June 25, 2018

“The outrageous has become the everyday”: Remembering Ingeborg Bachmann


It’s wild to think that, had things turned out differently, the Austrian poet, librettist, and playwright Ingeborg Bachmann could be alive today. We can even imagine her throwing a joint ninety-second birthday party with Mel Brooks, just three days her junior.

Bachmann, whose big nine-two falls today, is not alive — she died in 1973 at the age of forty-seven, after years of heavy drug abuse. She left behind a body of compelling, weird, fascinating work, alive with feminist and anti-fascist insights, and magnetized around the ideas of twentieth-century European philosophers, especially Ludwig Wittgenstein.

Just nineteen when the Nazis surrendered in World War II, Bachmann would rise to prominence as part of Gruppe 47, the literary circle that determined the course of post-war German writing. The group, whose members also included Heinrich BöllGünter GrassPaul Celan, and Peter Handke, awarded her its namesake prize in 1953 for her first poetry collection, Die gestundete Zeit (“Time Deferred”). She would publish one more collection of poetry, 1956’s Anrufung des Grossen Bären (“Invocation of the Great Bear”), as well as a novel (1971’s Malina), the libretti to two operas by Hans Werner Henze, two short story collections, and three radio plays, for which she is perhaps best known today.

Much of Bachmann’s work is marked by a keen awareness of what was unexceptional in European Fascism. She identified fragments and traces of Nazism in everyday life — and nowhere were they more apparent than in the general treatment of women. The cryptic, walloping Malina, in which domineering masculine figures and hazy dreams of gas chambers figure prominently, ends with the narrator, an unnamed woman writer, vanishing into a crack in the wall, leaving behind two men — a hostile ex-lover, and an alter-ego who proceeds to quickly eradicate any lingering indication of her existence. The final sentence reads, “It was murder.”

Bachmann’s legacy looms massively today, especially in the work of German-language feminist writers like Elfriede Jelinek, who wrote the screenplay to Werner Schroeter’s 1991 film adaptation of Malina.

You can commemorate her today by reading Peter Filkins’s translations of her poems The Drugs, The Words and The Bridges, or by watching these videos of Bachmann reading her work. (The videos are in German and have Dutch subtitles, but there are also English subtitles — just make sure you switch ’em on.)

To the Sun:

Every Day:


Also, while we’re here, and since subtitled video of Bachmann is in short supply, this scene, from Julia Leigh’s 2011 movie Sleeping Beauty, is worth a look: