As far as I’m concerned no one has ever died and very rarely do I consider anyone alive except in the theatre of my thoughts.
Coming to the close of Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel, Malina, one might be inclined to wonder if there is anything that can be said about the reading experience. The deeply internalized, fragmented, and operatic-toned narrative, can be—has been—parsed, analyzed, and examined and yet it retains a certain incorruptible integrity. It’s not an easy read, not so much for its technical difficulty, as for the absorbing, exhilarating, and disturbing intensity that pulls you in and holds you hostage until the surreal, dramatic finale in which the narrator virtually writes herself out of existence.
Malina is simultaneously invigorating and draining, richly detailed and frustratingly opaque. To read it is to be caught up in the narrator’s increasingly desperate effort to command her own narrative. And there is an uncommon grief that lingers long after the last notes are struck.
The novel, the only one Bachmann completed before her tragic death at the age of forty-seven, begins almost formally, with a list of characters. There is Ivan, born in Hungary, who works with money at a business that, to protect his future, is designated an “Institute for Extremely Urgent Affairs.” His young sons, Béla and András, who live with his ex-wife, spend time with him regularly. The titular character, Malina, is a forty-year-old civil servant who works at the Austrian Army Museum. Reserved and cerebral, and he shares an apartment with the narrator—a woman who refers to herself only as “I” (Ich—a writer of some renown, although, as in all things, she routinely absents herself, even from the opening credits where she describes in her vocation simply as “a profession (crossed out twice and written over).”
The time is: “Today,” the place: “Vienna.” The narrator’s anxious nature is evident from the first pages of the introductory section which sets the stage for the drama that will unfold in three acts. As she sketches out the essential map of her Vienna neighbourhood and draws the basic lines that connect her to Ivan, her love interest, and Malina, her housemate, she finds grounding in Place that eludes her in Time. “Today” is an almost overwhelming quality for her from the outset—an indication that this “today” will become an increasingly unstable measure as the narrative progresses. “I’m just afraid ‘today’” she warns us, “is too much for me, too gripping, too boundless, and that this pathological agitation will be a part of my ‘today’ until its final hour.”
Malina is then, in a sense, a persistent unravelling of time and the narrator’s psychologically fragile relation to it. Its threads, wound around Ivan in the beginning, and lost through the nightmarish middle chapter, will never quite be gathered again as her personality slowly disintegrates in the final part.
In the first chapter, “Happy with Ivan,” the narrator recounts her first fortuitous first encounter with Ivan in front of a florist’s shop and her immediate knowledge that she is meant to be with him. As far as she is concerned he has rediscovered her, reanimated her buried self, and made her feel whole. He completes her, she claims, in a way she longs to be completed:
At last I am able to move about in my flesh as well, with the body I have alienated with a certain disdain, I feel how everything inside is changing, how the muscles free themselves from their constant cramps, how their plain and diagonally striped systems relax, how both nervous systems convert simultaneously, because nothing takes place more distinctly than this conversion, an amending, a purification, the living, factual proof which could also be measured and labelled using the most modern instruments of metaphysics.
It is a relationship of physical convenience, no matter how the narrator revels in the perfection of their mutual understanding. Ivan is an unadventurous man. He offers little, but expects her to maintain a pleasant demeanour, present a feminine appearance, accompany him on outings with the children, and write joyous stories, rather than the morbid-titled tales he notices in her room. One senses he would prefer her to conform without question, and in her insistence that this is exactly what she wants as well, the narrative takes on a forced, uncomfortable tone. Meanwhile, Malina is, initially, an ambiguous presence who together with Lina, the housekeeper whose name curiously mirrors his own, provides order to what would otherwise be a chaotic home. He looks after her with a detachment that belies the long-standing intuitive connection she claims they have. As a result, we encounter a very strange dynamic within which the narrator herself is a continual source of uncertainty. It is at once unnerving and irresistible.
Malina’s fragmented, inventive text continually defies narrative expectations. One-sided phone conversations, unfinished letters, portions of a story the narrator is writing to please Ivan, and the transcript of an interview are woven in to what is at times a frenetic, highly descriptive narrative—an episode where the narrator is left alone to care for the children for a few hours is priceless. Gaps, unfinished sentences, and repeated efforts at composing correspondences leave curious spaces that can’t quite be filled in. Is the narrator being intentionally elusive, or is her memory or concentration slipping? Is she addressing a reader or talking to herself?
