and importance. In fact such is its importance that he must travel all the way to new york, "the centre of the living world", and consign it to the eternity by typing it on the internet and once this last mission of his life is over, he must commit suicide. He is obviously "insane" and like many of the similar characters in the novels of Thomas Bernhard, he is also very eloquent. (One of the characters calls him a "word nut"). Most of the novel is Korin's narration of the mysterious manuscript in his own breathless style as he types it on his computer. In the process he also meets a few unsavoury characters. He finally manages to type the entire thing and comes back to Switzerland where he takes his own life. This incident is not narrated in the book. Instead we see the image of a plaque informing that "this is the place where Gyorgy Korin, the hero of the novel War and War by Laszlo Krasznahorkai shot himself in the head." And also, "Search as he might, he could not find what he had called the Way Out." There is even a blackened page, just like in Tristram Shandy, as a mark of mourning. The novel ends with an epilogue titled "Isaiah has come," in which Korin rants against humanity and about meaninglessness of history and threatens suicide. Perhaps something that happened earlier. Also you can check what finally happened to his manuscript by clicking on http://www.warandwar.com/.

The main source of bafflement for me was the content of the manuscript. It tells the story of the adventures and journeys of four men through various historical time and places, rome, crete, cologne, and in various centuries. I couldn't figure the head or tail of what it all meant. My guess is that it is all meant to signify the meaninglessness of human history, the antithesis of the idea of historical progress or the Hegelian idea that history is a rational process. In the beginning Korin even says that he finds the idea the history and truth have anything to do with each other extremely ridiculous. It is also evident in the title of the manuscript (the same as the novel). It is all war and war, one war after the another, a sequence of destructive events. If it is indeed what he wants us to conclude, it is clearer and more effectively done in the melancholy of resistance.

Despite all the obscurities and difficulties it holds one's attention because of its style, its chapter length sentences -- every chapter in the novel is one single sentence -- and the breathless stlye of narration. This is one of the passages where Krasznahorkai is more explicit in his themes:

What had happened to him--Korin shook his head as if he still could not believe it--was, at the beginning, almost inconceivable, nigh unbearable, because even at first glance, following an initial survey of the complex nature of what was involved, one straight look told him that from now on he'd have to abandon his "sick hierarchical view of the world," explode "the illusion of an orderly pyramid of facts" and liberate himself from the extraordinarily powerful and secure belief in what was now revealed as merely a kind of childish mirage, which is to say the indivisible unity and contiguity of phenomena, and beyond that, the unity's secure permanence and stability;and, within this permanence and stability, the overall coherence of its mechanism, that strictly governed interdependence of functioning parts which gave the whole system its sense of direction, development, pace and progress, in other words whatever suggested that the thing it embodied was attractive and self-sufficient, or, to put it another way, he now had to say No, an immediate and once-and-for-all No, to an entire mode of life; [.... On to two more pages]

Some links and reviews I could find (I haven't read them all): Waggish, Ready Steady Book, Hungarian Literature Quarterly

Friday, February 16, 2007

Top 10

This looks like a very interesting book. More than a hundred writers pick up their top 10 books. Complete Review has more details.

Well, I still haven't read so many great books but so far my top 10 looks like this...

  1. In Search of Lost Time: Marcel Proust*
  2. Don Quixote: Miguel de Cervantes
  3. The Castle: Franz Kafka
  4. Dead Souls: Nikolai Gogol
  5. Notes from Underground: Fyodor Dostoevsky
  6. Speak, Memory: Vladimir Nabokov
  7. Gulliver's Travels: Jonathan Swift
  8. The Red and the Black: Stendhal
  9. Tristram Shandy: Laurence Sterne
  10. Eugene Onegin: Alexander Pushkin
*I have read only the first three volumes but I am still sure of its place on top 10.

It is a very eurocentric list (though personally, like the great Russians on my list, I don't consider Russia to be a part of Europe). Also no women writers...

And based on the 400 pages that I have read so far Man Without Qualities might be somewhere on the list too. Somewhere around 4.

"Novel of Ideas"

nice interview of Milan Kundera...

LO: You have provoked many discussions about Central Europe, All of your fiction takes place in Czechoslovakia and even in your theoretical work, The Art of the Novel, Central Europe is very important. Would you mind clarifying just what this notion of Central Europe represents for you, just what its real perimeters are?

MK: Let's simplify the problem, an enormous one, and limit ourselves to the novel. There are four great novelists: Kafka, Broch, Musil, Gombrowicz. I call them the "pleiad" of Central Europe's great novelists. Since Proust, I can't see anyone of greater importance in the history of the novel. Without knowing them, not much of the modern novel can be understood. Briefly, these authors are modernists, which is to say that they are impassioned by a search for new forms. At the same time, however, they are completely devoid of any avant-garde ideology (faith in progress, in revolution, and so on), whence another vision of the history of art and of the novel: They never speak of the necessity of a radical break; they don't consider the formal possibilities of the novel to be exhausted; they only want to radically enlarge them.

From this as well there derives another rapport with the novel's past. There is no disdain in these writers for "tradition," but another choice of tradition: they are all fascinated by the novel preceding the nineteenth century. I call this era the first "half-time" of the history of the novel. This era and its aesthetic were almost forgotten, obscured, during the nineteenth century. The "betrayal" of this first half-time deprived the novel of its play essence (so striking in Rabelais, Cervantes, Sterne, Diderot) and diminished the role of what I call "novelistic meditation." Novelistic meditation--let's avoid any misunderstanding here: I'm not thinking of the so-called "philosophical novel" that really means a subordination of the novel to philosophy, the novelistic illustration of ideas. This is Sartre. And even more so Camus. La Peste. This moralizing novel is almost the model of what I don't like. The intent of a Musil or a Broch is entirely different: it is not to serve philosophy but, on the contrary, to get hold of a domain that, until then, philosophy had kept for itself There are metaphysical problems, problems of human existence, that philosophy has never known how to grasp in all their concreteness and that only the novel can seize. This said, these novelists (particularly Broch and Musil) made of the novel a supreme poetic and intellectual synthesis and accorded it a preeminent place in the cultural totality.

