Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann review – a singular woman adrift

A new translation of the Austrian writer’s only novel reminds us of her profound and unusual talent

In the astonishing desolation and wonder that is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, first published in 1971, there is no certain narrative, but there are many, deeply internalised, stories. There is the buried detective story struggling to surface; the story of female subjectivity and trauma, and male violence; of the nightmare of the war that tore her century (Bachmann was born in Austria and was the daughter of a Nazi party member); of the impossibility of love between a man and a woman; of the disintegration of words and meanings. Intended as the first in a three-volume series entitled Death Styles, Malina is above all a “story within the self” – though self is an increasingly unstable concept in this novel in which nothing is fixed, everything is unsafe, and an ill wind blows through the text.

There might not be the comfort of a narrative, but a clear structure attempts to hold chaos at bay. Malina is made up of three long chapters. The first, Happy with Ivan, evokes the narrator’s obsessive relationship with a heedless younger man who withholds himself and to whom she is in thrall. She waits for him to turn up, tries to call him on phones that are sometimes dead, smokes, drinks, feels “always in a panic”, her mouth full of cotton wool and throttle marks on her neck, death lurking in the shadows. Meanwhile Malina, the man she lives with, embodies an increasingly sinister masculinity. He’s a military historian, a man of reserve and order, chilly, enigmatic, watchful.

In this opening chapter there is a time – “today”, which in its boundlessness is an impossible word, one that “only suicides should use” – and a precise geography: a named street in Vienna where all three characters live. But with the second chapter, The Third Man, we are in “non-times”, in a sequence of hallucinatory nightmares that the narrator suffers. She dreams of her father, the violent third man who murders and rapes and next to whom Sylvia Plath’s Daddy seems positively sweet. Into these brutalising dreams swarm the horrors of war and its aftermath. Here, in sentences that last so long you want to scream, are ice and fire and blackened skin; murdered daughters and whips and instruments of torture. Here, finally, are the gas chambers themselves. There is no longer war and peace, “only war”, and “you are the war”, Malina tells her. “You yourself.”

The third section, Last Things, returns to the calm of erotic despair. In it, the narrator’s charismatic voice is repeatedly interrupted by a collage of letters (that are never sent), of phone calls (that may have never taken place), of dialogues with Malina, of his insistence that she must kill Ivan. The word echoes through the text: “kill, kill, kill”. Because in the end, as we have known from the beginning, this is a murder story.

‘Many, deeply internalised, stories’: a scene from the 1991 adaptation of Malina
‘Many, deeply internalised, stories’: a scene from the 1991 adaptation of Malina. Photograph: TCD/Prod.DB/Alamy Stock Photo

But who dies? Who even lives in this “story within the self?” Ivan comes and goes, summoned by her need; she creates him and without him she does not exist. Malina is there and not there: he lives in her flat but often invisibly. What’s more, their maid is called Lina, and in the central section a woman called Melanie slides into the theatre of her mind to be seduced and violated by her Nazi father. The narrator declares herself Malina’s double, but doubleness is everywhere; everything mutates and slides queasily into everything else.

Above all, who is this narrator whose voice so captures us and draws us on? She is a writer of stories that will never be read; in the novel’s opening, very short, cast list she is listed as “Myself”. She signs her letters “an unknown woman”: she is unknown to herself, and ironically and desperately performs herself, less and less convinced by her lines, by her thoughts, by her own reality. She is bruisingly close yet remains at a distance, a stranger to us and to herself.

The narrative that has always flowed towards formlessness, collapses. Other texts break in: interviews, phone calls and bureaucratic instructions; transcriptions of tapes that have been erased, letters, dialogues as if from a play, musical scores. Philosophers lurk in the wings. Proust is here, and Kafka of course, whose Josef K stalks the pages. There are chess games, like a grid of precision, but these usually aren’t finished or they end in stalemates. There is a home, but its walls are cracking; a damp, black stain is growing like a virus. There are memories, but our unknown woman shatters against every one of them. She is trying to write words that will bring meaning back, or at least its semblance, but “there is no beautiful book” and “there is no story”, and in answer to Malina’s question, “What is life?” she replies: “Whatever can’t be lived.”

And yet for all its terror and dread, its death-haunted self-interrogations, Malina is never a depressing novel. Instead, it is eerie, vulnerable, brave and captivating. With its long ribbons of digressive sentences – sometimes looping over a page – and its echoes and rhythms that bring coherence where there is none, it performs a task that it declares impossible: retrieves a self from the rubble, redeems the corrupted act of writing, becomes its own unwritten “beautiful book”.

Bachmann died in a fire in her bedroom (apparently caused by a lit cigarette) in 1973. Malina, which was to have been the overture to her Death Styles sequence, became her sole novel. It urges us, down the decades, to “speak across borders even if borders pass through every word”.

Nicci Gerrard’s most recent book is What Dementia Teaches Us About Love (Penguin). Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Philip Boehm, is published by Penguin (£9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £15, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99

Contributor

Nicci Gerrard

The GuardianTramp

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