Sunday, January 14, 2007


First Published in The New Republic

Ruth Franklin

The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann by Ingeborg Bachmann translated by Peter Filkins
(Northwestern University Press, 256 pp., $26.95)

"ABOUT THAT WHICH one cannot speak, one must remain silent": this apparent tautology, the famous last line of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, has often been read as a statement of the predicament of German literature after World War II. The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann came to regard Wittgenstein's formulation as her personal challenge. In an essay on the philosopher, she wondered: "Or could it mean that we've squandered our language because it contains no word that can touch upon what cannot be spoken?" Reclaiming the German language from that squandering would become Bachmann's life project.

From her first book of poetry, Mortgaged Time, published in 1953, to the short story collection Three Paths to the Lake, which appeared in 1973 and was the last of her works published during her lifetime, Bachmann wrestled with the problem of how to make sense of the crimes that Nazi Germany committed during the Holocaust--crimes so new and so shocking that they seemed to poison the German language itself, the essence of the German nation. Eventually Bachmann would come to see the legacy of the Holocaust as a brand of fascism that survived in the private sphere, in the relationships between men and women. At the same time, she would dream of a utopian language that could fill in the gaps, a language that could express the things about which one cannot speak and thus redeem the nearly universal silence of Germans in the face of, and even after, the Holocaust.

Bachmann's major enterprise, which she called Todesarten, or "ways of dying," was to be a prose cycle combining these themes. She died unexpectedly in 1973, having published only parts of it: Malina, a novel, and Three Paths to the Lake. In the tens of thousands of manuscript pages that she left behind were drafts for several other novels and short stories in various stages of completion, including The Book of Franza and "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann." Versions of both these texts were put together for the authoritative edition of Bachmann's collected works, published more than twenty years ago; and neither of them has been available in English until now.

BACHMANN WAS BORN in 1926 in the southeastern Austrian city of Klagenfurt, near the border with Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. (Klagenfurt is the capital of the province of Carinthia, where, more recently, Jorg Haider began his rise to power.) In an interview conducted more than thirty years after the Anschluss, she would refer to the march of Hitler's troops into Klagenfurt as the event that "destroyed" her childhood. "My memories begin with that day," she said. "The terrible brutality that was perceivable, the shouting, singing, and marching--that was the first time I feared for my life." Despite this violent beginning, the war years were comparatively uneventful for Bachmann. Her family remained in Klagenfurt, where she attended high school. After the war, she studied law and philosophy at the University of Vienna, and wrote her dissertation on the critical reception of Heidegger's existential philosophy.

In 1953, soon after the publication of her first book of poetry, Bachmann left Austria for good, moving first to Italy, then to Switzerland, and finally back to Italy, with sojourns along the way in various other countries, including Germany, France, and the United States. She was an active member of Group 47, the organization of German-language writers founded by Gunter Grass, and was a close associate of a number of writers, including Paul Celan. She never married, though she lived for a number of years with the composer Hans Werner Henze and later with Max Frisch, with whom she had an affair of legendary tempestuousness, reportedly driving him so mad that when she was away from him he slept with his face in his own vomit on occasion. She died in 1973 from burns caused by a fire in her apartment, the cause of which was never determined.

In his study of nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that language played a greater role in defining German nationhood than it did in perhaps any other country. By the end of the 1940s, certainly, the devastation Allied bombs had wreaked on Germany's landscape seemed to pervade even the German language. The writing taking shape in its wake, in the bombed-out cities of Berlin and Dresden, came to be called Trummerliteratur, literature of the ruins, and it was marked by its fragmented, stuttering nature. The title of Gunter Eich's "Inventory" tells it all: his poem is little more than a list of items ("This is my cap/ this is my coat ...").

This shocked austerity of style could not sustain itself for long, and by the end of the decade two schools of poetry were taking shape. One, led by Gottfried Benn, was concerned primarily with aesthetics. Benn preached that the lyric, absolved of any political responsibility, should be devoted purely to beauty. "Works of art are phenomenal, historically ineffectual, without consequence in reality," he said. "Therein lies their greatness." It is easy to understand the appeal of this summons to "art for art's sake," arising as it did in a recoil from both the Trummerliteratur and the nationalist propaganda that some poets had felt compelled to write under Nazism. (Benn initially sympathized with National Socialism, but he never joined the party, and he did not publish during the war years.)