These authors are relatively little known in America, which I have always considered an intellectual scandal. But really it is a matter of an aesthetic misunderstanding that is quite comprehensible when one considers the particular tradition of the American novel. In the first place, America didn't live through the first half-time of the history of the novel. In the second, at the same time that the great Central Europeans were writing their masterpieces, America herself had her own great "pleiad," one which would influence the entire world and which was that of Hemingway, Faulkner and Dos Passos. But its aesthetic was entirely opposed to that of a Musil! For example: a meditative intervention of the author into the narrative thread of his novel appears in this aesthetic as a displaced intellectualism, as something foreign to the very essence of the novel. A personal recollection: The New Yorker published the first three parts of The Unbearable Lightness of Being--but they eliminated the passages on Nietzsche's eternal return! Yet, in my eyes, what I say about Nietzsche's eternal return has nothing to do with a philosophic discourse; it is a continuity of paradoxes that are no less novelistic (that is to say, they answer no less to the essence of what the novel is) than a description of the action or a dialogue.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Musil Links

I am trying to catch up with The Man Without Qualities. It is not really a difficult book to read, it doesn't have the long and complex sentences of Proust but the ideas are very complex. On more than a few occasions I had to skip a few passages carrying with me only a vague understanding of what Musil is really saying. If one is familiar with the philosophical background, specially the critics of the enlightenment tradition and scientific worldview and also various sociological theories of "Modernity" one will have an easy time with the text.

Anyway, I had copied a long introductory essay on Musil's life and MwQ a few days ago on the blog and posted it with an earlier date because it is very long. It was fist published in the new republic. (It is not entirely legal and if you feel the same, you should get a subscription to the magazine! And now those guys have said sorry for cheer-leading the Iraq war too!)

Also there are a bunch of essays on this website dedicated to Musil, including a couple by J M Coetzee. (He is his usual pedantic self. He is berating the editors, both English and German, for calling the volumes under review "diaries" rather than "notebooks" which is what he claims they actually are!)

The best essay however is the one by literary critic George Steiner. It is also a great defence of "novel of ideas" and the idea of a novelist as an original thinker, something that is rarer in the anglo-american tradition of the novel. (There are some spelling and punctuation typos but still worth reading.) He compares Musil with Proust about whom he says:

By contrast, if the notion of literature should disappear, Proust's place in intellectual life would remain eminent. He is, after Aristotle and Kant, one of the seminal thinkers on aesthetics, on the theoretical and pragmatic relations between form and meaning. His analyses of the psychosomatic texture of human emotions, of the phenomenology of experience, are of compelling philosophical interest. Even in his lifetime, it became a cliché to set "Proust on time" beside Einstein and the new Physics. "A la Recherche du Temp Perdu" is interwoven with motif of epistemology, philosophy of art (including music), and ethical debate which nevertheless have their own independent status. Only Musil provides a counterpart.

Also via Waggish, this is an informative article about Walther Rathenau, who was the foreign minister of Germany and also an extremely successful business tycoon and one of the leading intellectuals of his time. One of the main characters in the book, Paul Arnheim, is modeled after him. He is a rather quixotic figure who is trying to bring about "a union of soul and economics" and is also trying to "bring philosophy to the corridors of power". He even likes to use "Bergsonian philosophy" in determining the correct coal pricing. He doesn't hesitate to give pompous philosophical justifications for the profiteering activities of his fellow businessmen. He is their philosophical face and also a representative and a caricature of a "modern" and "rational" man.

It is also a little strange reading his satirical exegesis of the old world order just when it was breaking apart. (The main action of the novel is set in 1913, one year before the great war.) When ridiculing the idea of "global European spirit," that the Austro-Hungarian empire stood for, for example he just comes across as extremely cynical. Cynicism is in a way justified given the fact that the so-called European spirit was soon subsumed into petty and barbaric nationalisms but he could have at least shown some sympathy with the original idea. Similarly knowing the eventual fate of Rathenau (he was murdered by right-wing anti-semitic fanatics), it is jarring to read how he makes fun of his character. As Waggish says:
Musil’s engagement with Arnheim/Rathenau is total, but by 1934, it could not have seemed relevant. He was attacking an Enlightenment-derived ideology in one of the better statesmen of the century while National Socialism had taken over the world around him. Excavation of a flawed “frame” was hardly noticeable while the house was on fire.

May be this was the reason why he couldn't finish the book. It is also very interesting to compare his attitude to that of Joseph Roth who wrote on the same subject but whose books and stories, such as The Radetzky March or The Bust of the Emperor, are filled with painful longing and melancholia about the demise of the old order. As one of the characters in MwQ (the count I think) says, "there is no voluntary turning back when it comes to history of human affairs." There is no turning back, even when it is all doom and destruction ahead! I can't complain about Musil being pessimistic, just that I find his distrust and skepticism about the empire hard to swallow.

Some Friendly Advice from The Anatomy of Melancholy...

