‘Malina’ by Ingeborg Bachmann (Review)

Moving on from our last Women In Translation Month trip, a rather sombre look at the lot of women in 19th/20th-century Japan, we’re heading off to Vienna today for a very different take on life.  This time around we’ll be having some fun with a writer enjoying a new relationship, glowing with happiness in the presence of her man.  Alas, good times rarely last, and as the passion cools, she’ll need a shoulder to cry on.  The question, of course, is whose…

Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, the Austrian writer’s only novel, is an entrancing, entertaining and, at times, perplexing book.  It’s a first-person account of a female writer living in Vienna, holed up in her apartment in the Ungargasse (a small street she considers her own private kingdom), and the story revolves around a fairly simple, yet vital, event, her relationship with Ivan, a man who lives across the street.  While this isn’t a book for explicit scenes, the first part focuses on their relationship, describing the frequent trivial phone calls, games of chess (with whiskey chasers) and the occasional outing with Ivan’s two children from a previous marriage.

However, Ivan isn’t the only man in the narrator’s life.  Her flat at the top of Ungargasse 6 is shared with the mysterious Malina, a man more spoken of than seen, who is always tactfully absent when Ivan comes around.  Later, though, as the writer’s relationship begins to cool, he emerges from the shadows to take on a greater role, and it’s a good job he does.  With his flatmate beginning to crumble, somebody needs to step up and make sure nothing happens to her – or that she doesn’t do anything to herself.

Although Bachmann is better known as a poet, Malina is regarded as her defining work, and it’s certainly an intriguing book with much to enjoy.  A Viennese setting always helps, and there’s great fun to be had in the outings the narrator takes us on in and around the Austrian capital, with visits to cafés, restaurants and parks, along with the odd weekend mini-break.  It must also be said that after spending many vicarious trips to the city in the company of a certain grumpy old man, Bachmann’s descriptions provide a refereshing change of perspective.

The first part is dominated by the joy and lightness felt by a writer in love.  We learn of her fortunate first encounter with Ivan and see how these first flushes of love inspire her to write something for him, something that will surprise and inspire the world:

Wenn es dieses Buch geben sollte, und eines Tages wird es das geben müssen, wird man sich vor Freude auf den Boden werfen, bloß weil man eine Seite daraus gelesen hat, man wird einen Luftsprung tun, es wird einem geholfen sein, man liest weiter und beißt sich in die Hand, um vor Freude nicht aufschreien zu müssen, es ist kaum auszuhalten, und wenn mann auf dem Fensterbrett sitzt und weiterliest, wirft man den Leuten auf der Straße Konfetti hinunter, damit sie erstaunt stehenbleiben, als wären sie in einen Karneval geraten, und man wirft Äpfel und Nüsse, Datteln und Feigen hinunter, als wäre Nikolaustag, man beugt sich, ganz schwindelfrei, aus dem Fenster und schreit: Hört nur, hört! schaut nur, schaut! ich habe etwas Wunderbares gelesen, darf ich es euch vorlesen, kommt näher alle, es ist zu wunderbar!
pp. 53/4 (Suhrkamp, 2019)

If this book should come to exist, and one day it simply must exist, you’ll throw yourself to the floor in raptures just because you read a page from it, you’ll jump for joy, you’ll feel much better, you read on and bite your hand to stop yourself from crying out in joy, it’s almost unbearable, and if you should sit on the window ledge and read on, you’ll hurl confetti down onto the people in the street below, so that they stop in amazement as if they’ve somehow got caught up in a Karneval parade, and you’ll toss apples and nuts, dates and figs down to them as if it were St. Nicholas Day, you’ll lean out of the window, with not a twinge of dizziness, and cry out: Listen up, listen! Look up, look!  I’ve read something wonderful, can I read it out to you, everyone gather around, it’s just too wonderful!
*** (my translation)

The first half of the novel is full of this breezy style, marked by long, breathless sentences.  There’s a palpable energy to the writing, but one that doesn’t really go anywhere, just whirling around dizzily and sweeping the narrator up in love.

Sadly, we don’t get to see this magical book (unless we’re reading it now!), but there is an example of the narrator’s writing early on in the form of an eight-page fairy tale, ‘Die Geheimnisse der Prinzessin von Kagran’ (‘The Secrets of the Princess of Kagran’), an allegorical tale of a princess captured by invading forces, her long path to freedom and the mysterious stranger who helps her.  It’s a story written while the narrator is in the first throes of love, and there are obvious parallels with what’s happening in her own life.  The princess is saved by a man who must part, promising that he’ll return when the time is right – and this is a man our princess will wait for.

