The best book I’ve read this year, by a long chalk, is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. It’s been something of a revelation. She published it in 1971: it was meant to be the first of a trilogy, but she died, pretty young and in odd circumstances, before getting the other two down. It’s hard to describe: nothing really happens in it. Maybe a woman dies, maybe not. It’s set in Vienna – but a massively overdetermined Vienna in which all of history, with all its attendant traumas, is breaking through the surface of the present. It’s structured almost musically, with motifs quasi-repeating, or echoing on several ‘channels’ as it were: so in a typical sequence we pan from a chessboard to maps and atlases, with place names – Venice, the Danube – reeling off; then the narrative opens to a vision of wars over territory, humanity displaced and starving; then back to the game.
The second section (it has a kind of triptych structure) is a phantasmagoric interlude to rival the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses: passages to hell, gas chambers, murderous fathers right out of Plath, whole cemetaries of dead daughters – all the while remaining within the Ringstrasse and its polite confines. Bachmann, it turns out, was a friend of Celan, Frisch, Boll, Grass – the whole gaggle of important German-language writers of her period. And she outshines the lot of them – except Celan, of course, but that’s all-but impossible. Apparently she and he had an intense correspondence which has survived: something to look forward to in 2011 if I can get my hands on it!
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