...on why one should practice moderation when it comes to matters of venereal nature :)

You have heard how this tyrant Love rageth with brute beasts and spirits; now let us consider what passions it causeth amongst men. Improbe amor quid non mortalia pectora cogis? How it tickles the hearts of mortal men, Horresco referens,—I am almost afraid to relate, amazed, and ashamed, it hath wrought such stupendous and prodigious effects, such foul offences. Love indeed (I may not deny) first united provinces, built cities, and by a perpetual generation makes and preserves mankind, propagates the church; but if it rage it is no more love, but burning lust, a disease, frenzy, madness, hell. Est orcus ille, vis est immedicabilis, est rabies insana; 'tis no virtuous habit this, but a vehement perturbation of the mind, a monster of nature, wit, and art, as Alexis in Athenaeus sets it out, viriliter audax, muliebriter timidium, furore praeceps, labore infractum, mel felleum, blanda percussio, &c. It subverts kingdoms, overthrows cities, towns, families, mars, corrupts, and makes a massacre of men; thunder and lightning, wars, fires, plagues, have not done that mischief to mankind, as this burning lust, this brutish passion. Let Sodom and Gomorrah, Troy, (which Dares Phrygius, and Dictis Cretensis will make good) and I know not how many cities bear record,—et fuit ante Helenam, &c., all succeeding ages will subscribe: Joanna of Naples in Italy, Fredegunde and Brunhalt in France, all histories are full of these basilisks. Besides those daily monomachies, murders, effusion of blood, rapes, riot, and immoderate expense, to satisfy their lusts, beggary, shame, loss, torture, punishment, disgrace, loathsome diseases that proceed from thence, worse than calentures and pestilent fevers, those often gouts, pox, arthritis, palsies, cramps, sciatica, convulsions, aches, combustions, &c., which torment the body, that feral melancholy which crucifies the soul in this life, and everlastingly torments in the world to come.

Notwithstanding they know these and many such miseries, threats, tortures, will surely come upon them, rewards, exhortations, e contra; yet either out of their own weakness, a depraved nature, or love's tyranny, which so furiously rageth, they suffer themselves to be led like an ox to the slaughter: (Facilis descensus Averni) they go down headlong to their own perdition, they will commit folly with beasts, men leaving the natural use of women, as Paul saith, burned in lust one towards another, and man with man wrought filthiness."

David Lynch in London

David Lynch is now on London tour with his Inland Empire. The Guardian has a transcript of the interview conducted at the NFT. Has this interesting information in particular.. he asks his polish visitors, "if they could get me nude women at night to photograph." (the film has some scenes of nude polish prostitutes singing pop songs!)

Q10: What is it about Poland that made you decide to film Inland Empire there, and with Polish actors as well?

DL: A car arrived and five or six guys get out and come into my house. And they're from Lodz, Poland, and they say they're from the Camerimage film festival. They're the greatest bunch, these guys who run the festival, the hardest workers. They've been putting on this festival for 14 or 15 years now, on their own against all odds and it gets bigger and bigger every year. Really beautiful. They invited me over there and I asked them if I went there, because I heard there were factories, so I asked if they could get me into factories so that I could photograph, and if they could get me nude women at night to photograph.

Also some video excerpts from the interview.

More posts on Lynch coming up. Last Sunday I saw Lynch's Dune adaptation, a disaster but a very interesting disaster. Will write about it later. I have also caught hold of his new book "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity". I am not really into all this but still it is David Lynch...

I also wanted to link to this great post on house next door. It is a fantastic discussion on cinema and new technologies, specially digital video. They discuss David Lynch in detail too.

Monday, February 12, 2007

The Rings of Saturn Art Exhibition

The Guardian Review has details about an art exhibition inspired by W G Sebald's The Rings of Saturn, which is a (highly idiosyncratic) account of his travels through the coastal regions of East Anglia:

Before he stopped in Middleton, Sebald's fictional self went to Dunwich, one of the most important towns in medieval England, with possibly as many as 18 churches, before it was lost to sea. It was also a place of pilgrimage, in the Victorian age, for melancholy poets such as Swinburne, who described it as "a land that is lonelier than ruin". In Guy Moreton's photographs of the ruins of St Andrew's, Walberswick, captured with a 10inx8in camera, we get a sense of that dissolution. Lonely, yes, but the images are so dense, rich and sensual we nearly forget that they are recording the continual process of decay.

Moreton reminds us that faith erected these places, places that were once inhabited, active, hopeful. They are symbols of eternal life crumbling into dust and ash. By portraying them in quiet dignity, he gives us an assurance of their still-sacred value. The photos are accompanied by Alec Finlay's watercolours, reinforcing that spiritual symbolism. Finlay has transformed bell-methods, usually represented by number sequences, into rows of concentric primary-coloured circles.

More on the exhibition here.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

from The Nightmare Before Christmas

from one of my all time favourite animation films...

The Oogie-Boogie song. If you are sentimental about Santa Claus please don't click!

More scenes and songs:

Lock, Shock and Barrel are planning to Kidnap "Mr. Sandy Claws". Same warning is applicable here too.

And two of my other favourites. Jack's Lament and Sally's Song

"Down with Love"

I love this picture! From the latest "grouchy valentine" issue of washington post book world titled "down with love." The first book review (or at least the book being reviewed) seems more like a case of sour grapes ("Love good, Sex bad!").

It seems strange to have to state the obvious all over again: Both males and females should work hard to gain another's affection and trust. And one's sexuality is not a commodity that, given away too readily and too often, will exhaust or devalue itself. Tell girls that it is such a commodity (as they were told for a number of decades), and they will rebel. The author is conflating what the girls refuse to conflate: love and sexuality. Sometimes they coexist, sometimes not. Loving, faithful marriages in which the sex life has cooled are as much a testament to that fact as a lustful tryst that leads nowhere.

Another one about women having mediocre sex lives and what should be done about it...

Maybe you're tired. Or you just don't feel like it. Perhaps it's your lover's fault; he doesn't know what you like. Or there's no time, the kids take all your attention, your job drains the life out of you. Or the dishes need to be done, the laundry has to be folded, and your body is not what it used to be. Or maybe you've never understood what all the fuss is about. It's easy to find reasons not to have sex.

