I refuse to begin this essay with Ingeborg Bachmann’s death—the cigarette that set fire to her apartment in Rome while she was sleeping, the three weeks she spent lingering in a hospital burn unit, the ultimately fatal medical complications that resulted from her addiction to benzodiazepines—because to do so would be to reduce the rich life of one of the most important writers of twentieth-century German literature to its salacious end. But the impulse is common. Bachmann’s death is regularly treated as a synecdoche for her life, and it’s true that a great deal of her work deals centrally with death, depression and murder; that at the time of her death, in 1973, she was working on a cycle of novels called Ways of Dying; and that the final pages of its first and only volume, Malina, seem to prefigure a death by burning. But it’s also true that Bachmann saw violence and horror as integral to everyday life. A student of Ludwig Wittgenstein—who famously wrote, “whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent”—Bachmann’s preoccupation with the unspeakable, from the horrors of the war to the everyday lives of women, is the only clear thread that runs throughout her oeuvre.
Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria, the daughter of a homemaker mother and a schoolteacher father who was an early member of the Nazi Party. She was an avid reader, extremely nearsighted, and by all accounts spent most of her youth with her nose in a book. Once the war ended, she spent a year studying at the universities of Innsbruck and Graz, then moved to Vienna in 1946, where she began a degree in philosophy with minors in German literature and psychology. At 21, she met Paul Celan at a party thrown by the Surrealist painter Edgar Jené. The as-yet unknown Romanian Jewish poet and Holocaust survivor was awaiting a visa to move to Paris. Within days of their first meeting, he was showering her with reading recommendations and filling her apartment with poppies. Their relationship would become one of the most storied in German letters before ending in 1952, when Bachmann proposed marriage to Celan, only to learn that he was already engaged to another woman. (She’d known nothing about their relationship.)
In 1951, soon after completing a doctoral degree in philosophy—closer to a master’s degree by today’s standards—Bachmann took a job at Rot-Weiß-Rot,1 the radio station of the American forces occupying Vienna. The job served as her entrée into the wider German-language literary world, as it was there that Bachmann met Hans Werner Richter, leader of the famous Gruppe 47 literary meetings, to which she secured an invitation in 1952. A year later, Bachmann won the Gruppe 47 Prize, the organization’s highest honor, for reading four poems from what would soon become her first collection, Die gestundete Zeit, or Borrowed Time. Featuring vermin, machines and a natural world at once hauntingly beautiful and horrifyingly violent, the poems evoked the terrors of a war still reverberating through Europe.
It was the beginning of a meteoric rise. At 28, merely five years after graduating from university, Bachmann appeared on the cover of Der Spiegel sporting boyish cropped hair and bold lipstick, the very image of a young iconoclast. In the following years, Bachmann lived in Rome, Naples, Munich and Paris; wrote libretti for the composer Hans Werner Henze, a close friend; advocated for nuclear disarmament; and published more poetry and fiction, releasing her first book of short stories in 1961. In 1958, she began dating Max Frisch, a Swiss writer fifteen years her senior. Their tumultuous four-year relationship ended when Frisch, then 52, left Bachmann for a 23-year-old college student, Marianne Oellers. (A fan of both writers, Oellers first met Frisch when Bachmann invited her to their apartment in Rome for dinner.)
Bachmann never seems to have recovered the happiness, imperfect though it may have been, that she had experienced living with Frisch. After their break in late 1962, she moved to Berlin, where she spent a year living on a fellowship from the Ford Foundation. She hated the city and became deeply depressed, and it was around this time that she began drinking and taking benzodiazepines. It would be years until she finally published her only novel, Malina, in 1971. A second book of short stories, Three Paths to the Lake, appeared in 1972, just before Bachmann’s untimely death in 1973.
In Germany, Bachmann is anything but forgotten. A new biography comes out every few years, her poetry is standard reading in literature classes and the Ingeborg Bachmann Prize has become one of the most coveted awards in German literature. Her stature in the German-language canon approximates that of Virginia Woolf or Sylvia Plath in the English-language canon. But while the work of her male contemporaries associated with Gruppe 47—Günter Grass, Heinrich Böll, Paul Celan, Uwe Johnson, Peter Handke—is widely translated and available in English, the few existing English translations of Bachmann’s prose are mostly out of print. Last year, however, New Directions reissued Philip Boehm’s translation of Malina, offering an opportunity for the English-speaking world to become reacquainted with Bachmann.
