Saturday 27 July 2019

Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann    {Reviewed by THOMAS}

“‘Today’ is a word that only suicides ought to be allowed to use, it has no meaning for other people.” 
Even five decades after it was written, this wholly remarkable book continues to reveal new possibilities in literature and new impossibilities in living. 
In the first part of the book, ‘Happy With Ivan’, the unnamed narrator records her obsessive love affair with a man she first sees outside a florist’s shop near her home in Vienna. On account of Ivan, “the rest of the world, where I lived up to now — always in a panic, my mouth full of cotton, the throttle marks on my neck — is reduced to its petty insignificance.” She snatches evenings with Ivan, plays chess with him (resulting in stalemate), writes him letters (which she tears to shreds and throws away, unsent), and talks (or 'talks') with him on the telephone, but, mainly, she waits and thinks and narrates. “Ever since I’ve been able to dial this number, my life has finally stopped taking turns for the worse, I’m no longer coming apart at the seams. I hold my breath, stopping time, and call and smoke and wait.” But hers is a desperate happiness, not a convincing happiness, not really happiness at all but a straining towards the impossibility of happiness, agitation trying to pass as happiness. Just as the difference between pleasure and irritation is generally merely a matter of degree, there is, for the narrator, no substantial difference between ostensibly contradictory states and the case for her happiness is made so strenuously that it is clearly made from a position of great unhappiness. Ivan lives along the street, but the narrator shares an apartment with Malina, a civil servant who works at the Austrian Military Museum but who is so compartmentalised in the narrator’s mind that he never makes contact with Ivan, or, rather, never inhabits the Ivan compartment in the narrator’s mind. Although the narrator interacts with Malina, and we are told of her visiting elsewhere with him, it is very unclear that Malina exists outside the narrator’s mind, or, rather, that he is not an aspect of the narrator. “Ivan hasn’t been warned about me. He doesn’t know with whom he’s running around, that he’s dealing with a phenomenon, an appearance that can also be deceiving, I don’t want to lead Ivan astray but he has never realised that I am double. I am also Malina’s creation.” I increasingly began to suspect that Ivan also exists, at least mostly, in the narrator’s mind, and that, although probably affixed to someone she saw outside the florist’s shop, the Ivan with whom this 'love affair' persists is a never-quite-reachable eidolon of her longing and desperation. “My living body gives Ivan a reference point, maybe it’s the only one, but this same bodily self disturbs me. Extreme self-control lets me accept Ivan’s sitting opposite me.” Is there no exteriority? All these words, these truncated staccato telephone conversations, these endlessly commaed descriptions, these letters and interviews and documents in many versions, these moments and encounters, these details, these memories and revised memories, these stupendous rants, are they all the desperate invention of the narrator (in the same way that the novel is the desperate invention of the author)? “Whatever falls on my ground thrives, I propagate myself with words and also propagate Ivan.”
The second part of the book, ‘The Third Man’, intimates, perhaps, the degree of trauma that underlies the narrator’s agitation and the fracturing of her psyche. Passages, seemingly dreams or memories, describe violence, torment and sexual abuse, largely at the hands of the narrator’s 'father' (and of, by extension, Austria and Nazism), enacted either upon the narrator or upon her naive and complicit alter ego Melanie. “Here there is always violence. Here there is always struggle.” Bachmann’s sentences offer no respite for the reader nor for the narrator. “I don’t want to be any more, because I don’t want war, then put me to sleep, make it end.” The dream sequences are interspersed with conversations, written as script, between the narrator and the rational, interrogating Malina, bringing into her awareness the nature of her trauma, and moving towards the possibility of understanding. “Although it disgusts me to look at him [father], I must, I have to know what danger is still written in his face, I have to know where evil originates.” But, Malina warns, “Once one has survived something the survival itself interferes with understanding.”
The third part, ‘Last Things’, charts the shrinking of the narrator’s world, her gradual inevitable loss of Ivan, either as reality or eidolon, her loss of confidence in herself or hope in her world — and it is much funnier than this list would suggest, though no less tragic. Experience, once replaced with knowledge of — or description of — experience, loses the power of experience. Language at once conjures and replaces — annihilates — what is lived. But, says the narrator, “I must have reached a point where thought is so necessary that it is no longer possible.” Her conversations with Malina drain the reality from Ivan and reveal her isolation and self-suffocation. “I am not one person,” she says, “but two people standing in extreme opposition to one another, which must mean I am always on the verge of being torn in two. If they were separated it would be livable, but scarcely the way it is.” The slow, cumulative, fatal intrusion of rationality is here like a pin being pushed against the surface of a balloon with great, horrible, slow, thrilling patience. “The story of Ivan and me will never be told, since we don’t have any story.”  Literature is lack. All that is written is written against the facts. Happiness, or imagined happiness, becomes harder and harder and at last impossible to sustain. All that is imgined is destroyed. The narrator’s ‘I’, her subjective self, “an unknown woman”, catches a last whiff of Ivan in the crack in the wall, enters the crack and disappears, leaving the rational alter ego, Malina, the cataloguer, the explainer, the understanding and inhibiting mind, to answer the telephone when Ivan rings (their first encounter) and to deny her very existence. The book ends with the bare sentence, “It was murder,” but, if the characters are all fractured parts of a single mind (if there can be such a thing), what is the nature of this ‘murder’? 
“What is life?” asks Malina. “Whatever can’t be lived,” the narrator replies.

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