High-wire act

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The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann, who died 50 years ago on October 17, 1973, remains a figure more celebrated than known. Despite her extraordinary fame in the postwar years in Germany, much about her remains mysterious. Although she was a public figure who associated with some of the leading writers and artists of her era, Bachmann fiercely guarded her privacy.

Nonetheless, recent years have revealed considerably more about her life, particularly with regard to her many intimate relationships. The publication in 2004 of her correspondence with the German composer Hans Werner Henze shed light on her longest and closest friendship, while the publication in 2008 of her letters to and from Paul Celan revealed their love affair in the 1950s as foundational to their growth and later success as poets. Last year’s publication of her correspondence with Max Frisch (reviewed in the TLS, 2023) went even further, revising the standard portrait of Bachmann as a helpless victim of Frisch’s cold-hearted abandonment in 1962 by making clear how she also sabotaged their fitful four-year relationship through other love affairs and constant travel.

Yet while we may know more about Bachmann now than was ever known in her lifetime (or than she would ever have revealed), there remains nonetheless something inherently, even overtly, unknowable about her – perhaps because, throughout a tempestuous life, she struggled to know herself. Born in 1926, Bachmann was the daughter of a Nazi Party member and German officer in the Second World War (a fact that, despite the anti-fascism of her writing, she would never mention publicly). She attended the universities of Innsbruck, Graz and Vienna, where she studied philosophy, psychology and German literature, eventually completing a doctoral thesis on – and against – Martin Heidegger. As early as 1946, writing from Vienna to her childhood friend Inge Frey, she was remarkably lucid about the price of ambition:

Perhaps there’s only one word for us all – Hunger. For me it is as if the tenderest desires and dreams of those early, beautiful years have transformed themselves into an elementary feeling of need, of hunger – to seize hold of the world, life, work, and amusement. And with the knowledge that it is all there and waiting for us […] no matter how fierce and exhausted the pursuit of the unreachable makes us – and how flat and empty we end up feeling once it is attained – a way of life we are beginning to drift toward, only intent on grasping what we think are a couple of pleasant moments in order to mask the emptiness.

Throughout her entire life Bachmann conducted an elaborate high-wire act above the emptiness she always felt opening up beneath her. She had a number of intense relationships, but not one that truly endured. Penury and the travails of hack work plagued her early years; illness, insomnia and substance abuse haunted the later ones. Nevertheless her focus and goal remained the same, namely: “To create a single lasting sentence, / to persevere in the ding-dong of words”, as she stated in “Truly” (1965), a poem dedicated to a master of perseverance, the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova.

For a while a university career seemed possible, but instead she opted for a literary one, having fallen in love in 1947 with the writer and impresario Hans Weigel, an Austrian Jew eighteen years her senior who had returned to Vienna from Swiss exile. A champion of the new generation of Austrian writers, Weigel showed Bachmann the ropes of the postwar literary scene and introduced her to the editors who were to publish her first stories, poems, reviews and articles.

Fame, when it came, came rapidly. In 1952, at a meeting of Gruppe 47, the influential gathering of writers and intellectuals founded by Hans Werner Richter, Bachmann read her poems in a near-whisper to a transfixed audience, and she was awarded the group’s literature prize (given to as yet unknown authors) the following year, just months before the publication of her first book, Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time). In August 1954 she was featured on the cover of Der Spiegel. With another volume of poems, Anrufung des grossen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear), following in 1956, then three successful radio plays and the invitation to deliver the inaugural Frankfurt Lectures on Poetics in 1959-60, Bachmann was not only established; she had become an icon.

If celebrity haunted her life and career, it raises the question of whether she orchestrated the fame she enjoyed, or whether it in fact controlled her. “How lovely it was at the beginning”, she told Frey in the late 1950s, “full of hope, uncertainty, and initial child-like joy – what has followed is a wasteland of insane demands, responsibilities, that no one could withstand”. Given Bachmann’s meteoric rise to the top of postwar German letters, this may sound disingenuous and ungrateful, but the path of a female freelance writer in the 1950s was a precarious one. Living hand to mouth, having constantly to seek out assignments and meet deadlines for reviews, radio reportage and essays, as well as travelling the length and breadth of Germany and Austria to give readings and take part in conferences, Bachmann struggled to find enough quiet time to write. When she did, it served as the briefest respite from the next round of readings and appearances necessary to keep her profile alive in German-speaking literary circles while living in Italy. (She had moved to Rome in 1953.)

