It was Murder: Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina - Kat  Mulligan

January 27, 2024

In March, with the intention of expanding my repertoire of Austrian literature, I did some research and stumbled upon Ingeborg Bachmann’s 1971 novel Malina. A writer’s take on love and Vienna—what more could you ask for? After checking it out at the BANQ and reading the first few pages in French, I firmly decided that this was the kind of novel worth savoring in one’s native language. I mentally bookmarked it and waited for the day it would reveal itself to me in a familiar tongue.

Months later, the tepid spring had reworked itself into an easy May warmth, and I found myself in high spirits inside of a Warsaw-based English language bookshop. On the hunt for a Krasznahorkai novel that had been eluding me for months, I instead came face to face with an English copy of Malina. I began it a few days later in Krakow, toting it with me through the Old Town, lying down with it in the Planty gardens, turning its phrases over in my head on the tram. It immediately enraptured me. As Rachel Kushner professed in the introduction to Philip Boehm’s translation, you always remember where you are when you first hear about Malina—or, in my case, when you first find and read it. It is one of the most unique novels I have ever consumed.

Opening with the question “Murder or suicide?” (“Mord oder Selbstmord?”) in its corrected proof pages (Bachmann 1), the novel is a compilation of an unnamed female protagonist’s musings, letters, dreams, and conversations, left confusingly yet delightfully fragmentary. The protagonist gives very little information about herself, save that she is a middle-aged writer who lives in Vienna with an Austrian Army Museum employee named Malina and is in love with a younger Hungarian man named Ivan living down the street from them. After the protagonist delineates the actors in her world, formatted as if a play’s dramatis personae, and gives her opening remarks about her life circumstances, she divides her tale into three chapters.

The first chapter, “Happy with Ivan,” describes the protagonist’s relationship with Ivan, which consists mostly of playing sterile games of chess with him, waiting by the telephone for him to call, smoking cigarette after cigarette, and writing letters in the dead of night that she ends up shredding by morning. Despite her unacknowledged dissatisfaction, the protagonist cannot live without Ivan, and dreams of serving as a mother figure to his two children, Béla and Andras. She waits by the phone for him to deliver her to salvation. While Ivan and Malina are aware of each other’s existences, the protagonist does everything in her power to keep them apart. The two men differ greatly from one another and occupy very different roles in her life.

The second chapter, “The Third Man,” is a phantasmagoria of abuses and fascist imagery playing out in the protagonist’s dreamscape. Bachmann, having grown up during World War II in the household of a Nazi officer, draws from her own experiences to create a chilling verbal montage of the protagonist’s eeriest memories, parsed out and mollified by Malina’s therapeutic presence at the protagonist’s bedside. In the final chapter, “Last Things,” the protagonist regales Malina with her opinions on the postal system and male intellectuals, after which she disappears into a crack in the wall. “It was murder,” she concludes (Bachmann 283).

On the surface, Malina already makes for an exciting read. Mentions of Vienna’s geography, the tale-as-old-as-time of deficient love, and the innovative prose and formatting are sure to hold the reader’s attention. However, the book reaches far deeper to examine how women tell their own stories, and more importantly how other voices, even when well-intentioned, serve to mediate them. Fascism, in Bachmann’s view, did not sputter out and die with the Paris Peace Conference. Rather, it is perpetuated by the patriarchy and in the male-female relationships cultivated within it. Inherent in heterosexual interactions, as demonstrated in Ivan’s relationship with the narrator, is an implicit subjugation or rewriting of the feminine perspective.

