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 sentences”: sentence sets which the narrator expounds, noting however that the sentence set about feelings is missing “since Ivan never pronounces any and I don’t dare create the first one”. The second section, “The Third Man”, comprises a number of fever dreams and nightmares into which the narrator is plunged, periodically interrupted by Malina, detailing historical trauma with dark echoes of the atrocities committed by Austria in the period of Nazism and disturbing visions of violent and incestuous actions committed by the narrator’s father. The final part follows an increasingly abstracted and protracted set of conversations between the narrator and Malina until the act of vanishment/murder which occurs in the closing passages of the book.
Within this framework however, Malina engages in a shifting, dizzying array of styles and forms: from tragedy to farce, novel to dream, interviews, epistolary fragments, dramatic dialogue, allegory and fairytale, as well as sustained self-reflections on writing and the status of language. Throughout, what emerges as the novel’s animating force is the exploration of a tension between creation and destruction, interior and exterior, as it manifests itself across two interrelated processes of formation. Namely: the practice of writing or the creation of the literary work and, most importantly, the formation (and eventual obliteration) of female subjectivity. It is in this sense then that Malina can be said to be autobiographical, presenting an interrogation of two of the fundamental existential ways of being of the author herself: her identity as a woman and her existence as a writer.
The shifting agglomeration of stylistic forms all feed in to the same frenetic flow, at once inviting and undercutting interpretations at breakneck speed, flattening the narrator’s dreams, conversations, obsessive fantasies and letters onto the same textual plane. In this literary space the identities of the characters are, like the address and profession listed on the narrator’s identity card, repeatedly crossed out and over-written. Malina is also, or could be, a woman named Lina; while both Malina and, to a lesser extent, Ivan at times appear to be figments of the narrator’s imagination. The narrator’s relationship with Ivan is an obsession, propelled further by his incapacity to understand her. Meanwhile she describes herself as “also Malina’s creation”: her inwardness cannot be thought of but in relation to Ivan and Malina; they are her very life and death: “I have lived in Ivan and I die in Malina.” She is excessively vulnerable, surrounded and consumed by male forces. It is not that the narrator, Malina, and Ivan are constantly transforming, capable of shedding and adopting new identities at will. Rather, they are held in a kind of pathogenic symbiosis, an intimate but often debilitating struggle, trapped in the same sentence sets, the same patterns of repetition, moving around lost in the same cloud of smoke.
Writing, similarly, is everywhere and nowhere in Malina. It is a practice which is continually interrupted, broken or fails to get started. In both written and verbal uses of language, miscommunication abounds. Letters are composed (or dictated to Fräulein Jellinek) and subsequently torn up, left unsent. Telegrams are ordered then cancelled, the desire to “get things done” never quite materialises. The narrator professes having a “soft spot for mailmen” but her cordiality, her gratefulness, is for the mail which lies lost and undelivered, not that which made it to its destination.
There is a desire for another kind of writing, of a utopian moment, evidenced by the narrator’s insertion of a fairytale into the text, The Mysteries of the Princess of Kagran. However, crucially, this writing can never be realised, requiring an old kind of parchment that can no longer be found, and stone quill that no longer exists and ink which has ceased to be manufactured. This quest, paralleled by the wish for the re-submergence in a mythic community which cannot ever come about, is central to the commitment Bachmann explores in her critical writings to the utopian potential of literature. The fact that this quest is ultimately doomed, that its object may never be instantiated, does not mean that it should not be pursued.
For all these reasons and several more besides Malina is a deeply interesting and, at times, dazzling novel which pushes itself in all directions to depict a female subjectivity, and a literary practice, that is everywhere threatened, put upon, verging on collapse. It is also, no doubt partially for that very reason, unquestionably flawed: not every risk returns a reward. Against the background of Bachmann’s wonderful poetry and incisive, insightful critical work it would be unfair and inaccurate to call Malina her undisputed masterwork. There are moments when the book’s unrelenting force feels, precisely, forced. The existential flattening and formal transfiguration which give the novel its propulsive rhythm are also what eventually come to undermine it. The refusal to curb this fluidity, to lend weight to its creations, at times gives the paradoxical effect not of lightness, of vitality, but of stultification, stasis. The consciousness Bachmann seeks to portray is unable to resist the wild flux of writing, of the form through which she, the narrator, is being formed. Here the experimental forms deny the materiality that, though entirely illusory, is required to ground the question literature is always striving toward. At these moments the questioning of subjectivity is derailed by aesthetic temptation; the unbridled experimentation becomes a fetter on the mode of analysis. The utopian power of literature here does instantiate itself, through a capacity for transformation that, in the revelation of its power, actually destroys it. The exercise of power, of the fluidity of form, is too successful, cutting language off from existence through a closing of the gap between them. This temptation, of an unconstrained aesthetics of transformation, is one found by Dante towards the end of his pilgrimage into the Inferno. Seeming to surpass Lucan and Ovid in his poetic vision of the thieves, Dante feels the temptation of the unquenchable pursuit of knowledge and descriptive potency embodied in the following Canto by Ulysses. It is a temptation however that leads to false counsel: to a dissociation from life through knowledge. It presents a language capable of encompassing all things, in whose grip things once again transpire but without any degree of guilt.
One might wish to turn this around, and claim that this stultification in flux forms part of the narrator’s fragility and misrecognition, and that this tremulous, fragmentary web is very much supposed to be stifling, lifeless. However this would seem to be against the major achievements of the novel, which display a concern with the struggle to communicate, the failure of understanding, the constraining forces exerted on the narrator, in short with how the existence of women and the creation of the work are everywhere thwarted by male domination, and by language itself. If these are the wild expectorations of a trapped being, they are often too successful in ignoring the presence of the cage.
Despite this, and indeed partly because of this, Malina remains a very good novel from an exceptional writer: funny, complex and occasionally brilliant, and its reappearance in English is an occasion to celebrate and, with a degree of laughter and preferably a cigarette, to think about this thing we call literature.
Daniel Fraser is a writer and critic from Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. His work has featured in the LA Review of Books, Gorse, Aeon, Music and Literature, and the Irish Post among others. Find him on Twitter @oubliette_mag