The reissue of Malina may be seen as particularly significant given the current popularity of confessionalist fiction by women. The novel served as Bachmann’s first chance to write her own life after decades of being written about by men. When she was 25, a former lover, Hans Weigel, published a roman à clef narrated by a Bachmann stand-in. Max Frisch later did the same. On top of that, male critics had painted her as a coquettish diva in the popular press since she was in her twenties. Malina was her biting reply: Bachmann’s chance not only to speak, but to interrogate the very conditions of speaking.
Though present throughout her oeuvre, Bachmann’s preoccupation with speech and the impossibility of effective self-narration comes through most clearly in Malina. A thoroughly experimental novel, it lacks a straightforward plot. The unnamed narrator is a successful Austrian writer living in postwar Vienna with her closest friend, a man named Malina. She has fallen in love with a Hungarian named Ivan, and their conversations, both in her apartment and over the telephone, occupy a large part of the stream-of-consciousness narrative. But Ivan is not her sole focus: the narrator also sketches the life of a writer who mostly wants to sit, smoke, write and be left alone.
The writer spends a good deal of time dodging letters and phone calls; at the insistence of her secretary, she occasionally sits down to dictate responses to the many unanswered requests, which, as the novel goes on, consist of increasingly creative excuses. (“Dear Herr Schöntal,” she writes at one point, “the person you address … does not exist.”) During an interview for the Vienna Evening Edition, she struggles to deliver the sort of family-friendly responses that her interviewer is expecting. Asked about the youth of today, she replies that “the sight of any sizable agglomeration of children is enough to cause alarm.” In general, the narrator finds that her words are rarely what her interlocutors are looking for.
Roughly halfway through the novel, this somewhat lighter tone disappears, giving way to a long description of the narrator’s nightmares. All of them involve a menacing, sexually abusive father figure who continually attempts to kill the narrator, sometimes in ways that recall Nazi abuses, and bury her in the “cemetery of the murdered daughters.” The third and final section returns to the narrator’s correspondence, which darkens once she realizes that she can no longer maintain a relationship with Ivan. In the last few pages, she writes five drafts of the same letter, pleading with a lawyer to explain how to write a valid last will and testament. She never sends them, and disappears a few pages later into a crack in the wall. The last line of the novel is “It was murder.”
Something dark undergirds even the lightest sections of Malina, something the narrator is desperate yet unable to express, and that bubbles up, deformed, in all the wrong places. “I must recount, I will recount.2 There’s nothing more to disturb my reminiscing,” the narrator tells Malina at the start of the book. What she needs to tell or recount is left to our imagination, but this gap, this mysterious need to express something that is never explicitly articulated, haunts the narrative.
The narrator spends much of Malina’s first and third sections sitting and waiting for Ivan to call, and sometimes calling him herself. The telephone becomes a fetish that she worships daily: staring, praying, willing it to ring. But she never seems able to achieve what she needs to in her communication with Ivan. Much of this results from Ivan’s unwillingness to listen: when he finds scraps of paper with macabre, provisional titles related to her writing, he tells her, “It’s disgusting to put this misery on the market, just adding to what’s already there, these books are all absolutely loathsome.” He wants her to write a book with a happy ending.
But Ivan’s dismissal is not the only obstacle in the narrator’s attempts to express her experience via language. What she wants to share is so hopelessly beyond language that she is unable to formulate it even inwardly, to herself.
Bachmann begins her earliest essay on the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, entitled “Ludwig Wittgenstein—On One of the Most Recent Chapters in the History of Philosophy,” with the last lines of his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus: whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. The essay was meant as a generalized introduction of Wittgenstein’s work to a world that, at the time of its publication in 1953, did not yet know him well. It zeroes in on a single aspect of Wittgenstein’s work: the concept of the inexpressible, das Unsagbare.