In the second chapter, ‘The Third Man,’ everything shifts. Place and Time are no longer fixed and a long series of nightmarish dreams, punctuated by Malina’s bedside interrogations and ministrations, unfolds like an extended feverish psychosis. The narrator’s father is a persistent cruel and violent presence. He repeatedly tortures, rapes and murders her childhood self in scenes that echo the atrocities of the Second World War as much as the complicated emotional brutality of familial dysfunction implied by the recurring allusions to settings from War and Peace. The imagery is relentless, hellish:
When it begins the world is already mixed up, and I know that I am crazy. The basic elements of the world are still there, but more gruesomely assembled than anyone has ever seen. Cars are rolling around, dripping paint, people pop up, smirking larvae, and when they approach me they fall down, straw puppets, bundles of raw wire, figures of papier mâché, and I keep going in this world which is not the world, with balled fists, arms outstretched in order to ward off the objects, machines which run into me then turn to dust, and when I’m too afraid to go on I close my eyes, but the colours, glaring, explosive, raving, spatter me, my face, my naked feet, I again open my eyes to see where I am, I want to find a way out of here, next I fly up high into the heavens because my fingers and toes have swollen into airy, skycoloured balloons and they are carrying me to the heights of nevermore, where it’s even worse, then they all burst and I fall, fall and stand up, my toes have turned black, I can’t go on anymore.
This stream of torment and horrific dreams, is regularly interrupted with segments of dramatic dialogue in which Malina alternately calms and challenges her. There is little comfort to be found:
Malina: You don’t have to believe everything, you better think about it.
Malina: It isn’t war and peace.
Me: What is it then?
The final chapter, “Last Things,” brings with what appears to be a resumption of calmer, more rational narrative, but the illusion is short lived. The recorded dialogues between the narrator and Malina continue and become a more prominent feature of the text—almost a necessary prop against which she can frame her thoughts. They also take on a denser, more philosophical tone and, as her relationship with her housemate takes on a greater, more threatening quality, Ivan’s influence declines, and her own grip on her own identity starts to slip. Security in her own gender shifts, she finds it difficult to write, and becomes aware of the changing nature of sentences of all sorts. As a writer, she is acutely sensitive to sentences as if they have a tangible existence and are, for her, part of the very fabric of reality. Early on in the novel she marvels at the perfection of the sentences she and Ivan have shared access to—they hoard telephone sentences, chess sentences, sentences about life in general—but she worries, quite tellingly, that they have no feeling sentences. During her dream sequences, when her father has her imprisoned, her sentences take on an animated form, keeping her company and rising up in her defense, and later, arriving as messages inscribed on stones (“Live in wonder,” “Write in wonder”). But as her affair with Ivan grows cold it is reflected in the way their sentences change (“the chess sentences are lying fallow”), and as her fragile personality starts to disintegrate written sentences also begin to fail her.
One could argue, or at least I would, that Malina is, most strikingly, a novel of the marvel, the power, and the betrayal of the sentence. That may sound self-evident, of course, it is after all, composed of sentences. Dazzling sentences. Sentences that call and echo across the whole of the unconventional narrative expanse. There is an inherent musicality at play, not only through the direct musical notation and cuing that infiltrates the text toward the end, rising to a devastating crescendo in the closing passages, but throughout the work which can be read as an elaborately staged performance. Bachmann commands a wide range of sentence styles—long and winding, rushed and impertinent, suspended and unfinished—to orchestrate a rich and troubling exploration of the dynamics between men and women, the limits of personal identity, and the question of what it means to be alive.
Malina was intended to be part of a proposed Death Styles trilogy. The other novels exist in unfinished form and carry elements and stories of characters that pass through this one. It is unfortunate that the complete effect will forever remain unrealized. That in no way diminishes the power or impact of Malina, or the influence it has had on many other writers including Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, and Peter Handke.
Translated by Philip Boehm with an illuminating afterword, “Death Arias in Vienna” by Mark Anderson, Malina is published by Holmes & Meier.