At the centre of Bachmann’s writing life lies her recognition that “language is punishment. And in spite of that, also a final line: Not a word, you words”. In the 1950s she almost single-handedly made possible the reissue in German of the works of Ludwig Wittgenstein: his famous statement that “what we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence” leaves its traces in her own work, and in her clear-eyed appreciation of the limits of language.

Bachmann’s poetry explored these limits in the compromised language of postwar German. If her early poems at times echo those of the early Celan, her engagement with the Holocaust is less explicit, reflecting her differing background as the child of a perpetrator rather than a victim. Her signature style, Orphic yet imperative, looks to the future as much as to the past, as in the title poem of her first collection: “Harder days are coming. / The loan of borrowed time / will be due on the horizon. […] Don’t look back”. Bachmann’s poems feel as if they speak for rather than to the reader, and it is arguably for this reason that they became so popular with German readers who longed to voice their own grief, anguish and even joy at being alive, but felt unable to do so in the postwar climate.

This quality also informs Bachmann’s prose fiction. In her short stories she fashions a world that, while a product of the war’s violent upheaval, sees its central predicament as how to live in the present, especially given the corrosive effect of consumerist mass culture on truthful speech and intimate human exchange. The unnamed protagonist of the title story to Das dreissigste Jahr (1961; The Thirtieth Year) “casts the net of memory, casts it over himself and draws himself, catcher and caught in one person, over the threshold of time, over the threshold of place, to see who he was and who he has become”. But because he “does not remember as before”, the effort at self-realization is thwarted in the present, leading him to assert, in the privacy of his diary, the challenging declaration “No new world without a new language”.

A decade later the narrator of Malina (1971) finds that “this ‘today’ sends me flying into the utmost anxiety and the greatest haste, so that I can only write about it, or at best report whatever’s going on”. This turns writing into an existential act, one in which she finds that “something is always eluding me”, particularly in the quotidian world of received thoughts and verbal gestures, while “surrounded by ways of thought I had to imitate, although they were completely alien to me”. The result can only be an enduring anxiety rather than happiness, “the spirit’s beautiful tomorrow that never dawns”.

If it’s a mistake to confuse the author with this narrator (although both are blond-haired, brown-eyed writers born in Klagenfurt), the question still remains: did Bachmann suffer her own perpetual “today” of “utmost anxiety”? And, if so, what caused it, and how was she able to endure it, much less write about it? This question not only lies at the heart of Bachmann studies, but also continues to propel the public’s fascination with her. For it is not who she was that people wish to know, but rather what it was like to be Ingeborg Bachmann – the famous writer enveloped by mystique and mystery. “Only when I am writing do I exist”, Bachmann was to say in her 1972 acceptance speech for the Anton Wildgans prize, adding: “I am a complete stranger to myself, I fall out of myself, when I am not writing. And when I am writing, you do not see me, no one sees me then”.

Her driving impetus remains utopian desire, “the wretched star / of hope over the heart” invoked in her early poem “Every Day”. Quoting a central line from Malina in a documentary by Gerda Haller in 1973, she states: “There is something I really believe in, and I call it ‘a day will come’. Sure, it probably will not come, and yet I still believe in it. Because when I can no longer believe in it, then I can no longer write”. Bachmann knew such a day would not come for her, for life was too demanding, too complicated, too fraught with disappointments and broken relationships.

“One can never, never, never once give up, even when every day one does give up”, Bachmann wrote to Wolfgang Koeppen in April 1971, in response to a fan letter that he had sent her. Koeppen had long fallen into silence after publishing a trio of searing antifascist novels in the 1950s, and Bachmann’s response is partly a motivational prod for a writer she admired deeply, urging him to pick up his pen again. That she did so herself, repeatedly, through illness, loss and despair, was her personal triumph.

“He who has a Why to live for will bear any How”, says the author’s counterpart in Malina. In a brief and wondrous and vexed life, Ingeborg Bachmann had and did.

Peter Filkins is the translator of Ingeborg Bachmann’s complete poems, Darkness Spoken, as well as her two novel fragments, The Book of Franza, and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann. He teaches at Bard College and is writing a biography of Bachmann for Yale University Press

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