Bachmann’s interest in Wittgenstein stretched back to her time as an undergraduate at the University of Vienna. Her 1950 doctoral dissertation, a study of Martin Heidegger written under Victor Kraft, put Heidegger in conversation with Wittgenstein on the subject of the inexpressible. Bachmann later wrote five more essays on Wittgenstein’s philosophy and was responsible for the 1960 Suhrkamp editions of the Tractatus and the Philosophical Investigations, essential to the re-popularization of his work in Germany and Austria after the war. In September 1954, Bachmann broadcast a radio play entitled “The Speakable and the Unspeakable—the Philosophy of Ludwig Wittgenstein” on a Bavarian radio station. The play elaborates on Bachmann’s earlier writings about Wittgenstein, focusing on that which exists in excess of logic and language, which she calls “the mystical.” For language has limits: “Language can only speak of facts and constitutes the limit of our—your and my—world. … [This limit] is stripped away when something ‘manifests’ itself, and that which manifests itself is the mystical—the inexpressible experience.”3
If language, the central means of human communication, is unable to access the mystical aspects of human experience, then how can they be expressed? In Bachmann’s philosophy, the only proper vehicle for the mystical is art.
In Malina, Bachmann is not just interested in expressing the inexpressible, but in documenting the toll that it takes on the human psyche. What happens to someone who is unable to express their experience in words? In the case of the narrator, the answer is that she ceases to exist. The inexpressible experience that drives her to this end is rooted in her gender, and allegorized in her relationship with Malina, the mysterious roommate to whom she feels inextricably but non-romantically bound. The standard critical interpretation of their relationship is that Malina represents the narrator’s logical side, possessing traditionally male attributes. The narrator herself, then, is only the emotional half of a larger subject, a half whose maintenance and very existence is near impossible in a patriarchal world.
This split is underscored by how differently they speak: the narrator with emotion, Malina with cool logic. When emotion is high in the second section of the book, Bachmann precedes the narrator’s speech with musical markings—legato, legatissimo, forte, piano—to express the rise and fall of feeling. These markings are, importantly, only used to describe the narrator’s speech—Malina’s is left unmarked. Malina, as the narrator’s male or logical half, thus represents that which is neatly speakable, that which can be expressed without augmentation (musical, visual, physical), while the narrator is forced again and again to make recourse to music, dreamscapes and lies to express her experience, though she is never able to express it fully.
In this way, Bachmann proposes a gendered dimension to Wittgenstein’s conclusions about the unspeakable, das Unsagbare. Between men and women, it is the woman who is beset with inexpressible experience on an everyday basis. Malina, on the other hand, is unburdened, as is Ivan, who feels free to regard or disregard, choose or choose against, drop by when he feels like it and stay home when he’s too tired. At one point, Ivan tells the narrator that he will never love anyone other than his children, and the truth of this statement is part of his invulnerability: in his freedom from attachment, he forms a cohesive unit cut off from the outside world, discrete, solid and clean. Of course a relationship with such a person is impossible.
Bachmann’s exploration of the inexpressible takes a dark turn in the nightmare section of Malina, called “The Third Man.” (The title is a reference to Carol Reed’s 1949 film noir, which revolves around a disappeared, shadowy man who may be dead or alive. It was filmed in the rubble of postwar Vienna while Bachmann was completing her studies there.) The narrator dreams that she is pregnant by the Nazi father figure, that he is trying to kill their child, and that he is trying to kill her in a gas chamber. After every few dreams, she is awakened by Malina, who soothes her and then poses a series of questions about the dreams that she is unable to answer. She cannot explain what the dreams mean or who the father figure really is.
The dreams are full of violent silencing. The narrator cries out “in many languages: No! No! Non! Non! Nyet! Nyet! No! Ném! Ném! Nein!” only to find out that “my father is reaching for my tongue and wants to pull it out to stop anyone here from hearing my no, despite the fact that there’s no one to hear me.” When she becomes pregnant by her father, she tries to tell her mother that it was incest but realizes that “from the beginning my own voice has been without sound, I’m screaming but no one hears me, there’s nothing to hear, my mouth is only gaping, he’s taken away my voice as well.”
