Reviews

The Burning Desire For Stalemate

A review of "Malina" by Ingeborg Bachmann.

Originally published in 1971, Malina is the enthralling debut novel by Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73), made available in English through a lucid new translation by Philip Boehm. Born in Klagenfurt, Austria, Bachmann rose to prominence as a distinctive, unabashedly feminist voice within the post-War German-language literary scene, and this timely reissue of Malina should help to give her work the broader exposure it deserves. Bachmann originally conceived of the novel as the first in a trilogy exploring different “deathstyles” or ways of dying — but this plan came to an abrupt halt after her own death at the age of forty-seven.

Malina centers on an unnamed female narrator and describes her relationships with three key male figures: her lover Ivan, her roommate Malina, and her father. Bachmann uses this setup to examine the aftereffects of the Holocaust on the psyches of ordinary Austrians: the novel shows how fascism, as a political phenomenon, is inextricably linked to the patriarchal dynamics that manifest in the narrator’s daily life. At the same time, the novel is a formally experimental tour de force, blending letters, interviews, musical scores, and one extended story-within-a-story (a fairytale about a princess). In its endeavor to capture the workings of the narrator’s chaotic, keenly perceptive mind, Malina has much in common with such groundbreaking modernist novels as Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, Clarice Lispector’s Near to the Wild Heart, and Samuel Beckett’s Molloy.

Most of the book takes place within the claustrophobic setting of the narrator’s Vienna apartment, where she spends her days smoking cigarettes, trying to avoid answering her mail, waiting for Ivan to call, having frustrating phone conversations with Ivan, taking sleeping pills, having violent dreams that she later recounts to Malina, and then repeating this process. Part One, “Happy with Ivan,” details his domineering presence in her life and their constant verbal sparring. During his visits to the apartment, Ivan and the narrator frequently play chess. One of Bachmann’s intellectual influences was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, who compared speaking a language to playing a game of chess. With these scenes Bachmann develops this analogy, presenting Ivan and the narrator’s conversational “game” as an ongoing power struggle, in which the narrator hopes that, if she’s lucky, she can achieve “stalemate.” She divides their relationship into a series of “sentence sets,” noting that “we’re still missing a lot of sentence sets, we don’t have a single sentence about feelings, since Ivan never pronounces any, and since I don’t dare create the first one, but I wonder about this far-off, absent set of sentences, despite all the good sentences we already know how to make.”

In Part Two, “The Third Man,” Ivan’s presence recedes, and the narrator relates a series of disturbing dreams about her father, in which he brings her to “the cemetery of the murdered daughters.” In between dreams, the narrator is questioned by Malina, though it’s unclear whether he means to play the role of confidant or interrogator:

Malina: Who is your father?

[…]

Me: I’ll never talk. Anyway I couldn’t, because I don’t know.

Malina: You do know. Swear that you don’t.

Me: I never swear.

Malina: Then I’ll tell you […].

Me: No. No. Never. Don’t ever tell me.

The dreams suggest that the narrator is a survivor of incest. But Malina is skeptical that she will ever be able to achieve clarity about what happened between her and her father. In a comment with broader historical resonances, he tells her: “Once one has survived something, the survival itself interferes with understanding.”

The novel’s most enigmatic character, Malina may be a figment of the narrator’s imagination, her projected alter ego. After all, he seems to know a lot about her dreams, and we rarely see him interact with anyone else. Regardless, in the novel’s final section, “Last Things,” his function gradually shifts: rather than simply playing the part of witness to the narrator’s psychological turmoil, he assumes a more active role in the narrative, as it moves toward its unsettling and unforgettable conclusion.

Malina is a difficult book — both in the personal and cultural histories it recounts, and in its plotlessness and fragmentary formal structure. But it is also a richly rewarding one, given the narrator’s — which is to say, Bachmann’s own — first-rate intelligence and verbal inventiveness. At one point, the narrator comments that “expression is insanity; it arises out of our insanity.” It is hard to imagine a more eloquent illustration of this claim than Malina.

FICTION
Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann
New Directions
Published June 25, 2019

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