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