Friday, April 13, 2007

On Ingeborg Bachmann

I found Ingeborg Bachmann's novel Malina extremely baffling and difficult when I read it a couple of months back. It does have the regular stuff of novels like plot or characters but is written in such an unconventional and mishmash of different styles and voices that it is very difficult to make out the real intent of the writing. The fact that the language is deliberately "un-literary" doesn't make things any easier. I say deliberately because it is not that she is not capable of writing the kind of prose reviewers like to call "beautiful", "vivid" or "lyrical", in fact there is a section in Malina where she tells a fairy tale whose style can well be described by any of these adjectives. Rather, it becomes clear after a while that she is deliberately trying to get away from the language of a conventional novel, get away as far as possible, even if it means loss of coherence and unity that one reasonably expects.

Towards the end of her career she was working on an ambitious cycle of novels which she called Todesarten ("Ways of Dying"). Malina was the only book in the cycle she could complete and publish before her mysterious death in a fire accident. (There is an eerie scene in Malina where the lead female character imagines dying in a very similar fire accident.) The Book of Franza and Requiem of Fanny Goldmann both around hundred pages long are two novellas which were published based on her incomplete drafts and manuscripts. Reading them it doesn't feel incomplete, though one may not know what she might have changed or added in the final draft of the books.

The basic plot in both these novellas follow the same arc as in Malina (all very bleak stuff) -- the lead female character goes through extreme despair because of how she is treated by men around her, then suffers a slow and painful mental collapse and then eventual death (or disappearance, extinction, or an irreversible retreat into silence, they all mean the same thing). (In Malina she disappears into a crack in the wall). One problem in reading these books is that many details are left out and are found in her other stories. Same characters appear and reappear in her other books and in different contexts. The introduction and review essays make these things clear and fill up most of the details but still the idea is to be familiar with her entire oeuvre, then only one can make sense of her work in a really meaningful way.

Like in Malina the Nazi past of Austria looms large in the background in these books too. It is not really that Franza identifies her suffering with those of the Nazi's victims, though she does that too, but rather she feels, at the subconscious level, her personal trauma as just one extension of the historical trauma of the place she comes from i.e Austria. In addition The Book of Franza has a few things to say about colonialism and racism too. In the long third section of the book Franza and her brother go on a tour to Egypt where Franza after some traumatic events hallucinates about "the whites" and their oppression of the natives in the past too. I might be making too much out of this section but it fits with her idea of showing the continuity of fascism in history, a continuity in time and place, both at the personal and the historical level.

Requiem for Fanny Goldmann, the other story in the collection, doesn't succeed as well as The Book of Franza. It is even more fragmentary and it doesn't have the emotional force and the relentlessness of despair of Franza. Still it remains remarkable. I will end with these two paragraphs from the end of the story:

"The open lies which each person surrounds himself with, as well as the open admissions, these also make it all the harder for others to see things as separate and clear. Barely holding these lives together and allowing them to operate in darkness, essentially allowing only the final act to be played out in public under the lights, the force that directs these lives is something other, something in no way noble, but rather unseen, lying within humankind itself and its damnation.

The fact that, until the end, Fanny could not say to Goldmann what she wanted from him, just as she couldn't say to Marek what she expected of him, or that Goldmann could no longer call Fanny whenever he needed her, or that it too so long for Marek to shake her off, all of this is such a long and dark and untellable story (untellable as all stories are). Meanwhile, one can only hold onto what is tangible and look at one's fingers, try to look into someone's eyes, and write down the sentences that are spoken, so that something is said by which one can begin to glimpse what really happened."

10 comments:

nico said...

Hi Alok, how did you find that transition between the texts? I am amazed by Bachmann's scope, but what I really noticed, since my (mal)formation is literary, is the directness of the prose, almost extreme in 'Requiem...', a novella almost devoid of metaphors. In 'Malina' there's still incredible synecdoque and metonymy (like where she hails a taxi and the driver doesn't have a nose), parataxis and so on, but in the 'Book of Franza' and 'Requiem' the display is pure, almost blunt, maybe because they were 'in process'. Still, what an amazing vision for the characters: Marek, "a model pupil of the times [...] he rose to the challenge of the new situation and learned a whole new set of expressions to drop in regard to what was in and what was out". Don't you think that kind of insight remains absolutetly actual, impeccably lucid?

Alok said...

I am not too familiar with all the technical literary terms but I did notice that absence of metaphors or conventional descriptive sentences... that's why I called her style "un-literary", i.e unconventional.

I liked Book of Franza very much. It is I think the best place to start, much less baffling than Malina. I will have to look again now that I read your comment about synecdoche and metonymy. What struck me most, specially in Malina, was how she weaves the Nazi past of Austria in her story, it is obviously symbolic in a way... but is it metaphor? or some thing else?

antonia said...

i always thought the Fanny-story may be not so extreme as Malina or Franza, but it is the one that is most close to reality, most likely to happen.

Alok said...

yes, in fact that was my initial problem with Malina... that it was too unrealistic and extreme.. but then i realized that it was not supposed to be a representational in any conventional sense, and though large parts of the story are autobiographical, still creating an illusion of reality wasn't her aim in writing the book. I don't know may be she wanted to add more things in the Fanny Goldmann story?

antonia said...

I have looked here at the Todesartenproject whcih I have at ho,e these are 5 big volumes, and certainly there are lots more fragments in it than actually had been published. The stpry that had been published is onle a hundred pages or so...maybe one day I write a post about is.

Alok said...

Yes i read about the complete critical edition of the Todesarten project. the translator mentions it in the introduction to this volume. in fact even the title of the Franza book is uncertain. she titled it Der Fall Franza but somewhere in the drafts she wanted to change it to Das Buch Franza. It seems like a really big change -- from psychiatric to something religious and Biblical.. It is interesting in a way because it means that you have do more work as a reader if you are interested in the work and can gain more understanding in the process.

Antonia said...

yes I agree it is as if she would have wanted to make the story more universal with the change of the title...I'll have to look that up and then I'm gonna make a megapost one day about IB. There is a story also in 'Simultan' about Franza, where she is still married and visits her mother in law. Already beginning signs of the gloom.

Alok said...

Yes, I think the story is called "The Barking" in English in the story collection "Three Paths to the Lake". Actually this translation is really good, it comes with a very nice introduction and lots of notes and annotations. They were really helpful.

Antonia said...

yes I think one needs lots of notes with Bachmann. The german Todesarten edition is very beautiful and I remember it cost me a fortune, but I needed to have it. You know, I have a childish pleasure in using her dissertation for mine and quoting her...she wrote on heidegger and planned to prove him all wrong :). This only has to be encouraged. - but to speak of rationality, she's coming from a very strict rational philosophical background, Vienna Circle, those guys were not for the fainthearted. I wonder whether this at least has contributed to this ambivalence in her work re rationality/irrationality, especially in Malina.

Alok said...

She definitely doesn't have any metaphysical or romantic airs about her works. It is I think in the same Austrian tradition as Musil. Totally Unromantic but cautious about rationalism too.

btw, I have sent you a pdf book which discusses her place in the feminist movement and in philosophical tradition. It has a chapter on Wittgenstein vs. Heidegger too.