Yet the de-politicization of literature in the aftermath of political catastrophe was not acceptable to all, and another school of poetry emerged in opposition. In response to Theodor Adorno's famous pronouncement that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," some poets argued that if post-Holocaust poetry was to be anything but barbaric, it had to be more than just aesthetic: it had to examine, seriously and unflinchingly, the consequences of Nazism. This became the project of the so-called hermetic poets, foremost among them Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and Ingeborg Bachmann. As Bachmann put it, the task of the contemporary poet was not to provide his or her readers with cheerful entertainment, but to jolt them out of their postwar stupor. While the best work of these poets was unquestionably (and almost ironically) as beautiful as any German lyric, it was also unafraid to face the most important issue at stake for German writers in the decades after World War II: the aftermath of the Holocaust.

BACHMANN STARTED HER career as that nowadays unheard-of phenomenon: the celebrity-poet. Blonde, photogenic, and prize-winning, she became the darling of the German-language media with the publication of Mortgaged Time and, close on its heels, Invocation of the Great Bear (1956). She was profiled in Der Spiegel. Critics ranked her with Eliot and Rilke. She was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Frankfurt. And then, abruptly, Bachmann stopped writing poetry altogether. She turned instead to radio plays, and eventually to fiction. Invocation would be her last collection of verse, although she would publish a handful of later poems during the mid-'60s that included some of her best work.

Bachmann's poetry is abstract, metaphysical, mysterious, and symbol-laden, yet at the same time it is stunningly concrete, filled with images of the natural world. Though some of the early poetry gestures ahead to her later preoccupation with gender and power, from the first line of the first poem in Mortgaged Time--"Smoke rises off the land"--she is riveted by the scorched earth of the postwar European landscape. This poem, "Leaving Port," can be read as a depiction of the metaphorical purgative journey that Germans must undergo before their redemption. "[H]ow much longer/will that twisted wood hold out against the storms?" the speaker asks. "There is nothing left of the land." Though the "monsters of the sea" lie in wait, the poem ends with a paean to hard work, the work of knotting ropes and bailing water, of rebuilding and maintaining the ship, and what it stands for:

The best thing is, in the morning,

to rise with the first light,

standing against an immovable sky,

paying no heed to impassable waters,

raising your ship over the waves

toward the sun shore,

the sun shore that always returns.

But other poems, in this collection and afterward, are more direct in their castigation of Germany, and less sanguine about the possibility of resurrecting the German language. "Harder days are coming," warns the collection's title poem in an ominous refrain. "Early Noon" transforms the brightness-bringing sun of "Leaving Port" into a symbol of reckoning.

Where Germany's earth blackens the sky

a cloud looks for words and fills the crater

with silence,

before summer hears its call through the

thin rain.

The unspeakable, softly spoken, steals

over the land:

already it is noon.

Why did Bachmann abandon poetry? The answer is generally thought to be found in the poem believed to be her last, "No Delicacies. "Nothing pleases me anymore," the speaker laments:

Should I

dress a metaphor

with an almond blossom?

crucify syntax

on a trick of light?

Who will beat his brains

over such superfluities--

The crucial question at stake in this poem is, again, the role of the poet, and it is usually read as Bachmann's epitaph to her own poetic career--particularly the last line, which is often translated as something like "My part, it should be dispersed." Most critics have interpreted this line as a negation of the poet's capacity to better the blasted world in which he or she lives; but this reading overlooks a more subtle layer of meaning. In addition to signifying "should," the German verb Bachmann uses here, soll, is also a form of the subjunctive with no direct counterpart in English, used to refer to a claim that is not necessarily true. (Newspapers, for example, will use this construction when describing alleged crimes.) Thus, rather than reading the line Mein Teil, es soll verloren gehen as Bachmann's own pronouncement of a death sentence on her poetry, we can also see it as an ironic yet resigned criticism of those who would scorn her for not abiding by the traditional poet's role: "My part, they would have it lost."

This lament does not represent Bachmann's resignation of the struggle toward a new poetry. It is, rather, a reproach directed at those who advise her to "dress up a metaphor / with an almond blossom." And, instead of disappearing into the limits of language--Wittgenstein's escapism, in her view--Bachmann would give up only poetry, which she had come to see as an overly aesthetic art, a hermetic practice that was inappropriate for addressing a large audience. Growing ever more preoccupied with the human condition and the suffering of her fellow men and women, she turned to fiction and radio plays as a way to achieve greater social and political influence.

