Ingeborg Bachmann is perhaps the most well-known female author in the contemporary German-speaking world, famed as much for her troubled personal life as for her sublime and stirring writing. Bachmann was born in 1926 in Klagenfurt, Carinthia, a former Duchy of the Holy Roman Empire and later one of the ‘crown lands’ of Austria-Hungary. Its complicated history and geography (it shares borders – at times disputed – with Italy and Slovenia) inform Bachmann’s writing. Her prose, in particular, incisively reflects on the meaning of a national identity entangled with the arbitrary systems of politics and geography, and yet in many ways transcends them. Her cosmopolitan interest in language and other cultures infuses her work, littered with foreign expressions (especially in the short story ‘Simultan’ ), figures (such as Ivan in Malina ) and settings (for example, Egypt in Das Buch Franza ). Bachmann herself travelled widely, visiting Poland and Egypt (amongst the most significant trips for her writing), and lived in Vienna, Berlin, Zurich and Rome, where she died in 1973.
As with many of the great post-1945 German-language writers, the influence of National Socialism and the Second World War on Bachmann’s writing cannot be understated. In an interview with Gerda Bödefeld in 1971 (reprinted in Wir müssen wahre Sätze finden, 1983), Bachmann claimed that her childhood had been destroyed when Hitler’s troops marched into Klagenfurt in April 1938. Her sparse diaries from the period, published recently as Kriegstagebuch (War Diary ) attest to the defining influence of this period, especially as far as Bachmann’s critical stance towards violence and suffering are concerned. This can be discerned in a story written during the war 'Das Honditschkreuz' ('The Cross of Honditsch' [ca. 1943]; reprinted in Werke, vol 4) but not published until after Bachmann’s death. Immediately after the war, Bachmann’s sensitivity to these issues was developed in conversation with the British soldier Jack Hamesh, a Viennese Jew who escaped Austria as a Kindertransportee. He introduced her to aspects of German and Austrian culture suppressed by the Nazis. Their relationship represented a prelude to Bachmann’s confrontation with the dark side of Austrian history; her personal and creative engagement with the past was intensified by her father’s membership of the NSDAP.
In 1945, Bachmann enrolled at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Innsbruck, continuing her studies in Graz and from 1946 in Vienna, where she was awarded a doctorate in 1950. Her dissertation treated the critical reception of Martin Heidegger’s existential philosophy. During this period several Kafkaesque short stories appeared in the Wiener Tageszeitung, including 'Im Himmel und auf Erden' (In Heaven and on Earth [29 May 1949]), 'Das Lächeln der Sphinx'(The Laugh of the Sphinx [25 September 1949]), 'Die Karawane und die Auferstehung'(The Caravan and the Resurrection [25 December 1949]), all reprinted in Werke, vol. 4 edited by Koschel, von Weidenbaum and Münster. Fragments from a problematic uncompleted novel, Die Stadt ohne Namen, also date from this period.