Just in case the psychology claptrap is boring, here's an old column by Michael Dirda, Book World's editor, on the history and representation of love in French Literature... Also in the latest issue Dirda reviews a book about the friendship of Wordsworth and Coleridge. Such a shame, Wordsworth's philosophy and romanticism looks so out of place in our world. almost a cliche...

I am reading about Love too (and I am not grumpy or grouchy at all!). The Man Without Qualities isn't a very romantic book (Musil basically says that there is a big gaping hole where we thought we had a "soul"). Though it has some great passages about love, written in a very peculiar and ironic style, like this one:
Neither Diotima not Arhnheim had ever loved. [...]This shrewd man, although imbued with experience of life, was still untouched and in danger of being parmanently alone when he met Diotima, whom destiny had destined for him. The mysterious forces within them converged. It could be compared only with the movement of the trade winds, the Gulf Stream, the volcanic tremors of the earth's crust; forces vastly superior to those of man, akin to the stars, were set in motion from one to the other, overriding such barriers as hours and days, measureless currents. At such moments the actual words spoken are supremely unimportant. Rising from the vertical creases of his trousers, Arnheim's body seemed to stand there in the godlike solitude of a towering mountain. United with him through the valley between them, Diotima rose on its other side, luminous with solitude, in her fashionable dress of the period with its puffed sleeves on the upper arms, the artful pleats over the bosom widening over the stomach, the skirt narrowing again below the knees to cling to her calves. The glass-bead curtains at the doors cast moving reflections like ponds, the javelins and arrows on the walls trembled with their feathered and deadly passions, and the yellow volumes of Calman-Levy on the tables were as silent as lemon groves. We will reverently pass over the first words spoken.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

from The Man Without Qualities

My literary tour of Austria continues. After Bernhard, Jelinek, Bachmann, Roth, Schnitzler, Freud, now it's the turn of what is generally considered the greatest work of Austrian (or Central European) literature-- The Man Without Qualities by Robert Musil. I have read around 200 pages so far and it has been more entertaining and much easier to read than what I had expected it to be. It is surprisingly very funny and the tone is predominantly satirical, in a good humoured sort of way, even when he goes all ballistic on the desolations and the shallowness of the modern world. I read somewhere that it gets serious, bleak and slow towards the end but so far it is a rollicking read. I will try to write down a summary of whatever I have read sometime (to keep track of my own reading more than anything else). For now here is a very enlightening extract which explains the title of the novel and the central character of the book and also elucidates the central idea of the novel -- that in the modern world man has lost his "essence", "soul" or "qualities" as scientifically minded Musil would prefer to call it. It is conversation between a couple, Walter and Clarisse, who are boyhood friends of Ulrich, the titular man without qualities.

Walter said vehemently: "Today it's all decadence! A bottomless pit of intelligence! He is intelligent, I grant you that, but he knows nothing about the power of the soul in full possession of itself. What Goethe calls personality, what Goethe calls mobile order-- those are the things he doesn't have a clue about!"[...]

"There are millions of them nowadays," Walter declared. "It's the human type produced by our time!"[...] "Just look at him! what would you take him for? Does he look like a doctor, a buisenessman, a painter or a diplomat?"

"He's none of those," Clarisse said dryly.

"Well, does he look like a mathematician?"

"I don't know -- how should I know what a mathematician is supposed to look like?"

"You've hit the nail on the head! A mathematician looks like nothing at all--that is, he is likely to look intelligent in such a general way that there isn't a single specific thing to pin him down! Except for the Roman Catholic Clergy, no one these days looks the way he should, because we use our heads even more impersonally than our hands. But mathematics is the absolute limit: it already knows as little about itself as future generations, feeding on energy pills instead of bread and meat, will be likely to know about meadows and young calves and chickens!"


"His appearance gives no clue to what his profession might be, and yet he doesn't look like a man without a profession either. Consider what he's like: He always knows what to do. He knows how to gaze into a woman's eyes. He can put his mind to any question at any time. He can box. He is gifted, strong-willed, open-minded, fearless, tenacious, dashing, curcumspect--why quibble, suppose we grant him all these qualities--yet he has none of them! They've made him what he is, they've set the course for him, and yet they don't belong to him. When he is angry, something in him laughs. When he is sad, he is up to something. When something moves him, he turns against it. He'll always see a good side to every bad action. What he thinks of anything will always depend on some possible context--nothing is, to him, what it is; everything is subject to change, in flux, part of a whole, of an infinite number of wholes presumably adding up to a superwhole that, however, he knows nothing about. So every answer he gives is only a partial answer, every feeling only an opinion, and he never cares what something is, only how it is--some extraneous seasoning that somehow goes along with it, that's what interests him. I don't know whether I am making myself clear--?"

[...] By the time he finished he had recognized that Ulrich stood for nothing but this state of dissolution that all present-day phenomena have.

Friday, February 09, 2007

The Spirit of the Beehive

Seeing Pan's Labyrinth last week reminded me of this marvelous Spanish film The Spirit of the Beehive that I saw sometime back. It is not only set in the same time and political background as Pan's Labyrinth but also shares many thematic elements specially in the way it deals with childhood and imagination. It is directed by Victor Erice and was released in 1973. I wanted to post something about it at that time, even wrote a few lines but then found it a little too difficult and then got distracted. In a way it is a very difficult film to write or talk about because most of its power comes from its elusive visual design and and the ideas and feelings that it provokes aren't very easy to articulate, or even to understand. This is a film about childhood but meant for adults. It evokes feelings of desolation, despair and loss but not as we generally understand from the dictionary meaning of these words but it is something as experienced by children, when they are still living in the "age of magic," and helplessly try to understand and make sense of the world around them using whatever mental and imaginative resources they have at their disposal at that stage.

