Friederike Mayröcker – Elegy to an Elegy

Friederike Mayröcker was a “grande dame in German[-language] literature,” wrote the New York Times, following her death last June at the age of 96. In the 1999 photo accompanying the article, she was sitting in her Vienna apartment at a tiny table, surrounded by piles upon piles of papers and books strewn this way and that. 

At first glance, Mayröcker’s writing conveys a similar sense of sprawl: seemingly arbitrary capitalization, italicization, abbreviations and sentence fragments; accounts of random dreams, observations, memories, encounters – all peppered with names (some known, some not), sensations, emotions, references, and the odd scrawled doodle thrown in for good measure. Little semblance of a narrative or sequence – instead, piles upon piles of words and sentences proliferating in every possible direction. 

It’s sometimes difficult to avoid judging such chaos, but as artists like Mayröcker demonstrate, art is sometimes about extracting meaning from the ongoing chaos that is everyday life. After the last page of The Communicating Vessels, initially bewildered impressions gradually transform into a finer appreciation for the methods behind this ‘madness.’

And “grande dame” she is, after receiving many prestigious German-language awards for her poetry and prose and often being associated – along with her partner of a half century, the equally esteemed Ernst Jandl – with the Wiener Gruppe of avant-garde writers formed in the 1950s. 

The Communicating Vessels

The current volume, in a fine new translation by Alexander Booth, is actually a compilation of The Communicating Vessels and a second work, And I Shook Myself a Beloved, subtitled “Two Portraits of Grief,” written in the aftermath of Jandl’s death. 

To say that Mayröcker writes sentences on pieces of paper would be far too limiting: her page is more like a canvas, where words proliferate in shapes and colors that capture mood or emotion; in this case, the fleeting grasp of grief and regret. She will often directly cite a painting (particularly the abstract mixed-media works of Antoni Tàpies) to suggest a particular feeling, as well as quoting certain texts (e.g. Jacques Derrida’s The Post Card) with which she was particularly obsessed, poring through them, taking copious notes. 

When certain ‘sources’ were particularly vital, Mayröcker would literally nail them to the wall so as not to lose them. 

…in the chaos of my room where every object goes under or is swallowed up, 

as if they were wearing camouflage, I try to accentuate certain particularly 

important objects, namely, position them so it is easier for me to find them 

again, I even nail objects that will allow themselves to be nailed to the walls

or keep them in prominent places…

Mayröcker often claimed that she could only properly write alone in her study (she and Jandl lived separately), undisturbed, and surrounded by her ‘materials.’ At one point in writing And I Shook Myself a Beloved, her apartment had become so cluttered, she would head off to a coffeehouse just to find a clean surface to work on. Still, the ‘real’ writing would take place at home.

For Mayröcker, writing was a magical event, yet also a physical act that needed space and privacy and freedom to be executed. Much of her work describes her writing process, which as she aged, became more and more of a struggle, while never less of a compulsion. Much of the movement consisted of being pulled back and forth between her typewriter (“the machine”) and her daily distractions. 

I literally had to SUCK myself AWAY from the machine in order to wash, 

dress, and comb my hair…I yell, rush through my shower and dive-orgies

in order to get right back to typing, etc. 

But all throughout this process of layering, exhuming, moving and conjuring, a main theme does emerge in this book: Whether mourning the absence of her soulmate, contemplating her own mortality, or refusing to bring her book to an end, she rails against the finality of limits on creativity, and on life itself, even as the last page arrives:

…and now the end has come, but I have not found an end I never

find an end.

Resting in peace, Friederike Mayröcker will live on in her writing.

Frederike MAyröcker - The Communicating Vessels

Friederike Mayröcker 

The Communicating Vessels

translated by Alexander Booth

A Public Space Books 

March 2021

pp 256