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Expressing the Dark

by Hans-Gunnar Peterson

  WORKING WITH DEATH as a literary and poetical motif, and particularly outlining how death permeates, darkens and violates people's lives - this is a principle which characterizes the writings of Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann. As early as in the poem "Dunkles zu sagen" (Expressing the Dark) she writes:

Wie Orpheus spiel ich
auf den Saiten des Lebens den Tod
und in die Schönheit der Erde
und deiner Augen, die den Himmel verwalten,
weiß ich nur Dunkles zu sagen.

(From "Die gestundete Zeit", 1953.)

She pondered alienation and oppression in her poems and her prose, and also in radio plays - a drama form she had a very special, strong relationship with. In a draft for an essay about Maria Callas, she depicts the opera singer as one of those who seem to live on the sharp edge of a razor. We often meet people with a destiny like that in several of her own works.
  During the course of her life - born Klagenfurt 1926; died Rome 1973 - she published a relatively small number of works. Two collections of poems, two books of short stories, a novel. Furthermore, essays, radio plays, and libretti for two operas, "Der Prinz von Homburg" and "Der junge Lord", composed by her friend Hans Werner Henze.

”She was appalled and yet fascinated
by the fact that crimes against humans
are being committed on such a large scale
also outside of the war scene.”

  It is no exaggeration to say that her fame stands foremost with her poetry. Already in the early 60's, she talked about an imminent reorientation of her writing, towards prose. What impelled her was a wish to work with death as a motif and with reflections on the hidden forces of violence and oppression in society. She was appalled and yet fascinated by the fact that crimes against humans are being committed on such a large scale also outside of the boundaries of war. "Since long have I pondered the question of where fascism has its origin. It is not born with the first bombs, neither through the terror one can describe in every newspaper ... its origin lies in the relations between a man and a woman, and I have tried to say ... in this society there is war permanently." [1]
  In interviews and in connection with reading soirées she talked about her work in progress, with these themes in different variations, where death is used as a metaphor depicting how humans are violated both within the private sphere and on the more overarching social level. When she died she left behind a collection of drafts, containing appr. 10,000 pages - half of it is part of this project. The manuscripts have been published, with a title often used by Ingeborg Bachmann herself: "'Todesarten' - Projekt" (Piper Verlag 1995, ed. Monika Albrecht, Dirk Göttsche). The five volumes contain very fragmentary sketches as well as completed stories. Only in three instances were these works actually published. The novel "Malina", which was her first book of the genre, was published in 1971, and the following year came the story collection "Simultan". This circle of works also includes a speech she wrote when she received the Georg Büchner prize in 1964, and it was published in book form the year after, with drawings by Günther Grass. Among other things, the speech "Ein Ort für Zufälle" is also a meditation upon the city of Berlin.

Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973)