The story is set in the early 40's Spain. The disastrous civil war has almost ended but Franco's forces are still searching and killing the rebel fugitives. It is set in the plains of the Castile region of Spain, most famous for being the home of Spain's greatest literary hero Don Quixote (La Mancha is in the same province.) It is a strikingly beautiful setting but not in a conventional way. There is something desolate and particularly haunting about the landscape. Needless to say, Victor Erice's camera exploits the landscape to a hilt and the film has that "Antonioni-Look" specially in the outdoor scenes.

At the center of the story are two girls. Ana, who is six years old and her elder sister Isabel who is a few years older. The film begins with the arrival of a a film by a traveling projection system in the local makeshift theatre of the village (people bring their own chairs and mattresses.) The new film is the classic original Frankenstein directed by James Whale with Boris Karloff in the titular role. The two girls, go to see the new film too and are immediately struck by its images. Specially the younger Ana who can't understand why the monster kills the girl in the movie and why people then kill the monster. She is more baffled and mystified than she is frightened by the story and its images. What she wants is just to understand. (In the documentary accompanying the DVD Erice says that it was her "actual" reaction as she was watching it for the first time and for th real. He shot the scene as a documentary.) Her elder sister is already past that age of magic and can distinguish between fact and fiction. She is also a big-time manipulator of her younger sister's innocence. She tells her that Frankenstein is a spirit and you can call him just by saying her name ("It's me, Ana") and if he thinks you are his friend he will come to you. This makes a startling impression on Ana and everything around her soon becomes magical and mystical. In this state of hyperactive imagination when she is associating her impressions of the world into her own private narrative she comes across a fugitive from the civil war in an isolated barnyard and mistakes him for the monster friend. Soon the violence of the real world intervenes and unable to comprehend and confronted by her father she runs away from home and has some mysterious and mystical experience in the night (I won't say what.) The film ends with the scene with Ana on the balcony of her room, in the dead of the night, remembering what her sister said to her, that you just have to say "It's me, Ana" and the monster will reappear but then she doesn't say it and comes back to her room and in a way showing that the age of magic is over for her looking forward to the adult world. In this way, it is noticeably different from the closed ending of Pan's Labyrinth which doesn't leave any room for future at all. (I don't know which ending is bleaker. Depends on one's worldview!)

Representing children's subjectivity in all its complexities is an extremely difficult task. It is perhaps an impossible one, in a larger technical and philosophical sense, given the very language of representation (whether visual or linguistic) and the philosophical "categories" that it is based on, belongs to the realm of adults. It is even more difficult if one wants to avoid fantastic elements in the storytelling. The Spirit of the Beehive succeeds brilliantly because it uses a fantastic story (that of Frankenstein) as a part of its own realistic story and makes its point by identifying parallels and alluding to it in different ways. In one of the scenes Ana asks her mother whether spirits are good or bad, to which her mother answers that they are good to good girls and bad to bad girls. And in a scene later in the film she has gone for mushroom hunting where her expert father teaches both her and her sister how to differentiate a good mushroom from a poisonous one. She identifies one but then learns that it is deadly and poisonous. It is a very subtle scene and it shows effectively and with all complexities the way she is grappling with the moral questions (or the philosophical categories of the adult world). There are many such scenes in the film, specially the one where her sister feigns death.

The film doesn't spend too much time with the adults and they are mostly seen through the eyes of Ana. They come across as forlorn and self-absorbed figures, like people who haven't yet come to terms with the traumas that they have gone through in the past years. In fact the images and two brief monologues that the parents have for themselves are all drenched in the most unremitting melancholia. In that way, the film also comes across as a work of mourning. It is finally about remembering and acknowledging the loss, even though it is only through the eyes of the child, the things that adults are not willing to do or they think they are not strong enough to do. In one of the key scenes at the end, the mother finally burns the letter that she keeps on writing to a relative or a lover (it is never made clear who the addressee is). Also the father who is an amateur beekeeper and is writing a poetic essay on the titular topic comes to some realization, though again it is never made clear and we only hear fragments of the essay. Something like how bees go about in their meaningless labour, meaningless in the sense that they are not aware of their larger role in the functioning of the beehive, and how the obvious parallels it has with human beings and their larger role in the catastrophes of history (that's my conclusion, the film doesn't say anything about what the title might mean).

Ana Torrent (who plays Ana) is a magical presence and so is every other figure in the film. I think it must be one of the greatest child characters ever (I am not talking of fantasy movies here). Perhaps alongwith the kid in The Bicycle Thief or the two kids in The Night of the Hunter (two of my other favourite films.) I read somewhere that Victor Erice felt guilty after the film about robbing a few years of her childhood from her. In a moving documentary (which comes as an extra on the criterion dvd) we see the grown up Ana traversing the same places she inhabited more than twenty years ago. He obviously doesn't remember much. (Also it is slightly jarring to see her smoking!)

Also, the film has a very distinctive visual and sound design. It was shot with special filters and it shows in its images. Everything is drenched in honeydew kind of colour which again accentuates the mournful atmosphere. Also the flute based musical score avoids easy emotional cues ("feel sad here, now feel happy") and yet comes across as extremely effective in conveying a sense of the inner life of the people inhabiting the story. In short a marvelous film, worth watching again and again (I have seen it three times already!).

More reviews on rotten tomatoes. 100% Fresh, everybody is excited there!!

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Sitzfleisch Test

I'd love to be in Berlin...