"Fascism is the first element in the relationship between a man and a woman," Bachmann declared repeatedly in interviews. It is a startling pronouncement, and an obviously exaggerated one; Bachmann occasionally tended toward hyperbole, particularly when talking to journalists unsympathetic to her ideas. But despite the exaggeration, something very close to the idea in this pronouncement must be recognized as the founding principle behind all her later work. What tempers its extremism somewhat is that while Bachmann certainly placed the blame for women's predicament primarily on men, she saw women not as victimized innocents but as complicit in their own oppression.

The germ of this idea may be located in her poetry, but it is easily missed amid the questions to which the verse returns again and again: the notion of exile, the exploration of the limits of language, the confrontation with the past. Two stories in The Thirtieth Year, Bachmann's first short story collection, which appeared in 1961, hint at it. In "A Step Towards Gomorrah," Charlotte, unfulfilled by her relationship with her husband, is tempted to have a lesbian affair; and the narrator of "Undine Goes," a monologue spoken by a water nymph who has been abandoned by her human lover, rails, "You monsters with your wives!" But the other stories in the book are narrated by men, and, like Bachmann's other early work, they deal primarily with the aftermath of the war.

But as Peter Filkins notes in the introduction to his translation of The Book of Franza, Bachmann had begun work on her Todesarten project as early as the 1950s, and some critics place the beginning drafts even earlier. Although she reconceived much of it after returning from a trip to Africa in 1964, it is nonetheless significant that these novels and stories were not the product of a mid-life epiphany, but serve as a backdrop to Bachmann's entire career. She managed to create lengthy drafts of Franza and "Fanny Goldmann" during the mid-'60s, but she put them aside to work on Malina, which she intended to be the "overture" to the Todesarten cycle. Death prevented her from finishing the project; drafts of other novels intended to be included under its rubric exist, but they are so fragmentary as to be incomprehensible.

Reading Malina, it is hard to imagine that Bachmann was deemed frivolous for turning away from poetry, or that the German popular press judged her womenoriented fiction to be "unintellectual." In the depth of its allusions to other texts (literary and musical) and the virtuosity of Bachmann's writing, which skips lightly from monologue to dialogue to fairy tale and even, to amusing effect, advertising copy and musical notation, Malina can be compared, at least in terms of its complexity, to the most inscrutable works of Joyce or Woolf. Indeed, it is a testament to the novel's difficulty that few critics have been able to agree on the most basic details of its plot, if it can even be said to have one.

Put simply, if that is possible, Malina tells the story of a woman who lives in Vienna and is a writer. This woman, who is never named, is involved in a love affair with a man named Ivan. She lives, platonically, with another man, the writer Malina. Over the course of the novel, the woman gradually disintegrates at the hands of both of these men. At the end, she disappears into a crack in the wall. The book ends with the declaration, "It was murder."

Simple on the surface, this statement is deliberately open-ended. Who was murdered? By whom? Like the other works in the Todesarten cycle, the novel is primarily meant to depict some of the ways in which women are brutalized in their relationships with men. But Bachmann also considered Malina to be in some sense a whodunit. In copy that she wrote for the book's front cover, she asked the reader: "Murder or suicide?" Christa Wolf has famously argued for suicide; but what is interesting about the question, and about the book's ending, is Bachmann's own reluctance to assign blame. Were her position on the brutality of male-female relations as unambiguous as some of her statements suggest, such a question would not be possible.

Most critics see the character of Malina as the narrator's Doppelganger, as Bachmann herself called him, an interpretation that only increases the degree to which the woman is responsible for her own fate. Others see him as the true narrator of the Todesarten cycle. (One of the previously untranslated drafts that Filkins includes as part of his version of "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann" supports this hypothesis.) But the final effect of Malina is frustration. It resists all attempts at neat interpretation; and it is probably best understood as a portrait of a woman's mind in turmoil, with the ending accepted as tantalizingly ambiguous.

FROM ITS FIRST lines, one might think that The Book of Franza were also some sort of murder mystery: "The Professor ... had dug his sister's grave. He had already arrived at this hypothesis before he had the least proof in hand." "He" is Martin Ranner, Franza's brother and the narrator of much of the book. (The ambiguity caused by "his" in the first sentence is a product of the translation. It would be clearer, though more awkward, to say, "The Professor ... had dug Martin's sister's grave," or, sticking more closely to the text, "The Professor ... had been the ruin of Martin's sister.") As in Malina, the elements of the traditional detective story--murder, hypothesis, proof--are all present; but readers familiar with Bachmann will rightly expect a very untraditional murder mystery. And since the book, like much of Bachmann's prose, switches points of view frequently and is largely based in thought rather than action, it is fully as mysterious as Malina.

