Feminize Your Canon: Ingeborg Bachmann


Feminize Your Canon

Our monthly column Feminize Your Canon explores the lives of underrated and underread female authors.

Ingeborg Bachmann. Photo: Heinz Bachmann.

In early 1973, the year she died, the celebrated Austrian poet and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann visited Auschwitz and Birkenau during a reading tour of Poland. She remarked: “I don’t understand how one can live with them nearby … There is nothing to say. They are simply there, and it leaves you speechless.” Bachmann had spent her career grappling with the inadequacy of language, in pursuit of the inexpressible. “If we had the word,” she argued in a 1959 speech, “if we had language, we would not need the weapons.” She believed in the potential of poetic language to expand the limitations of communication, but had become disillusioned with poetry as a medium. “Believe me,” says the writer-narrator of Bachmann’s cult-classic 1971 novel, Malina, “expression is insanity, it arises out of our insanity.”

Bachmann was twelve when Germany invaded Austria in 1938, but her schoolteacher father already belonged to the Austrian branch of the National Socialist Party. She later described the marching of Hitler’s troops into her southernmost border state, Carinthia, as the “specific moment which destroyed my childhood … It was something so terrible, that my memory begins with that day: with that early sorrow.” When World War II ended she was nineteen, and a fervent leftist. Her diary entries from the summer of 1945 were published posthumously alongside letters from Jack Hamesh, the object of her innocent yet deeply formative first love.

Hamesh was an Austrian Jew who, having fled Vienna for the British Protectorate of Palestine as an eighteen-year-old orphan in 1938, returned to Austria with the liberating British army. Though Bachmann and the young soldier were from such different worlds, they recognized each other’s loneliness and alienation. They bonded over conversations about literature, “Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal … he told me he never thought he’d find a young girl in Austria who’d read all that despite her Nazi upbringing.” (Mann, Zweig, and Arthur Schnitzler were all banned under the Third Reich.) It was “the loveliest summer of my life,” the teenage Bachmann recorded in her diary, “and even if I live to be a hundred it will still be the loveliest spring and summer.” In a 1946 letter from Tel Aviv, where he had settled, Hamesh wondered: “Was our life together just a chance episode? I felt it was something much deeper … for me it was proof that despite everything that has overtaken our two peoples there is still a way—the way of love and understanding.”

This early and emotionally charged confrontation with political polarity forged the workings of Bachmann’s psyche, setting a pattern that defined her writing and her relationships. She would always regard fascism not as an aberration, but as an intrinsic part of everyday life, a threat that cannot be safely restricted to specific circumstances. Ironically, this led to her poetry, in all its nuance and subtlety, being read as apolitical and ahistorical. As Charles Simic puts it, Bachmann’s “was a poetry of sublime lyricism that suggested the knowledge of the horrors of the Second World War without employing any of its familiar images.” Critics, however, preferred to overlook the moral undercurrents of Bachmann’s poems in favor of praising their timeless aesthetic refinement.

Bachmann’s public image was likewise aestheticized by a media more enthralled by her winsome persona than her actual work. On the release of her acclaimed 1953 poetry collection, Borrowed Time, she was treated as a delightful novelty: a pretty, soft-voiced blonde with a doctorate in Heidegger’s existentialism. One German newspaper described her, at twenty-seven, as “shy, very reserved, with very red lips, and very attractive.” In August 1954 she was on the cover of Der Spiegel magazine—an accolade unheard of for an author, let alone a young poet. With her gamine crop, turtleneck, and moody off-camera gaze, Bachmann resembles Françoise Sagan, the teenage French novelist who was causing a sensation with Bonjour Tristesse.