After graduating, Bachmann began working for various Allied radio broadcasters, initially writing for the news and features section of the Red-White-Red network managed by the American occupying forces, before moving into its scripting department, and eventually writing her own radio plays. The first to be broadcast, Ein Geschäft mit Träumen (A Business with Dreams ), deals with the suppression of individual desire in the public world of capitalism. Bachmann engages more critically with the idea of escape in Die Zikaden (The Cicadas ), which reworks a story told by Socrates in Phaedrus about the mystical song of the cicadas, in which humans were charmed into forfeiting life for their art. Without food, drink or sleep, they lost all humanity. Their song tempts others to do the same. In Bachmann’s play, this myth evokes the dangers of retreating into the world of art and turning one’s back on society, a message that resounded in the socially engaged literature of the post-war period. In Bachmann’s best known radio play, Der gute Gott von Manhattan (The Good God of Manhattan ), absolute love represents a refuge for the individual, an ecstatic state in which he or she can achieve ultimate gratification and in which the rest of the world no longer seems to matter. Such romantic fulfilment thus disrupts a social order that requires the subordination of the individual to economic and political ends. In this play, the female lover, Jennifer, is murdered by the Good God who seeks to eliminate all lovers in the city of New York, the centre of the consumerist world. Her partner, Jan, escapes this fate because he has begun to withdraw from the relationship; when the Good God strikes, he is sitting in a bar. Here we see Bachmann’s concern with gender relations begin to crystallize. She senses that while women are taught to sacrifice everything in romantic relationships, men are incapable of absolute love and selfless action. Her depiction of the destructiveness of male-female relationships would influence a generation of feminists who were particularly inspired by the novel Malina (Malina ) and the fragmentary Das Buch Franza (The Book of Franza). In 1959, TheGood God of Manhattan was awarded the War Blind Radio Play Prize. Bachmann’s acceptance speech reiterates her conviction that the author must not deny or obscure pain and suffering, but acknowledge it ‘damit wir sehen können’ ([so that we can see], Werke, 4, p. 275).
Bachmann first came to the attention of the literary establishment through her poetry. In May 1953, she was awarded the prestigious prize of the Gruppe 47, a group of influential writers and publishers. Her first volume of poetry, Die Gestundete Zeit (Time Deferred ) followed in December that year. The modernist influence on her highly symbolic poetry is evident. The spectre of a dark past and the threatening Cold War present loom over the verses which conjure up images of death, destruction and emptiness. The rejection of conventional poetic forms and rhyme evokes the collapse of the social and linguistic order. Where traditional poetic imagery appears, it is immediately subverted, as in ‘Früher Mittag’, which first describes early summer, a verdant lime tree and gushing fountains and then, half-way through the first verse, the tattered wings of an abused phoenix and a disfigured hand reach into a cornfield. The words ‘sieben Jahre später,/ in einem Totenhaus,/ trinken die Henker von gestern / den goldenen Becher aus’ [seven years later, / in the house of the dead, / the hangmen of yesteryear drink / from golden chalices] remind the reader that it is no longer possible to remember Germany’s lyrical heritage without also remembering its crimes. There are, however, utopian notes in her poetry, despite its admonition to remember and act responsibly. In a cover story (ground breaking not only because it discussed poetry, but a female poet), the German weekly Der Spiegel (18 August 1954) aligned Bachmann with her poetic colleagues across Europe: she symbolized Germany’s rebirth into an international literary culture. Scholars have pinpointed this news story as the birth of the Bachmann myth: her almost symbolic status in post-1945 culture, as much for her person as for her literature (Monika Albrecht, 2004). Alongside Paul Celan, with whom she commenced a passionate and tragic relationship in 1948, she became one of the most acclaimed and iconic poets of post-war Germany. Their literary dialogue can be discerned in Celan’s Mohn und Gedächtnis [Poppy and Memory ) and Bachmann’s Die Gestundete Zeit as well as her novel Malina, which bears traces of her profound grief at Celan’s suicide in 1970. Monika Albrecht (1992) also sees in Malina Bachmann’s response to the novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein (1964), which she perceived as a plagiarism of her character by her former partner, Max Frisch.
By the time that Bachmann published her first novel, she had grown disillusioned with poetry, doubting its social relevance in an age of impending nuclear war and political turmoil. The poem ‘Kein Delikatessen’ articulates her scepticism. It was published in the left-wing journal Kursbuch 15 (1968) proclaiming the death of literature. The fact that Bachmann continued to write poetry in private as a means to come to terms with her personal anxiety (see Áine McMurtry, 2012) is perhaps unsurprising given the author’s paradoxical decision to announce her effective ‘retirement’ from poetry through the vehicle of poetry. Following the self-imposed hiatus, she would return once more to the genre with 'Böhmen liegt am Meer', one of her most well-known and by many considered one of her best poems. The personal poems (unfinished and not intended for publication) have since been published in the collections Letzte, unveröffentlichte Gedichte (1998) and Ich weiß keine bessere Welt (2000).