The book's fragmentary nature makes it all the more difficult to grasp. Franza was first published in German as part of the definitive collection of Bachmann's collected works, edited by Christine Koschel and Inge von Weidenbaum. That version of Bachmann's draft of the novel, titled Der Fall Franza, or The Franza Case, has been used by scholars and students for more than twenty years. In 1995, however, Monika Albrecht and Dirk Gottsche published the drafts of Franza in their entirety as part of their "Todesarten"-Projekt, a five-volume edition that brings together all of Bachmann's papers related to the Todesarten works: Malina, Franza, "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann," and Three Paths to the Lake, as well as drafts for several other novels and stories. Albrecht and Gottsche's volumes, which the two compiled from Bachmann's 10,000-plus-page archives in Austria and Germany, made available drafts and texts that were previously inaccessible to anyone who was unable to journey to the archives.

Filkins has chosen to include a fair amount of material from these drafts, and he has also reordered quite a bit of the previously published material. Thus his translation of Franza is a very different book from what has been known as The Franza Case, even down to the title. (His choice of title, he explains in the introduction, is based on Albrecht and Gottsche's research, which revealed that Das Buch Franza, literally The Franza Book, was the last title that Bachmann herself used for the novel.) By analogy, imagine that all of Ralph Ellison's drafts for Juneteenth were published in a huge edition for scholars. Then imagine that a German scholar translated the novel; but instead of working from the version published by John Callahan, he decided to interpolate various extracts from the drafts. German readers of Juneteenth would have quite a different experience of the novel than American readers.

BUT FILKINS HAS tampered very little with Franza's fundamentals. At the beginning of the first of Franza's three sections, Martin has just received a telegram from his sister, Franza, who has run away from the sanatorium to which her husband, the eminent Viennese psychologist Leo Jordan, has sent her for some rest. Though it has been several years since he has heard from his sister, Martin--a geologist about to embark on a research trip to Egypt--sets out to search for her, and discovers her in their childhood home, with her head in the oven. As he calms and cajoles her, Martin and Franza revisit their recollections of World War II, and Franza remembers a fleeting teenage affair with the British captain of the Allied troops who liberated their southern Austrian town. On the last night before Martin is to leave for Egypt, Franza tries to drown herself in a nearby river, and he decides to take her along on his trip.

The book's second section, which takes place during the boat journey to Egypt, is built almost entirely of fragmentary monologues spoken by Franza as she recounts to Martin the terror of her marriage to Jordan, who has traumatized her so greatly that at first she is unable to speak about it "without screaming or beginning to tremble." At this point Bachmann begins to hint at what the third section will make explicit: that Franza had assisted Jordan with a study he was preparing of the horrific experiments Nazi doctors performed on concentration-camp inmates, and that at some point research and reality became confused, and Jordan began to experiment on Franza. (Hence The Franza Case.)

Once the siblings reach Egypt, where the third section of the novel takes place, Franza finds some solace in the desert, and realizes that "she no longer had to hold still for any experiment. Another experiment was beginning, and that she would perform on herself." At first it seems as if she will be able to work through the horrible after-effects of her marriage. Yet she begins to suffer dizzy spells, and another woman tells her of a German doctor who is able to "work miracles." When she meets him, she recognizes him from her work on Jordan's book: he was a doctor in the concentration camps. She pleads with him to euthanize her, but he angrily refuses, which puzzles and somewhat amuses her. "I'm only asking for something that he used to do willingly and without being asked to do it, and yet now someone comes along and is not allowed to beg for it and pay for it," she marvels. "What kind of world is this?" But Franza's distress does not last long. Soon after her encounter with the doctor, she and Martin travel to the pyramids, where she is raped by a stranger. Falling unconscious, she hits her head on the rock, and dies of complications from the injury.

BACHMANN INTENDED The Franza Book, like the other works in the Todesarten project, as a sort of case study of the fascism in human relationships. In fact, no other of her novels addresses the issue as directly as this one. Yet it is Martin, not Franza, who gives the problem its name, and Franza herself is somewhat skeptical of it. "You say fascism," she remarks to her brother, "but that sounds strange, for I've never heard that word used to describe a personal relationship.... But that's an interesting idea, for it had to begin somewhere. Why does one only refer to fascism when it has to do with opinions of blatant acts?"