Feminists of the 1970s were increasingly considering androgyny as a solution to the male-female divide for its elimination of oppressive gender roles. In “Experimenting with Androgyny: ‘Malina’ and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Jungian Search for Utopia,” Carol Anne Constabdle-Heming and Vasiliki Karandrikas posit that Bachmann uses Malina to expose the flaws of a quixotic androgyny proposed by feminists of her era. Bachmann, whose university studies would have likely led her to Jungian psychology, treats Malina as a personification of the protagonist’s animus (as described by Carl Jung, the masculine personality in a woman’s consciousness). Although Jung’s idea of the animus and anima (the female personality in a man’s consciousness) are considered problematic and superfluous by today’s standards, Bachmann employed this binary to demonstrate the unfortunate necessity of a male voice in translating the female voice. Malina does not entertain the protagonist’s talk of Ivan, and at one point encourages her to kill him; he herds her frenzied dreams into a framework that is understandable and palatable to him, presented as a series of reassurances at her bedside; when the narrator disappears into the wall, he informs Ivan over the phone that no one by the protagonist’s name ever lived in that apartment. It was murder—the masculine swallowed the feminine, as it has done and will continue to do in perpetuity. A utopian androgyny is thereby rendered implausible, according to the author.

External from her immediate consciousness, Ivan, the protagonist’s father, and even the reader are complicit in the protagonist’s silencing. Ivan, perusing the protagonist’s notes, attempts to persuade her to write a light-hearted story rather than the gloomy tale she is inclined to write. He rarely inquires into her interests, and imposes a stringent set of rules upon her which limit her autonomy. Next, the protagonist’s father abused her throughout her childhood and, emerging from what Jung would call her unconscious, continues to haunt her dreams. According to Jung, the animus is shaped by a child’s first and most significant male contact, often the father; his violence is said to tarnish his daughter’s animus, plaguing it with hyperactivity and disorder. Then, the reader, whose journey alongside the protagonist generates a sense of kinship and sympathy with her, also intervenes prescriptively in the narrative. In “Rereading Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘Malina’: Toward a Transformative Feminist Reading Praxis,” Ingeborg Majer O’Sickey contends that the reader is guilty of the same crimes as Ivan and Malina. We criticize the narrator’s idolatry of her lover, and we denounce the danger of her dreams. Malina is a story of moving parts, aiming to disorient the reader, but it condemns us all the same for our attempt to unify these parts. To do so is to impose our normative vision on the narrator’s subjectivity. Bachmann, keenly aware of her readership’s temptation, lays bare this grim reality: the feminine perspective is closed in on from all sides, by men and women alike.

Bachmann offers no definitive solution to the problematic of speaking about victims of oppression without speaking for them. She applies a few insights that function within the framework of her own novel but that would be challenging to engage in praxis. However, what she does afford us is the opportunity to scrutinize our involvement in the narrator’s uniquely personal story by allowing us to first disappoint the narrator. When the protagonist asserts that it was in fact murder (Mord), as opposed to suicide (Selbstmord), we feel a dismal chill from realizing that she has been failed by everyone around her. Her death holds a mirror to our own judgments and moral imperatives, not just those of Ivan and Malina.

As the Polish countryside was stretched like taffy by the speed of the train, I closed the book and sighed, my spirit throttled by the nearly three hundred pages of genius I had just read. The verdict was in—one day, I needed to write something as tenderly brave and complex as Malina. For the time being, however, it suffices for me to beg my friends to read it. I cannot recommend this book enough.

Works Cited

Bachmann, Ingeborg. Malina. Translated by Philip Bohem, New Directions, 2019.

Costabdle-Heming, Carol Anne, and Karandrikas, Vasiliki. “Experimenting with Androgyny: ‘Malina’ and Ingeborg Bachmann’s Jungian Search for Utopia.” Mosaic: An Interdisciplinary Critical Journal, vol. 30, no. 3, 1997, pp. 75–87. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/44029823. Accessed 2 Oct. 2023.

Gerrard, Nicci. “Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann Review – A Singular Woman Adrift.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 9 July 2019, www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/09/malina-ingeborg-bachmann-review-new-translation.

O’Sickey, Ingeborg Majer. “Rereading Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘Malina’: Toward a Transformative Feminist Reading Praxis.” Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 28, no. 1, 1995, pp. 55–73. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24648458. Accessed 2 Oct. 2023.

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