In comparison to most of her early short stories, the tales in Bachmann’s first prose volume, Das dreißigste Jahr (The Thirtieth Year ), can be related to a definite time and society. ‘Jugend in einer österreichischen Stadt’ ('Youth in an Austrian Town') and ‘Unter Mördern und Irren’ (‘Amongst Murderers and Madmen’) look back at National Socialism and consider its legacy in a society all too eager to forget. The literary establishment was nonplussed by Bachmann’s first concerted forays into prose writing, sometimes regarded as a disappointing descent from the supposedly abstract beauty of her poetry to the petty concerns of ‘women’s writing’. Stories like ‘Das dreißigste Jahr’, ‘Alles’ (Everything) and ‘Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah’ develop the themes of disappointed love, alienation, loneliness and desperation and circle around unfulfilling relationships. They nevertheless imagine utopian moments, new possibilities for the individual as well as social worlds structured in different ways. Struggling female figures dominate all the stories in Simultan (1972).
The feminist reception of Bachmann’s writing (albeit delayed) was inspired by the profound suffering of her female protagonists, especially in the uncompleted novel cycle Todesarten (Ways of Dying), comprising the novel fragments Das Buch Franza and Requiem für Fanny Goldmann (Requiem for Fanny Goldmann), both published in uncompleted form in 1979. In 1995, Dirk Göttsche, Monika Albrecht and Robert Pichl published a critical edition outlining the development of the Todesarten novels, on which Bachmann had worked from around 1962 until her premature death in 1973.
Bachmann’s only completed novel, Malina, is a modernist masterpiece: supremely ambiguous, puzzling, thought-provoking yet deeply moving. There is no plot as such in this highly experimental novel which unfolds in the endlessly deferred present until the last line: ‘es war Mord’ (it was murder). These words mark the destruction of the female Ich (I), who struggles to survive in a society that she perceives as an unremitting assault on her subjectivity. At the end of the novel, the Ich disappears into a crack in the wall as Malina, the enigmatic double with whom she shares her home, eliminates all traces of her. This novel unites the themes that emerged in her earlier writing. The ecstatic and liberating possibilities of absolute love are paired with a rousing depiction of romantic disappointment and hints at a deep scepticism about male capacity for absolute love. The symbolic plane of the novel, at least, operates according to a series of gendered ideas that constantly clash: intuition, emotion, spontaneity, embodied in the narrating female Ich, appear incompatible with the dominant values of reason, composure and logic, represented by Malina and also Ivan, the lover of the Ich. The ambiguous death of the Ich stages the repressive mechanisms of a society without a conscience, a society that privileges self-interest and ‘progress’ above all else, a society driven by the destructive Enlightenment rationality described by Theodor Adorno and Max Horkeimer in the seminal Dialektik der Aufklärung (1947). As feminist critics would argue, the death of the Ich (read as murder) represents the tragedy of femininity in a patriarchal society. The novel does not end on an unambiguously negative note, however. As with all Bachmann’s writing, there is something hopeful about the conclusion, when the female narrator disappears into a crack in the wall. This fissure remains visible, a reminder of the violence that society tries to repress. That it is not sealed suggests that the Ich may one day re-emerge, when the world is no longer hostile to her desires.
On 25 September 1973, Ingeborg Bachmann was seriously injured by a fire in her Rome apartment. She was hospitalized but perished weeks later, on 17 October, allegedly as a result of complications caused by her abuse of barbiturates and the subsequent withdrawal symptoms. If Bachmann has (like many great female writers) become a somewhat mythical figure in the popular imagination, it is in no small part due to the manner of her death, combined with her troubled personal life. Her true legacies, however, are her writing and the moral imperatives it powerfully conveys.
