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Stasis in Darkness

Daniel Fraser
Malina, by Ingeborg Bachmann, Penguin, 304 pp, £9.99, ISBN: 978-0241366240 I will tell you a terrible secret: language is punishment. Language must encompass all things and in it all things must again transpire according to guilt and the degree of guilt. Ingeborg Bachmann’s novel Malina, translated by Philip Boehm with a newly updated text for this reissue from Penguin Modern Classics, is a novel where questions of existence, and the relation of the one who writes to what is written, are continually at play. They are “at play” not merely in the sense of mutability, but also in the sense of overturning, trickery, questioning and re-questioning, over- and under-mining. This is not to say that Malina is not a “serious” novel or a “serious” work of literature, merely that its mode of address, its expression, is often comported through parody, laughter, allusion and humour. This mode of expression is a risk; it risks incoherence, confusion, wild immediacy, even shallowness, frothiness, in the pursuit of a deeper understanding: walking a knife-edge of experimentation and paradox as a pathway toward the human condition, toward the utopian potential of literature. The novel is narrated by an unnamed writer living in Vienna in an apartment which she shares with the eponymous Malina. The narrator’s lover, Ivan, lives nearby and the set of sentences which make up Malina largely consist of interactions between the narrator and these two men who are simultaneously “in” her life and also the very things through which that life is constructed. The book opens by giving the particulars of “The Cast”: the narrator, Ivan, and Malina, along with Ivan’s two young children Béla and András. We learn that Ivan is Hungarian and works for some kind of financial institution and that Malina is a forty-year-old civil servant and one-time author of an “Apocrypha” employed in the Austrian Army Museum. The description given of the narrator bears a resemblance to Bachmann herself but much else is left in darkness. From this theatrical beginning Malina adopts a tripartite structure, divided into three “acts” or, given the repeated use of musical notation, three movements in a composition. The first section “Happy with Ivan” details the narrator’s affair with Ivan, their day-to-day activities, consisting of a series of conversations and disjointed phone calls, the smoking of cigarettes, chess games, (separate) holidays, time spent with Ivan’s children, and more cigarettes. This is life as it exists in their “head-sentence”’, “chess sentences”, “telephone…



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