"Other highlights include a remastered version of Rainer Werner Fassbinder's classic "Berlin Alexanderplatz," which will be shown in the east Berlin Volksbühne theater in all its 15-hour glory -- a test of any cinephile's Sitzfleisch. Fassbinder's adaptation of Alfred Döblin's classic novel was originally broadcast as a 14-part television series in 1980."
I am guessing Sitzfleisch is a German euphemism for a particular body part. Google translates it to "Seat Meat."

Update: Okay, it is not as racy as I thought. It means, "The ability to endure or carry on with an activity." From here. Nice Word!

From the Eternal War

From the Eternal War
By Gabriele Annan

by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Philip Boehm
Holmes and Meier, 244 pp., $24.95

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.

[1] Translated by Michael Bullock (Holmes and Meier, 1987).

[2] Translated by Mary Fran Gilbert (Holmes and Meier, 1989).

[3] Ingeborg Bachmann, Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden: Gespräche und Interviews (Munich and Zurich: Piper, 1983).

On Borrowed Time

First published in The New York Review of Books

On Borrowed Time
By Gabriele Annan

The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann
by Ingeborg Bachmann, Translated from the German and with an introduction by Peter Filkins
Northwestern University Press, 233 pp., $26.95

In October 1999 the London Guardian published an article by a columnist called Joan Smith. It was entitled "Death and the Maidens," and its theme was that "we live in a culture that fetishizes dead women." In the article Smith points to Marilyn Monroe's suicide as the start of this phenomenon, but doesn't go on naming names: so the Princess of Wales is spared, and so is her almost look-alike, the popular blond TV newscaster Jill Dando, who was mysteriously shot outside her home in a London suburb earlier last year. Her murderer has still not been identified, and her name and face continue to crop up in the British media, sometimes as "the second Diana." Relentless coverage of the more recent murder of a Suffolk schoolgirl was the trigger for Smith's piece.

The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann might have identified the syndrome as a variation on her own obsessive theme: men murder women. She didn't mean murder by shooting or stabbing or poison, but by cruelty and oppression. Her only completed novel, Malina, famously ends with the words "It was murder," after the nameless first-person heroine, a writer, disappears surreally into a crack in the wall, leaving behind the man (or men) responsible for her death. One of these is the lover who left her; the other—possibly more immediately responsible because he has been breaking up her belongings—is—again only possibly—her alter ego.[1] Few things in Bachmann's novels are ever unequivocally clear: it is part of her trademark mystery. She herself died mysteriously and became and still is the kind of fetish Smith seems to have in mind.

She was a wonderful poet who also translated poetry and wrote, aside from Malina, radio plays, essays on literary subjects, opera libretti for Hans Werner Henze (who set some of her poems to music), short stories, and three unfinished novels. Characters from earlier works appear in later ones, and take turns at major and minor roles. She herself was a star, invited to lecture all over Europe, and to collect what sounds like a record number of literary prizes. A book of photographs of her (Ingeborg Bachmann: Bilder aus ihren Leben by Andreas Hapkemeyer[2] ) was published in 1983 and reissued in 1997. It begins with snaps from her dim childhood in the dim Carinthian town of Klagenfurt near the Slovenian border (dim is how she saw it), and follows her metamorphosis into a chic, attractive Viennese; and finally into a woman who is still beautifully blond and well dressed, but has a disturbingly bloated face.

The photographs also reveal what a tireless participant she was in international writers' conferences, symposia, and glamorous intellectual get-togethers of one kind and another, including a seminar organized by Henry Kissinger at Harvard in 1955, when she was twenty-nine. She appears smiling on group platforms and at outdoor café tables, surrounded by other Prominente of the artistic and literary world: Henze, of course; Paul Celan; Max Frisch, the Swiss writer who was her lover from 1958 to 1962; Roberto Calasso and his wife, Fleur Jaeggy; Günter Grass; Gian Carlo Menotti; Willy Brandt; Stephen Spender; and so on. Both her chic and her sociability are unexpected if all you know of her is her painful, introspective, haunted fiction, and her metaphysical poetry—metaphysical in the sense that John Donne and his contemporary poets were. Here is the first stanza of "Die gestundete Zeit," from her first collection, published in 1953:

Harder days are coming.
The loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.
Soon you must lace up your boots
and chase the hounds back to the marsh farms.
For the entrails of fish
have grown cold in the wind.
Dimly burns the light of the lupines.
Your gaze makes out in the fog:
the loan of borrowed time
will be due on the horizon.[3]

Still, Bachmann had a worldly side. She was like Elisabeth, the photographer-heroine of her novella Three Paths to the Lake (1972), who learns in Paris "that it was better to have three dresses by Balenciaga or some other great couturier…than twenty cheaper ones, and though she was obsessed by her work and thought of nothing but improving it, she acquired style, 'class,' as her German friend called it."

Bachmann was always on the lookout for signifiers of class—lower, upper, and aspirationally on the move between the two. Like all Bachmann's heroines—in her outward circumstances even more than most—Elisabeth is a self-portrait; and the story of her cosmopolitan life and loves is framed by a dutiful visit to her aged father in the family home near Klagenfurt. On the other hand, the love of her life—typically for Bachmann's sophisticated literary games—is a man called Franz Josef Trotta, whom readers may—but don't have to—recognize as a scion of the Trotta family from Joseph Roth's famous novel The Radetzky March.