Bachmann was, the Austrian writer Franzobel has suggested, a forerunner of the chick-lit phenomenon, “the first pop icon of Austrian literature.” Except unlike authors of chick lit, she won all the major German and Austrian literary awards including the Association of German Critics Prize—equivalent to the Pulitzer—and was elected to the Berlin Academy of Arts. For Bachmann, a shy and private person who disliked the limelight, the intellectual glory was a mixed blessing. As soon as she became a public figure, she left Austria for good and lived, variously, in Italy, Switzerland, and Germany. Her second poetry collection, Invocation of the Great Bear, was published when she was thirty. Reviews were admiring, but Bachmann then announced she was no longer writing poetry. Her public was stunned. “Quitting,” she insisted, “is a strength, not a weakness.” The narcotizing beauty of formal poetry, she had discovered, muffled her political intent. Instead she wrote radio plays, short stories, essays, and librettos (and the occasional poem, still, though she didn’t publish another collection).

As a librettist Bachmann worked with Hans Werner Henze, the German composer, whom she met through the leftist writers collective Group 47. Bachmann and Henze, who were born less than a week apart, had both grown up with a Nazi father and shared a hatred of fascism. And for Henze, a gay communist, postwar Germany remained dangerous. In 1953 the platonic couple lived together on the Neapolitan volcanic island of Ischia, and they later spent time in Naples and Rome. They collaborated on the operas The Prince of Homburg, which was performed by the English National Opera in 1996, and The Young Lord, whose libretto Henze regarded as the best he’d ever set music to. Not that it always came easy: to force Bachmann to complete her daily word count, Henze sometimes locked her in a room, not even letting her out to eat. Still, they were artistic soulmates. “I will believe in you until the end of my life,” she wrote to him in 1956, “and wherever and whenever our paths will cross, there will be a feast, a new idea for a book, poems that I see in front of me…” His letters to her bore a dazzling variety of affectionate salutations: dear nightingale, adorabilissima, my little poor angel, dearest doctor, dearest wanderer.

Meanwhile, of course, she had nonplatonic relationships, including with the Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch. In 1962, their tempestuous four-year relationship ended badly. Frisch, who was divorced and fifteen years Bachmann’s senior, was unwilling to be monogamous, but he didn’t want Bachmann to enjoy the same freedoms. They split soon after Frisch took up with the much younger woman who became his next wife. In a letter to Henze from Zurich, Bachmann confessed to a suicide attempt and an “operation,” presumably an abortion. Henze duly summoned her to Italy and assigned work as a therapeutic distraction. The breakup, Bachmann believed, was “the biggest defeat of my life.”

Yet it is Bachmann’s relationship with the Jewish poet Paul Celan that has passed into romantic legend, a Mitteleuropean version of Ted and Sylvia or Barrett and Browning. Celan was introduced to Bachmann, a twenty-one-year-old doctoral candidate at the University of Vienna, while visiting Austria in the spring of 1948. Like Hamesh, Celan was six years Bachmann’s senior, orphaned, stateless, and deracinated. He grew up in Bukovina, a region then in Romania but now partly in Ukraine, with German as his mother tongue. His parents were murdered by the Nazis and he survived years in a labor camp. When he met Bachmann, he had already published one of the most important poems of the Holocaust, Death Fugue. After their encounter, she bragged in a letter home that “the Surrealist poet” Celan had, “splendidly enough, fallen in love with me … My room is a poppy field at the moment, as he inundates me with this flower.”

Celan soon returned to Paris, where he lived, and they sent notes back and forth. “I should have a castle for us and have you come to me,” Bachmann wooed him, “so that you can be my enchanted master in it, we will have a great many carpets inside and music, and we will invent love.” In October 1950, after she’d completed her Ph.D., Bachmann finally visited Celan in Paris and they spent two brief months together. Over the ensuing years they were sporadic and neurotic correspondents, with the shared emotional undertow of recent historical tragedy, Celan’s trauma and Bachmann’s generational guilt. “It frightens me a great deal to see you floating out into a great sea,” she wrote in an early letter, “but I mean to build a ship and bring you back home from your forlornness.” Of his poems, she insisted: “Sometimes I live and breathe only through them.” Not long after their time together in Paris, Celan told her: “We would only bring each other pain, you to me and I to you … friendship is the only possibility between us. The rest is irretrievably lost.”