And yet, this happy mood gradually darkens, and perhaps not quite as you might expect.  Beneath this almost manic happiness lies something darker, and the second part of Malina explores these shadows as the narrator is haunted by a series of dreams involving her father.  It’s here that Malina himself takes on greater prominence, staying with her and attempting to get her to discuss her issues, even if she constantly deflects the conversation from talk of the past.  Finally, the third part of the novel sees the downward spiral accelerate, with Malina concerned for the writer’s well-being.  It makes for a fairly troubling ending, particularly given what happened to Bachmann herself.  This book was written just a few years before her tragic death, meaning it’s very hard to resist the temptation to make connections between the fate of the protagonist and her creator.

Of the three main characters, Ivan is probably the least important, at times resembling a mere prop.  The writer herself is a far more interesting figure, scatterbrained, disorganised, fleeing from routine and responsibility, and relying on others to sort out the minutiae of daily life.  She can be rather blunt, unintentionally rude and is easily distracted, seeking company then running away once it arrives.  Unable to cope with ordinary life, she needs an anchor to keep her feet on the ground – and that is provided by Malina.

Malina is, of course, the key to the novel.  He’s the antithesis of the writer (she’s unnamed, but the story is fairly autobiographical – at one point, she mentions that she signs letters with the same initial as Ivan, so make of that what you will), but there’s far more to his identity than just a helpful friend:

Ivan ist angezogen und hat nicht mehr viel Zeit, er sagt:
Wie komisch du manchmal bist.
Nein, doch nicht ich, antworte ich schnell, aber die anderen, man hat mich früher auf so abwegige Gedanken gebracht, ich habe nie so gedacht, ich wäre auf Verachtung, auf Abneigung gekommen, und es ist ein Anderer in mir, der nie einverstanden war und der sich nie Antworten abzwingen ließ auf aufgezungene Fragen.
Soll es nicht heißen, die Andere in dir?
Nein, der Andere, ich bringe das nicht durcheinander.
Ein Andere.  Wenn ich sage, der Andere, dann mußt du mir schon glauben. (pp.143/4)

Ivan has finished dressing and doesn’t have much time, he says:
How strange you can be at times.
No, not me, I quickly reply, it’s other people, they used to give me strange ideas, I never thought I’d be met with contempt, with aversion, and it’s another, inside me, who was never happy with this, he never allowed himself to be forced into answers to intrusive questions.
Don’t you mean she, this other inside you?
He.  When I call this other he, you have to believe me. (***)

Malina’s true identity is never explicitly stated (well, not more so than this), but given all the conversations, his good advice, his convenient absences when Ivan’s around – well, I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.

Malina is a book people have been recommending to me for years, and I’m very happy I finally found the time for it.  While slightly fragmented and occasionally frustrating, Bachmann’s novel is never less than absorbing and is, of course, superbly written.  It raises the question of how Philip Boehm has handled it in his translation, published by Penguin Modern Classics (better than me, that’s for sure…), but you can find that out for yourselves.  If you do try it, though, please be sure to let me know what you think 😉

4 thoughts on “‘Malina’ by Ingeborg Bachmann (Review)

  1. I found it a bit frustrating to read as well, but would like to read it again as it was an interesting book. I read the Boehm translation for GLM VI all those years ago. I kept meaning to watch the film with Isabelle Huppert but still haven’t got round to it.


    1. Jonathan – Oh dear, I think I Iiked it a lot more than you did! I had no idea what it was really about before I started, and it definitely went in a very different direction to what I’d expected. However, even if it can seem a bit disjointed, I could see what she was trying to do, even with her fairy tale.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You did a good job with the translation! Bravo!
    One of my favourites from way back when, you’ve made me want to reread it. And I loved your comment about seeing Vienna theough other eyes than those of a grumpy old man!


    1. Marina Sofia – Thanks 🙂 I’m quite proud of these two efforts as the first one really needed to catch the breathless, gushing style of the original, almost like something out of the 1950s or 60s, while the second had that tricky part where the gender inflection needed to be brought into English in a different way. And, yes, not quite the same as walking the streets with Thomas Bernhard 😉

      Liked by 1 person

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