In making this admission that the idea of fascism in a marriage at the very least "sounds strange," Bachmann nodded to her many contemporaries who expressed doubt or even hostility about her projection of fascism into the sphere of personal life. Those doubts were not willful, of course. To compare the Nazis' oppression of Jews to a domineering husband can be seen as trivializing the most terrible event of modern history. And yet it is clear that this was by no means Bachmann's intention. She was hardly insensitive to the enormity of the Holocaust.

Of all Bachmann's work, indeed, Franza is the text most directly concerned with the Holocaust itself. In addition to exploring the connection between the tyranny of men and the tyranny of the Nazis, Bachmann examines the very tangible, physical impact of the Holocaust on Franza's life. Not content to have Franza emotionally tortured by her husband, like most of her other heroines, Bachmann has taken matters a step further: Franza must literally reenact the suffering of Holocaust victims with her own body. So what might this mean?

It seems unnecessary to have to point out that Germans (and Austrians) did not suffer during World War II the way Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and so many others suffered; and yet they experienced the suffering of any people whose country is at war and is then defeated. A passage in Franza vividly illuminates the terror of this time, especially for a child:

Now and then planes still flew low in dense formations over the houses, and since they took precise aim on anything that moved, she once had to throw Martin to the ground and cover him.... And then one time a bomber patrol returning south from Vienna released a couple of leftover bombs, collapsing the little train station as a waiting train full of people from town was thrown from the rails, tearing the people within to shreds. Then it was quiet again. During that spring death was a given.

Again, nobody would argue seriously that such horror can be equated with the torture experienced by those who were imprisoned in the concentration camps. Bachmann certainly did not make such a coarse identification. In fact, she made no single identification at all. She found herself, instead, in a morally and imaginatively complicated place. She was a victim of fascism, but she did not suffer the worst of it. Politically and intellectually, there is no doubt that she identified with the survivors far more than with the perpetrators. (In a notorious incident, Bachmann and Celan publicly declined Heidegger's request that they contribute poems to his seventieth-birthday Festschrift.) Yet Bachmann never tried to erase the fact that she was Austrian. Far from it: she was proud to be an Austrian writer, invoking Kafka and Musil as her forebears, and her writing is almost exclusively concerned with Austrians. This intellectual and ideological conflict--the problem of identifying both with the victim of a crime and with the perpetrator--can perhaps be seen as giving rise to the central irony of Bachmann's fiction: that her female protagonists are not only the victims of oppression, they are also as responsible for their silencing as the men who seek to oppress them.

In his introduction, Filkins states that his primary goal was to create a readable translation that would bring Bachmann's work to a wider audience. In the service of readability, as he freely acknowledges, he has deviated in a number of ways from the standard German text, the Koschel-von Weidenbaum edition. To begin with, he has broken up a number of Bachmann's notoriously lengthy paragraphs and sentences in order to make them more accessible. Shortening German sentences in their translation into English is quite usual, but I wish Filkins had preserved more of Bachmann's paragraphing. It is difficult to understand why he chose to insert breaks in certain places, especially in the second section, where the paragraph breaks occasionally detract from the dreamlike quality of Franza's musings. There are also some minor errors in Filkins's translation.

More troublesome, I think, is his drastic departure from the Koschel-von Weidenbaum version. While Albrecht and Gottsche's work was not available when that edition was published, the bewildering collection of Todesarten fragments--some of which are internally contradictory and contain writing that Bachmann would almost certainly have discarded--is useful only to the most serious scholars, who would surely be able to read them in the original. For this reason, little is gained from Filkins's additions or, most importantly, from the re-ordering of Part II, which, to this reader at least, makes far more sense in the original version than it does in Filkins's. Moreover, while Koschel and von Weidenbaum used brackets and ellipses in their edition to denote fragmentary text, Filkins presents his as a unified whole, which does a disservice to the general reader, who might skip the explanatory "Translator's Note" and thus be unaware of how many different drafts exist. And a better way to improve Franza's readability would have been to include the short story "The Barking," from Three Paths to the Lake, which functions as a sort of prequel to The Book of Franza.

But I do not mean to quibble too much. Filkins's translation is certainly not bad. It is lucid, and for the most part it is faithful, in letter if not in structure, to the original. The important thing is that Filkins has made this strong and significant book, which in many ways is more accessible to ordinary readers than Malina, available in English for the first time. The Book of Franza has been unknown here for too long. Now, at last, its pains and its perplexities may be read and pondered.

Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan in Mainz, 1953


By Ruth Franklin

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