Bachmann never spoke publicly about her father’s membership in the Nazi Party, but claimed that watching German troops march into Klagenfurt during the Anschluss in 1938 “destroyed [her] childhood.” (Given that she was the daughter of a Nazi, her childhood continued mostly undisturbed.) While there has been a great deal of speculation over the years as to the possible autobiographical origins of the nightmare father, Bachmann always insisted that the character was meant to be entirely metaphorical. This is, perhaps, the most productive way of reading him: his violence not confessional but instead an attempt to evoke a certain substratum of threat, one that evaded direct reference and silenced everyone in its wake.
For just as incest marks the boundary of culturally intelligible kinship structures, genocide marks the boundary of societally intelligible forms of violence. Both are unspeakable crimes. The Nazi father figure of the narrator’s nightmares is positioned at the nexus of the societal and the intimate spheres, and his destructiveness is in this way doubled. In his capacity as a father, he rapes his daughters; in his capacity as a Nazi, he murders innocents in gas chambers. He is the specter of the unspeakable, and the narrator is, accordingly, unable to explain him to Malina. “Who is your father?” asks Malina again and again. “I don’t know,” says the narrator every time. It is not until the last nightmare that she finally understands: “It’s not my father,” she tells Malina. “It’s my murderer.”
If Malina is read as a general meditation on the concept of the unspeakable, the narrator’s personal experience of the unspeakable, centrally shaped by her gender, forms its centerpiece. But limiting such a meditation to personal experience would be necessarily incomplete in the context of postwar Austria: How could a member of Bachmann’s generation—especially one whose life was so centrally shaped by her relationship with a Holocaust survivor—possibly write a meditation on the concept of the unspeakable without engaging with the specter of the Holocaust?
At the very end of the nightmares section, the narrator finally reaches a conclusion about the meaning of her dreams: “So you’ll never again say: War and Peace,” says Malina. “Never again,” replies the narrator. “It’s always war. Here there is always violence. Here there is always struggle. It is the eternal war.” Although at first glance, postwar bourgeois Viennese society might have appeared peaceful and stable after decades of turmoil, in Bachmann’s eyes it was pregnant with the potential for another Holocaust. And it is Bachmann’s attunement to the darkness latent in things that sets her thought apart. In her acceptance speech for the Anton Wildgans Prize, she says that she will not address the terribleness that exists in the world, “as to discuss this, and moreover do it in the framework of an event, means to simplify it. I am also not here to teach you about it, lecture you, shock you, for the horror is in you, and if not, then no one can help you.”
The glorification of the deaths of depressed woman writers has seen a renaissance over the last decade. In 2013, Vice took down from its website a fashion shoot from the pages of its “Women in Fiction” issue, depicting, among others, Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath and Iris Chang in the act of killing themselves, their clothing carefully detailed next to each image, so that you, too, could buy a pair of stockings like the ones that Taiwanese writer Sanmao used to hang herself. The editorial was swiftly condemned, but a certain set of conditions of possibility are necessary for such an editorial to be conceivable in the first place. Women writers are often given a tragic cast—and as tragic figures, they are rendered powerless, not necessarily as individuals who do not fight but as individuals who are kept from ever winning by an oppressive society.
Bachmann is clear: the tragedy went far beyond her role as a woman or as a feminist artist, even though these themes were central to her writing. The gendered suffering and violence endured by women on an everyday basis was merely one manifestation of a threat much more general in its scope, for patriarchal domination was itself fascist. Bachmann commented explicitly on this in an interview shortly before her death, saying, “I’ve thought about where fascism begins. It doesn’t begin with the first bombs dropped, it doesn’t begin with political violence, which one can write about in any newspaper. It begins in relationships between people. Fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman.”
If there is a limit to what language can express, Wittgenstein gives us no reason to think that everything beyond this limit must be dark. If the inexpressible is understood to include the horrors of the Holocaust, then it should, too, hold room for the impenetrable mysteries and everyday wonders of nature, time, compassion and God. But for Bachmann, the inexpressible was necessarily horrible, and her task as a writer thus both urgent and ultimately futile: to bend language over backwards in an attempt to traverse its own limits and awaken her readers to the true conditions of a world that was merely biding its time before realizing its deepest—and darkest—potential.