Compiled by Katherine Stone (Warwick)
Die gestundete Zeit (Frankfurt am Main: Studio Frankfurt, 1953)
Anrufung des Großen Bären (Munich: Piper, 1956)
Letzte, unveröffentlichte Gedichte, edited by Hans Höller (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1998)
Ich weiß keine bessere Welt, edited by Isolde Moser, Heinz Bachmann and Christian Moser (Munich: Piper, 2000)
Das dreißigste Jahr [short-stories] (Munich: Piper, 1961)
Malina [novel] (Munich: Piper, 1971)
Simultan [short-stories] (Munich: Piper, 1972)
Der Fall Franza; Requiem für Fanny Goldmann [fragment] (Munich: Piper, 1979)
Römische Reportagen: eine Wiederentdeckung [non-fiction] (Munich: Piper, 1998)
Die Radiofamilie, edited by Joseph McVeigh (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2011)
Ein Geschäft mit Träumen [radio play] (NWDR, 3 November 1952)
Die Zikaden [radio play] (NWDR, 23 March 1955)
Der gute Gott von Manhattan (NDR, 29 May 1958)
Ingeborg Bachmann – Hans Werner Henze: Briefe einer Freundschaft (Munich: Piper, 2004)
Ingeborg Bachmann – Paul Celan. Herzzeit (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 2008)
Ingeborg Bachmann, Kriegstagebuch, edited by Hans Höller (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010)
Werke [4 vols], ed. by Clemens Muenster, Inge Von Weidenbau and Christine Koeschel (Munich: Piper, 1978)
'Todesarten'-Projekt: kritische Ausgabe [4 vols], ed. by Monika Albrecht and Dirk Göttsche (Munich: Piper, 1995)
Ingeborg Bachmann. Kritische Schriften, ed. by Monika Albrecht and Dirk Göttsche (Munich: Piper, 2005)
Translations into Foreign Languages
In the Storm of Roses: Selected Poems [Translated by Marc Anderson] (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986)
The Thirtieth Year: Stories [Translation of Das dreißigste Jahr by Michael Bullock] (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1987)
Malina [Translation of Malina by Philip Boehm] (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1990)
Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann [Translated by Peter Filkins] (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1994)
The Book of Franza & Requiem for Fanny Goldmann [Translation of Der Fall Franza; Requiem für Fanny Goldmann by Peter Filkins] (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1999)
Three Radio Plays [Translation of Der Gute Gott von Manhattan, Die Zikaden and Ein Geschäft mit Träumen by Lilian Friedberg] (Riverside: Ariadne, 1999)
Darkness Spoken: The Collected Poems [Translated by Peter Filkins] (Brookline: Zephyr Press, 2006)
Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan [Translation of Ingeborg Bachmann – Paul Celan: Herzzeit by Wieland Hoban] (London: Seagull, 2010)
War Diary: With Letters from Jack Hamesh [Translation of Kriegstagebuch by Michael Mitchell] (London: Seagull, 2011)
The Radio Family [Translation of Die Radiofamilie by Michael Mitchell] (London: Seagull, 2014)
Achberger, Karen: Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press [Understanding Modern European and Latin American Literature 1], 1995)
Agnese, Barbara: Der Engel der Literatur: zum philosophischen Vermächnis Ingeborg Bachmanns (Vienna: Passagen, 1996)
Albrecht, Monika: ‘Mein Name sei Gantenbein – mein Name? Malina. Zum intertextuellen Verfahren der “imaginären Autobiographie” Malina’ in Ingeborg Bachmanns ‘Malina’, ed. by Andrea Stoll (Frankfurt/M.: Suhrkamp, 1992, pp. 265-287)
—: ‘Männermythos, Frauenmythos, und Danach? Anmerkungen Zum Mythos Ingeborg Bachmann’ (German Life and Letters 57.1, 2004, pp. 91-110)