  The rest is unfinished material, but the extensive commentary explains her enormously wide-spanning conceptual universe, packed with emotions, the relations between the different narrative fragments, and not least, all of the echoes from other authors' writings, which she wove into the fabric of her prose.
  Through the years she realized more and more that her idea was growing into a whole family of works, consisting of novels as well as stories, often with essayistic elements. Characters from the background in one story could re-appear in the foreground of another. She found inspiration and guidance in Honoré de Balzac's suite of novels "La comedie humaine", but equally important was "Der Mann ohne Eigenschaften" by her fellow countryman Robert Musil - especially regarding the combination of psychological portraits of individuals and essayistic, critical studies of civilization and society.
  Ingeborg Bachmann used the title "Todesarten" for the first time in connection with a novel she began writing in 1962 - but it is built upon older material and actually originated in the early 50's. In both versions a man by the name Eugen is the central character. In the later version Eugen Tobai is a rationally thinking scientist, an assistent at the University of Vienna, where he is occupied with history, psychology, and sociology. He sees himself as a seismograph, registering anxiety and pathological conditions of society. But his anguish is also rooted on a private level, he is tormented by bad dreams and attacks of anxiety. He senses threats all around, he fears road accidents or other situations of which he has no control. He does not, however, perceive this as the hazard of being caught in accidents in the normal sense: he is afflicted by nightmares about how he is being killed, though by anonymous forces.
  "Todesarten" was the title also for a novel Bachmann started on later, which was published posthumously as "Der Fall Franza." In this draft, an important shift is already taking place, since in earlier works mostly men have occupied the narrative center, as in the story collection "Das dreissigste Jahr". But from the middle 60's on, she focused on the lifestories of women instead: characters inflicted with isolation, betrayal, or - to borrow a frequently used expression - by "mental murder".
  Franza lives in Vienna, married to a psychiatrist named Jordan, who is a cold but successful scientist, and he relates with his wife through his satanically controlled study of her increasing mental illness. To escape this hell, she runs away to the area of her childhood, where she stays with her brother. Together they travel to Egypt - the account here is probably very much influenced by the author's own journey to the Arab world.
  The change of scenery, from the landscape of the big city to that of the desert, is playing an important part also in the earlier mentioned speech "Ein Ort fur Zufälle". Superimposed on this motif are a lot of overtones, for instance the glaring contrast between the Western world and other cultural environments. But she also alludes to political history: memories of colonialism, as a part of European culture, the notion of higher and lower races. A quotation from Rimbaud ("Je suis d'une race inférieure") links the unscrupulous exploitation of one group of people by another, with tragedies taking place on individual, private levels; love affairs for instance, where one party ruthlessly breaks the other party down.
  This kind of polyphony, where grand motifs of civilizational critique is mirrored in the study of intimate tragedies, is among the most poignant aspects of the whole "Todesarten" suite, although so few of its parts were completed. One of the reasons why the Franza novel was also put aside, was that Ingeborg Bachmann felt substantial dissatisfaction with the form of it. She discerned tension within the material, which called for an even wider scope. The conception of "Todesarten" was transformed from the plan for a separate novel to a larger cyclical work. She later explained the meaning of the title: " ... For me, if I can appraise my own plans, it means to create a compendium with all of the crimes being committed during our time."
  In the fall of 1966 she starts on the most intensive phase of her work. She writes simultaneously on a whole series of narratives. One of them, a large novel, in this editon called "Goldmann/Rottwitz-Roman", the names of two families. In another project she collects stories about women in Vienna; parts of the material in this planned volume ("Wienerinnen") found its final form in the story volume "Simultan". Futhermore, she started working on the novel, which in its completed shape was presented as an overture for the whole suite "Todesarten". This novel is called "Malina". The reactions, when it was published, were very disparate - expectations had been eager, as she had not published anything for several years. Certain critics showed great interest, not to say delight - other reviewers were virtually rejecting.

Ingeborg Bachmann wrote about the philosophy of Martin Heidegger in her doctor's dissertation. Like many other authors she tried to reconquer the German language again after the Nazi dishonor of it.

  The woman who accounts for her life does it in the form of monologues, which on one hand are intellectually acute and emotionally charged - on the other hand they appear dreamlike, a subconscious flow. The author's interest in writers like James Joyce and Samuel Beckett meant a lot when it comes to technique and characterization, but she had also learnt from philosophers like Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger (her dissertation was about Heidegger). Like several of the other novels, "Malina" is divided into three parts. The first is called "Ich", it is centered around the self. A woman of intellectual background lives in Vienna, and her love affair with the Hungarian Ivan takes place entirely on his terms. He lives with his wife and two children in the close proximity to the flat where the narrative "I" lives. Her time passes under the sign of waiting: yearning for his calls, appointing future meetings. Time after time she lights her cigarettes, nothing moves in her desolate room, except maybe the coiling smoke.
  But there is yet another man in her life. He is the Malina who lent his name to the novel. The conversations with him sometimes lead to relief, but as often to despair, the dreamlike character of these dialogues allows for the reader to more and more suspect that Malina dwells within herself, a male antithesis of her personality. On another level Ingeborg Bachmann displays her sense for polyphonic narrative technique, the interplay of descriptions of everyday life, everyday people and the presence of dreamed figures in this sphere, who possess strength to go beyond the border. This play between reality and hallucination is intensified in one part of the novel, "Der dritte Mann". She uses Graham Greene's and Carol Reed's title from the film "The third man", which takes place in Vienna, where the narrator's memories of violence in the past are depicted.

