Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina is a conundrum, a broad sweeping novel that defies genre, breaking out of traditional forms to talk about disjointed identity and sense of place amid the shards of post-war Europe. Widely admired, reviewers have found Malina hard to talk about: John Williams, writing in the New York Times, believes it is “very much a war story, if not in conventional ways.” The Guardian’s Nicci Gerrard notes “the buried detective story struggling to surface” up through an altogether different narrative “of female subjectivity and trauma.” The novelist Rachel Kushner thinks it is “a portrait, in language, of female consciousness.”
Born 1926 in Klagenfurt, Bachmann is considered one of the most important Austrian writers of the 20th century, whose work focused on the role of women in a patriarchal society, the ramifications of war and peace and individual human suffering. These themes are very much present in Malina, which was also adapted into a 1991 movie starring the great French actress Isabelle Huppert and written by another indispensable Austrian literary luminary, the Nobel Prize winner Elfriede Jelinek.
First published in English in 1990, Malina has now been nobly re-translated by Philip Boehm and his introductory note is as clear an indication as any of the substantial challenge he faced in interpreting this rather mysterious work, whose flow is that of a river with many bends. Using contemporary American English, Boehm writes, “I have attempted to capture both the wordplay of the original as well as its unique rhythm.” That rhythm breaks and chops between first-person recollections, fragments of conversations, snippets of other languages including Hungarian and French, lines of musical score, recreations of dreams, letters, and bureaucratic interactions. Wisely, Boehm left many of the Viennese idioms untranslated, adding to the English edition’s sense of place.
Between Two Worlds
That place is what Bachmann called Ungargassenland, where the novel’s unnamed female narrator and her competing lovers, Ivan and the titular Malina, live. “Whoever sees the world from such a narrow point of view as the Third District is naturally inclined to extol the Ungargasse,” she writes. “There’s no doubt that Vienna has much prettier streets; however, they occur in other districts, and evoke the same response that overly beautiful women do: they are duly admired, but who would even consider approaching them?”
“Summary does Malina no favors,” observed Dustin Illingworth, writing for The Nation. But it is enough to say that the novel unfolds in three distinct parts. The first, the longest, handles The Woman (as she is called in the film version) and her competing relationships with the man she lives with, Malina, a museum employee and minor, forgettable intellectual, versus the man after whom she longs and obsesses, the Hungarian-born Ivan. “I am double,” the narrator says, at once Ivan’s and Malina’s. “Ivan and I: the world converging; Malina and I, since we are one: the world diverging.”
Malina is a novel that ever faces inward, turning in on itself, the narrator writing herself into existence. It is also one that shifts onto especially disturbing terrain in its second and third acts. If the novel’s initial episodes are anchored in Ungargassenland, the second part is detached from time and place, formed by the narrator’s unsettling memories of her violent father, the novel’s “third man.” We share her visceral dreams, drawing on the images and experiences of the Second World War: the electric barbed wire fence and the watchtower; the father’s shiny black boots and riding crop, rifle and execution pistol. “His costumes are worn in the deepest night, bloodstained and horrible.”
The third part is both the novel’s and the narrator’s denouncement. “I have lived in Ivan,” she says, “and die in Malina.” Under the weight of depression, trauma, and violence, as well as these larger forces of war and patriarchy, it is in its final pages that Malina finally collapses in on itself, the fragments breaking apart. Content dictates form.