— and Göttsche, Dirk [eds.]: Über die Zeit schreiben: literatur- und kulturwissenschaftliche Essays zu Ingeborg Bachmanns Todesarten-Projekt, 3 vols (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 1998, 2000, 2004)
— and Göttsche, Dirk [eds.]: Bachmann-Handbuch: Leben – Werk – Wirkung (Stuttgart: Metzler, 2002)
Bird, Stephanie: Women Writers and National Identity: Bachmann, Duden, Oezdamar (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003)
—: ‘Ingeborg Bachmann’ in Landmarks in German Women’s Writing, ed. by Hilary Brown (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2006, pp. 155-172)
—: ‘Malina’ in Landmarks in the German Novel, vol 2, ed. by Michael Minden and Peter Hutchinson (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2009, pp. 25-42)
Boa, Elizabeth: 'Reading Ingeborg Bachmann' in Post-War Women's Writing in German: Feminist Critical Approaches, ed. by Chris Weedon (Oxford: Berghahn, 1997, pp. 269-288)
Brinker-Gabler, Gisela and Zisselsberger, Markus: If We Had the Word: Ingeborg Bachmann, Views and Reviews (Riverside: Ariadne, 2004)
Grobbel, Michaela: Enacting Past and Present: The Memory Theaters of Djuna Barnes, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Marguerite Duras (Oxford: Lexington, 2004)
Leahy, Caitríona: Der Wahre Historiker: Ingeborg Bachmann and the Problem of Witnessing History (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2007)
— and Kronin, Bernadette: Re-acting to Ingeborg Bachmann: Ingeborg Bachmann (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2006)
Leeder, Karen: ‘Ingeborg Bachmann as Poet and Myth: A Case Study in Cultural Impact’ in Cultural Impact in the German Context: Studies in Transmission, Reception, and Influence, ed. by Rebecca Braun and Lyn Marven (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2010, pp. 260-277)
Lennox, Sara: Cemetery of the Murdered Daughters: Feminism, History, and Ingeborg Bachmann (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2006)
McMurtry, Áine: Crisis and Form in the Later Writing of Ingeborg Bachmann: An Aesthetic Examination of the Poetic Drafts of the 1960s (London: MHRA [Bithell Series of Dissertations 39], 2012)
—: ‘Writing Wrongs: Ingeborg Bachmann’s Poetic Drafts of the 1960s and their Contemporary Reception’ in German Text Crimes: Writers Accused, from the 1950s to the 2000s, ed. by Tom Cheesman (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2013, pp. 49-74)
Minden, Michael: ‘Modernism’s Struggle for the Soul: Rainer Maria Rilke’s Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina’ (German Life and Letters 67.3, 2014, pp. 320-340)
Paul, Georgina: Perspectives on Gender in Post-1945 German Literature (Rochester, NY: Camden House, 2009)
Remmler, Karen: Waking the Dead: Correspondences between Walter Benjamin's Concept of Remembrance and Ingeborg Bachmann's Ways of Dying (Riverside: Ariadne, 1996)
Schlipphacke, Heidi: Nostalgia After Nazism: History, Home, and Affect in German and Austrian Literature and Film (Cranbury: Associated University Press, 2010)
Stoll, Andrea: Erinnerung als ästhetische Kategorie des Widerstandes im Werk Ingeborg Bachmanns (Frankfurt/M.: Peter Lang, 1991)
—: Ingeborg Bachmann: Der dunkle Glanz der Freiheit: Biografie (Munich: btb, 2015)
Wegener, Tessa: ‘Blurred Spaces and Belated Shock: the Poetics of Multidirectional Memory in Ingeborg Bachmann’s The Book of Franza’ (Women in German Yearbook 30, 2014, pp. 1-22)
Weigel, Sigrid: Ingeborg Bachmann: Hinterlassenschaften unter Wahrung des Briefgeheimnisses (Munich: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2003)
Wimmer, Gernot [ed.]: Ingeborg Bachmann und Paul Celan: Historisch-poetische Korrelationen (Berin: de Gruyter, 2014)