It was not. In 1957, after crossing paths in Germany, they fell back into a passionate affair. But Celan was married to the French artist Gisèle Lestrange, and the following summer Bachmann decided to move in with Frisch. Though the anguished poets were never lovers again, they stayed in touch until a few years before Celan’s suicide. It wasn’t his first attempt, but this time it worked: in April 1970, during Passover, he drowned in the Seine. On his desk he had left a biography of the German Romantic poet Johann Hölderlin. The book was open to a page, reports Celan’s biographer John Felstiner, with an underlined sentence: “Sometimes this genius goes dark and sinks down into the bitter well of his heart.”

The details of Celan and Bachmann’s tormented and mostly epistolary romance were not common knowledge until 2008, when their correspondence was published and became a German-language bestseller. “Scarcely more breathlessly and desperately can two lovers ever have struggled for words,” marveled the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reviewer. “Little known among German literary historians, the relationship between these two poets amounts to one of the most dramatic and momentous occurrences in German literature.” Indeed, the letters reveal quite how entangled they were in each other’s work. In Celan’s Corona the speaker addresses his beloved: “we gaze at one another/we exchange dark words.” Bachmann told him in a letter that “Corona is the most beautiful of your poems: perfect anticipation of a moment in which everything turns to marble and remains so forever.” Several years later her poem Darkness Spoken responded: “And I don’t belong to you./Both of us mourn now.”

Celan haunts the pages of the only novel Bachmann published in her lifetime, Malina, a highly original meditation on trauma. After her ex-lover’s death, she revised the recently completed manuscript with allegorical reimaginings of their relationship and explicit allusions to his poetry. Celan had given Bachmann a leaf when they first met in Vienna. Later, after he accused of her losing it, she resurrected it in her poem The Storm of Roses: “a leaf that met us drifts after us on the waves.” In Malina, Bachmann added an especially painful passage to a complex, feverish dream sequence, already layered with Holocaust and Nazi imagery. The nameless narrator encounters her “first love,” who must cross the Danube in a truck with his wife and child. A “gentleman” then announces he has news and shows her a “desiccated” leaf. “My life is over,” the narrator thinks, “for during the transport he has drowned in the river, he was my life, I loved him more than my life.”

Malina is told via a compulsive, challenging, and densely referential first-person present tense that slides between fantasy, reality, and the murky realm in between. The narrator, a successful author, is meant to be writing a novel titled Death Styles (also the title of Bachmann’s unfinished triptych of novels, of which Malina was intended as the first). What she actually does is compose (and often destroy) letters and telegrams, talk on the phone, smoke, and tolerate “an unending pain which hits each and every nerve at each and every minute of the day.” But her hope of succeeding, after all, in marshaling the elusive utilities of language is never far below the surface. Her Hungarian boyfriend, Ivan, can “make consonants constant once again and comprehensible, to unlock vowels to their full resounding, to let words come over my lips once more.” And when Ivan demands that, instead of Death Styles, she writes a “beautiful” book, a “shower of words” starts in her head, “then a flickering, some syllables begin to glow, and brightly colored commas fly out of all the independent clauses and the periods which were once black have swollen into balloons which float up my cranium.”

The title character, with whom the narrator is obscurely obsessed, is both a shadowy proxy for Celan and a projection of her own self. “You came after me,” she tells Malina, “you can’t have preceded me, you’re completely inconceivable before me.” They share a Vienna apartment and a toxic codependency, while she pursues a more conventional romantic relationship with Ivan—who is an amalgamation, perhaps, of Celan and Frisch. “I need my double existence, my Ivanlife and my Malinafield.” But the novel is far more than autobiography or writing-as-therapy. Bachmann’s mission was to portray, in all its horror and confusion, the limitless effects of brutality as exercised militarily (the narrator’s dark patrilineal legacy), and in male-female relationships. “Fascism,” she said in an interview toward the end of her life, “is the first element in the relation between a man and a woman.” Within the logic of the heteropatriarchy as experienced in Malina, women are driven to distraction—destruction, even—by the men they love. Even sex is rarely any recompense:

What I’m talking about has nothing to do with the supposition that there are some men who are good lovers, there really aren’t. That is a legend which has to be destroyed someday, at most there are men with whom it is completely hopeless and a few with whom it’s not quite so hopeless … that is where the reason is to be found why only women always have their heads full of feelings and stories about their man or men. Such thoughts really do consume the greatest part of every woman’s time. But she has to think about it, she needs to evoke feeling … otherwise she could literally never bear being with a man, since every man really is sick and barely takes any notice of her.

When Malina was published in 1971, it became a German language best seller. But reviews were very mixed. According to Karen Leeder, an Oxford scholar of German literature, critics “failed to register the political intent of Bachmann’s work and were unsympathetic to representations of what appeared to be the trials of a self-indulgent, neurotic, bourgeois woman.” The novel was interpreted as simply a messy portrait of the author’s own life, a notion Bachmann rejected. “I would only call it an autobiography,” she said, “if one views it as the first person’s spiritual process.”

In the eighties, Malina was championed by writers like Christa Wolf and began to take its place as a feminist classic. In 1990, when it finally appeared in an English translation by Philip Boehm, it was hailed as “equal to the best of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Beckett” by The New York Times Book Review. The film adaptation, written by Elfriede Jelinek, directed by Werner Schroeter, and starring Isabelle Huppert, was released in 1991. This summer, a new revised edition of Boehm’s translation was released in the UK from Penguin Classics, and in the U.S. from New Directions with an introduction by Rachel Kushner. Dustin Illingworth in The Nation called the half-century-old novel “one of the most jagged renderings of female consciousness European literature has produced,” while the Guardian’s John Self found Bachmann’s vision “so original that the effect is like having a new letter of the alphabet.”

To boost the overdue Bachmann renaissance, a new edition of her and Celan’s Correspondence, translated by Wieland Hoban, is forthcoming from Seagull Books in October. War Diary, Bachmann’s teenage diary entries and letters from Jack Hamesh, translated by Mike Mitchell, with an afterword and notes by Hans Höller, is also currently available from Seagull. In preparation for the book’s first edition in 2010, Höller managed to trace Hamesh’s family. He had spent his life in Israel, married twice, and died in 1987. His two sons found a 1946 photo of Bachmann, about whom they knew nothing, in his effects. Now, writes Höller, “they are on friendly terms” with Bachmann’s brother, Heinz.

Bachmann lived for just two years after the publication of Malina. A fire in her Rome apartment, started after she fell asleep while smoking in bed, caused severe burns. Three weeks later, she died in the hospital. She was forty-seven. Her condition was likely exacerbated by the sudden detox from the alcohol and prescription drugs she’d used heavily for years, since her breakup with Frisch. It was viewed as a tragic yet literary death, “as if she had thought it up herself,” to quote the German newspaper the Bild. In the final pages of Malina, the narrator makes coffee and thinks: “I have to watch out that I don’t fall face first into the hot plate, that I don’t disfigure myself, burn myself, then Malina would have to call the police and the ambulance, he would have to confess his carelessness at having let a woman burn halfway to death.” The final stanzas of Bachmann’s poem My Bird run:

When I, crowned with smoke,
know again, whatever happens,
my bird, my nightly accomplice,
when I am ablaze at night,
a dark grove begins to crackle
and I strike the sparks from my body.

When I remain as I am, ablaze,
loved by the fire,
until the resin seeps from the stems,
drips onto the wounds and, warm,
spins down to the earth,
(and also when you rob my heart at night,
my bird of belief and my bird of trust!)
that watchtower moves into the light
to which you, calmly,
in splendid quiet fly—
whatever happens.


Read earlier installments of Feminize Your Canon here. 

Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly RoundtableLongreadsNewsweekThe Daily BeastSalonThe AwlWords without Borders, and other publications.