”The woman receives three stones
with inscriptions. The first reads
’Live and be amazed!’, the second,
’To write is to be amazed!’.”

  The third man, after Ivan and Malina, is a father figure appearing with dream images of death all around him: church yards, gas chambers, rape scenes - a whole collage of atrocities. During this dream tour an almost mythological approach is used to describe how the woman receives three stones with inscriptions. The first reads "Live and be amazed!", the second, "To write is to be amazed!" The third inscription is illegible and is not revealed until we reach the last part of the novel. The message is "Kill your beloved!". This phrase affects the course of events right up to the very last sentence. Ivan leaves the woman, Malina's control gets stronger, her self-confidence weakens and the last line of this tale is inexorable: "It was murder."
  The publishing of "'Todesarten'-Projekt" displays a maze of drafts, re-writes, unfinished and finished works of art. The intensity of a most personal voice is indescribable, anyone opening one of the volumes to read will sense it immediately. Ingeborg Bachmann's power to give life to characters and to shape her language, also with the help of rich literary and philosophical sources, is intellectually impressive, but it also affects us since the use of it is always emotionally motivated. It is also striking how many other art forms, besides poetry and literature, that make up her associative universe. Time and again, musical references find their way into her play with death. "Malina" echoes phrases from Richard Wagners "Tristan und Isolde", the musical drama where the lovers escape the rules and regulations of the real world and greet death as the true life form - the grand love duet of the second act. The study in the novel of the dissolution of identity and how the ego is disintegrated, also includes a piece by the Viennese Arnold Schönberg in its web of quotations and allusions. The Schönberg melodrama "Pierrot lunaire" is mentioned several times, not least the exclamation "O alter Duft aus Märchenzeit".
[2] One similarity may be described thus; in the same way as the woman in "Malina" breaks down due to an antithesis in her own personality, so also does Schönberg depict how a miserable man (interpreted by a female soloist using "sprechstimme") is torn apart between desire and despair.
  Music was a part of Ingeborg Bachmann's life in many ways. Her interest in Maria Callas has been mentioned, and also her collaboration with composer Henze. For him she wrote the poem "Enigma", which ends:

Du sollst ja nicht weinen,
sagt eine Musik.


(You shall not weep
says one music


Her narrative art in "Todesarten", with its musicality and polyphony, seems on the other hand to be built upon tears from beginning to end. A requiem, not for the dead, for those on the other side of life's border, but for those forced to live on, suffering constant deadly violations.
  Ingeborg Bachmann died in the fall of 1973, a consequence of a fire in her appartment in Rome. The circumstances behind this fire have remained a mystery. She is buried in her native town of Klagenfurt in Austria.


1. "Ich habe schon vorher darüber nachgedacht, wo fängt der Faschismus an. Er fängt nicht an mit den ersten Bomben, die geworfen werden, er fängt nicht an mit dem Terror, über den man schreiben kann, in jeder Zeitung. Er fängt an , in den Beziehungen zwischen einem Mann und einer Frau, und ich habe versucht zu sagen ... hier in dieser Gesellschaft ist immer Krieg." (Quoted in "Über Ingeborg Bachmann, Igel-Verlag, Paderborn, 1994) [Go Back]

2. "Oh, ancient scent from times of fairy-tales" [Go Back]

This article is © copyright Hans-Gunnar Peterson 1997.
Translated from Swedish by Karl-Erik Tallmo.

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