It’s nice you called.
Nice, why nice?
Just because. It’s nice of you.
Ingeborg Bachmann finished just a single novel in her lifetime, but she is nevertheless regarded as an heir to Robert Musil and a central influence on a generation of outstanding German and Austrian novelists, not least of them Christa Wolf, Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard. Published in 1971, two years before Bachmann’s untimely death resulting from a fire in her apartment in Rome, where she lived in self-imposed exile, Malina is an immensely ambitious work, a masterpiece of European modernism, traced in the dust of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and currently out-of-print in English. The first volume in a large, mostly unwritten prose cycle Ways of Death, Malina has three central characters, each one representing a distinct Austro-Hungarian cultural type, yet each also convincingly singular in their own right. The narrator is a well-known Viennese author in her late-forties, an unnamed woman who has suffered from depression for much of her life. In recent months she has fallen in love with Ivan, a man from Budapest, a little younger than herself, on whom she has bestowed ‘the highest distinction’ for ‘rediscovering me as I once was’. Since meeting Ivan, she writes, the sound of her typewriter has softened; car doors no longer slam shut with such a bang; and in the morning, the birds sing more quietly, allowing her a brief second sleep. ‘At last I’m able to move about in my flesh as well,’ she says, ‘with the body I have alienated with a certain disdain.’
Certainly I was subordinate to him from the beginning.
Malina is the man with whom she lives, a forty-year-old civil servant, a one-time author, an obscure, androgynous figure who the narrator sometimes refers to as ‘Lina’, using feminine pronouns. On a side street in Vienna’s Third District, Malina’s scrupulous presence hangs hard over the apartment where they have both been living for some years. Forever on guard not to upset Malina, the narrator must take care that, when Ivan is over, the two do not ‘encroach upon each other’. When, after Ivan leaves, Malina comes to the sitting-room, he does not refer to Ivan. By speaking as though Ivan does not exist, Malina precludes any discussion of his own unease, discomfort, even jealousy. He studies the chessboard and, judging where the pieces have finished, he makes an ostensibly light-hearted remark about the low standard of play. The space is charged with passive-aggression, but ‘even if Malina is silent’, she says, ‘it’s better than being silent alone, and it helps me with Ivan, too, when I can’t grasp what’s going on, or when I lose my grasp on myself, because Malina is always there for me, steady and composed’.
Me: Since when do we have a crack in the wall?
Malina: I don’t remember, it must have been there a long time.
Filled with beautiful, biting digressions on love and friendship; submission and control; on female subjectivity and what the narrator calls the ‘disease’ of men, this is a novel which, in the despondent charisma of its essayistic voice, could be said to anticipate the fiction of Renata Adler and lately Rachel Cusk. Yet Malina is the stricter, denser, more heteroglossic work, a rhetorical collage in which the first-person narrative is regularly interrupted by less orthodox modes of literary speech: phone conversations, interviews with the press, official and private correspondences; spaces in which the person addressed is not the reader exclusively. When the critic Helgard Mahrdt describes ‘the deformations of subjectivity and sensuality’ that result in Malina from ‘the penetration of instrumental rationality into the private sphere’, she is speaking about the narrator as a subject, but the reading holds true in relation to the body of text as well. Correspondences and interviews establish a reality-effect, lending the text an air of objectivity, rationality. But to what effect? Even the intermittent observation of these third-parties is enough to control the first-person narrative. The novel submits itself to an internalized discipline: it is an observation machine; a household with its very own Malina. At a certain point Ivan stops calling or answering. Soon the narrator feels less able or inclined to write letters. In their absence, the pages become dominated by extended dialogues between the narrator and Malina, and passages from atonal musical scores. The first-person narrative becomes increasingly fragmented. The novel cracks and collapses. Deforms.