Bachmann died of burns in the intensive care unit of a Roman hospital in 1973, three weeks after a fire destroyed her apartment in the Via Giulia. She had lived in Rome for several years, having moved there from Zurich with Frisch. When he left her in 1962, she suffered a nervous breakdown and was treated in a psychiatric hospital. (She had briefly worked in one as a university student in Vienna, and she had studied psychiatry as well as philosophy.) The cause of the fire was not established; but Bachmann was a great describer of flames, in verse and in prose, and at least one of her heroines fantasizes about dying from a fall onto a lighted kitchen stove. So suicide theorists find their material ready-made, all the more so if they accept what Professor Karen Achberger says in her book on Bachmann: "The cause of death was not the burns, but the convulsions she suffered as part of the withdrawal symptoms from drugs she had been taking, which her doctors were unable to identify in time to save her life."[4]

The two fragmentary novels translated by Peter Filkins, The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, are both case histories of nervous breakdown and part of a quartet Bachmann planned in the 1960s. Malina was the only one she completed. It too is about a nervous breakdown but not so much a case history as a surreal deconstruction. The fourth novel was to be about a woman called Eka Rottwitz who tried to commit suicide by jumping from a building when her lover left her, and ended up in a wheelchair. This draft was so fragmentary that it didn't even make it into the 1978 edition of the collected works. The quartet as a whole was to be called Todesarten, and the critical edition of it by Monika Albrecht and Dirk Götsche[5] runs to 3,055 pages in five volumes, mostly fragments and variora, material for any number of Ph.D.s.

Todesarten could be translated as "Ways of Death" or "Ways of Dying"; certainly not "Death Styles." That bizarre Seventh Avenue label was chosen by Philip Boehm for the translation of Malina he published in 1991.[6] In her book Achberger agrees that Death Styles won't do: not so much because it is inappropriate in its context or just plain wrong—which it is—as because it doesn't carry overtones of Brecht, as she thinks Bachmann intended. Nevertheless, she seems to feel she has to use it, presumably because Boehm's is the only translation she can refer to.

Peter Filkins's translations are not free from errors either. For instance, at a funeral in a Carinthian village church, the local parson preaches a Latin "sermon"—which would have been almost inconceivable in the 1970s; and anyway, Bachmann doesn't mention a sermon at all, only mispronounced Latin and "Sprüche," which could be biblical proverbs or just sayings. And when the coat-check attendant in a café addresses Fanny Goldmann as "gnä' Frau" (dialect for "gnädige Frau") Filkins translates that as "dear lady," but that sounds much too courtly. "Gnädige Frau" is used all the time in German-speaking countries, a fossil term just as "ma'am" is in English, and both would be routine for a shop assistant talking to a customer, or a waiter (or coat-check) to a diner. This isn't meant to be nitpicking: it's just that both these examples (and there could be lots more) distort Austrian customs and ways of talking—however slightly.

The oddest misrepresentation comes in an explanatory note, which claims that members of student fraternities "swear lifelong allegiance to one another and the Austro-Hungarian empire, often by scarring their cheek with a sword." It's true that facial scars used to be taken as a sign of belonging to one of these prestigious fraternities, but they were got by fighting duels, not by scarring one another on purpose (though people were sometimes accused of doing that to themselves in order to fake an upper-class look).

In his Translator's Note, Filkins says that drafts such as Franza and Fanny

provide a great deal of interest for scholars, as well as a window on to what Bachmann might have done to complete the novel if given the chance, so the question then becomes what to include and how to do it in a way that helps the novel to remain readable as well as a faithful "reading" of Bachmann's intent.

In order to make them readable, he had to string together Bachmann's posthumous fragments as best he could (this applies particularly to Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, onto which he has pasted two passages from the Eka Rottwitz draft). Even the order the novels themselves were to follow remains debatable. One might wonder, actually, for whom Filkins is translating. He speaks of "scholars," but what Bachmann scholar would be unable to read German?

As for anyone else, the fragments are really too fragmentary to be enjoyable. Bachmann goes in for mystery, but the mystery here is partly not of her intention. Which bit comes before which? To what person or past event do Franza's or Fanny's thoughts refer? In Franza's case it helps if you have read Bachmann's short story "Das Gebell" ("The Barking"), which explains what led up to the psychological collapse she suffers all the way through The Book of Franza. The story has acquired a reputation for being Bachmann's most accomplished piece of fiction.

In "Das Gebell," Franza (here called Franziska), a girl from the Carinthian sticks, begins to study medicine in Vienna and gives it up to marry a famous psychiatrist called Leo Jordan—a conceited, snobbish, faux-upper-class tyrant who bullies and cows her, and neglects his mother. Franza visits her lonely mother-in-law every day and brings her delicacies. Then one day the visits stop. The old woman is bewildered, and so is the reader. The mystery is solved in the last pages, when Jordan brings his girlfriend Elfi Nemec to visit his mother and Bachmann casually drops the information that two years have passed since—an ending both neat and shattering. Elfi is a model, and reappears in The Book of Franza as a former girlfriend of Franza's brother Martin.

The novel tells what happened to Franza when she stopped looking after old Frau Jordan. She has a nervous breakdown, brought on by Jordan's bullying and the discovery of his affair with Elfi. He shuts her up in a psychiatric clinic. She escapes and joins Martin in the village where they spent their wartime childhood. Martin is much younger than she is, and a geologist. He is preparing a study trip to the Egyptian desert, and to his dismay Franza insists on joining him. She still suffers from convulsions and alternating bouts of raving and speechlessness. Their journey occupies the third and final section of the novel, an emotional travelogue homing in on the suffering of a postcolonial country: poverty, squalor, children trained to prostitution and begging, women overworked and abused, mad people manhandled. Bachmann returns to her favorite theme after the oppression of women by men: the oppression of one race by another, blacks by whites, Jews by Germans and Austrians. All of them are forms of fascism. Still, Franza's health improves, until a stranger rapes her at the foot of a pyramid. Then she commits suicide by banging her head against its stones. The book ends with an inscrutable meditation on the flooding of the Nubian Desert by the Aswan Dam.

The Egyptian chapter reads like a long wail for Franza, for the Egyptian peasants, and for the ancient Egyptian dead, violated by white archaeologists. There are extraordinary evocations of the landscape:

They went into the desert. The light vomited down on them, the vomit of the sky, accompanied by a hot, clean smell. The great sanatorium, the great purgatory from which there is no escape, although it is open on all sides: no escape from it, Arabian, Libyan, with subdepartments, made of fine sand, stony, the stone polished by sand, bizarre stones, everything Saharan. The sanatorium had taken them in.

One passage seems to belong to a completely different genre—a typically disconcerting Bachmann switch. In Cairo, Franza consults an Austrian medical man who lives on a houseboat moored on the most desirable reach of the Nile. The villas and gardens on its banks are vividly described. Dr. Körner turns out to be a former SSdoctor who tried out euthanasia methods on female concentration camp inmates. Franza offers him an envelope containing three hundred dollars she pinched from Martin, and suddenly you realize that she is asking him to help her commit suicide. He refuses; and on her second attempt to see him, he has disappeared. The episode generates the kind of frisson you get from the best psychological thrillers—by, say, Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler—and demonstrates what a virtuoso writer Bachmann could be in almost any genre.

She is at her most beguiling in the first of the three chapters from The Book of Franza, a flashback to Franza and Martin's childhood in their grandparents' village. Both the deaf old people are quite helpless in wartime conditions. So Franza constitutes herself Martin's guardian, and drags him around with her wherever she goes. Their relationship is touching and funny: a mixture of loving protectiveness and exasperation on the sister's side, of devotion and sexual arousal on the little boy's. Fifteen-year-old Franza's infatuation with a sexually unaroused but kindly and helpful British officer is described with immense charm and comic pathos.

In Requiem for Fanny Goldmann the comedy is social and therefore sharper and bitchier, all about class and snobbery—a mode at which Bachmann can compete with Proust. Fanny is born into an upper-class military family with anxiously concealed Nazi connections. Her mother and aunts are a high-comedy quartet of ladies in reduced circumstances. Her father, an army colonel, commits suicide because he is distantly involved in the Dollfuss murder. Fanny goes on the stage, becomes famous as "the most beautiful woman in Vienna," and marries Harry Goldmann, a Viennese Jew who has emigrated and returned as cultural attaché of the American occupation troops. Harry is an oddly faceless figure, a benign silhouette—perhaps Bachmann never got around to filling in his features.

The marriage breaks up because Fanny is jealous of an actress whose talent Harry admires, even though he doesn't love her and does love Fanny, who is beautiful but not particularly talented. Now in her forties, she takes up with Toni Marek, an as yet unpublished writer ten years younger than she is. Marek turns out to be an expensive toy boy and a shit, and before his first novel even appears, he has left Fanny and married a twenty-four-year-old German called Karin—a name Fanny considers ludicrously common. For a while, Karin insists on keeping up what she pretends is a warm, intimate friendship with Fanny—presumably because she is famous and has the entrée to the kind of society Toni aspires to.

When his novel is finally published, it turns out to be based on Fanny's life as she told it to him when they were lovers. He describes their lovemaking and how she would wake up with bad breath. She feels violated, "butchered openly in public, a bleeding pig making small maddening shrieks. And so she lay in bed and released small maddening shrieks and drank and drank the cheapest alcohol she could find at the Bohrer delicatessen." As she goes to pieces, her friends drop her. She tries to commit suicide and muffs it. Soon after, mercifully, she falls ill and dies.

Requiem for Fanny Goldmann is not so much a requiem as another long wail—another feminist wail, though the victim passivity of Bachmann's heroines is very unlike the feisty feminism of today. Fanny is not a first-person narrative, but it is even more of a first-person experience than Franza, with Bachmann crawling into the innermost, frightening, shivery, disgusting crevices of Fanny's collapse into alcoholism. It is an unbearable book, but one can't stop reading it. Bachmann is a remarkable writer. One might want to complain of monotony or repetition in these works, but that's impossible, because they are unfinished. So one must make the best of it and savor her astonishing prose mouthful by mouthful, paragraph by paragraph.

For it really is astonishing. Casual, catty, witty, it has an irresistible, sophisticated, idiomatic charm as it races along in paragraphs of Prous-tian length (deliberately broken up by Filkins in the cause of readability). Then it suddenly halts one in one's tracks by juxtaposing words so unconventionally and unexpectedly that one feels the intense sensations they evoke have always existed but never before been let out of their cages. Here is Franza on the start of her collapse:

How do Ithink, how do I remember? No longer as I did in the past. It's a force that moves through my head, that unrolls itself chronologically, presenting an accumulation of scenes, always the same ones, then I connect them. All I need is a ship's cabin, a glass of water, and Ithink of a glass that was thrown past my head. But then there is more, the next one comes, there are shards of glass, then I arrive at my border, a wall, and I stand there and my lament carries through a large space, one like a desert, without onlookers, without confidantes, facing no one. You utter a word, and Imove with it and I am swept away on a flood of words that washes outward and upward from my head and then back again, breaking over my head. That's how I remember. In a different way.

Bachmann is fiendishly difficult to translate, and Filkins nothing if not brave. But his translation bumps along—it has to—without her distinctive, private German rhythm and her myriad nuances. So it can't quite convey either the charm or the spookiness that she so weirdly combines. She is probably one of those writers whom every generation will feel the need to retranslate.

[1] See my review of Malina in The New York Review, March 5, 1992.

[2] Munich: Piper.

[3] From Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann, translated and with an introduction by Peter Filkins (Marsilio).

[4] Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann (Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature) (University of South Carolina Press, 1995).

[5] Munich: Piper, 1995.

[6] Holmes and Meier.