Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Freud's Requiem

Freud's Requiem is a 200 pages long essay on a four page long essay by Freud titled "On Transience". Or, at least that's what it claims to be. In reality what it offers are brief biographical portraits of Freud, Rilke and Lou Andreas-Salome, who besides many other things, was Rilke's muse, mentor and lover and also Freud's disciple. I don't think it covers any new ground in this discussion too and it is all very basic but since I was not very familiar with these subjects the book appealed to me overall. I was a little disappointed in the end though as I was expecting some in-depth discussion about mourning and its relationship to art and some interpretation of Rilke's poetry in this light. He touches on this topic but very briefly. For most of the time it reads like a freewheeling introduction to Freud.

Also Freud's essay in question itself is comparatively straightforward and surprisingly jargon-free. He basically argues that beauty and life derive their value from the fact of their mortality unlike the poet who says that grief precludes experience.

The older man was sympathetic to the poet's melancholy (which their silent friend shared), but he could not accept his anguished conclusion. The poet was correct, of course, that all earthly things must pass away, including those in whose qualities we take special pleasure. But rather than subtract from their beauty, Freud protested, this evanescence only added to beauty’s increase. Winter replaces summer, but spring comes again in winter’s wake. The scientist— taken aback, perhaps, by the poet’s remonstrance—suggested that it was beauty’s “scarcity value in time” that gave what is precious its worth. Since beauty was known—could only ever be known—only by the heart and eye and mind of its witness, so long as we live, beauty is with us, passing into nothingness only when we, too, cease to exist.

The author discusses Freud's other more famous essay on the subject, "Mourning and Melancholia", but again not in much detail, which is again a shame. Just the basic theses that Melancholia is a resistance to grief and mourning and mental health requires the ability to mourn. There is a long discussion about Rilke's scepticism about the practice of psychoanalysis. For most the twenties when he was writing his Duino Elegies (it took him more than a decade) Rilke was also deep in serious depression because he was not able to muster his creativity to complete his poem. (He claimed to write his poetry under dictation from angelic voices.) In the end he didn't go to Freud and took any help in psychoanalysis because he felt that he would lose his creativity forever. There is also some discussion about Freud's ideas about the wellsprings of creativity. Though Freud's work is full of references to literature he was himself perplexed about the origins of creativity. "Theory of sublimation" or his ideas about the origins of "Oceanic feelings" are his attempts in that direction.

In particular I enjoyed reading about Lou Andreas-Salome. What a remarkable woman! "thinking man's femme fatale," the author calls her! When she was sixteen, her elderly latin Latin tutor fell in love with her. She of course rejected him and the same story was repeated innumerable times. One of her boyfriends was Nietzsche and they had some kind of a menage-a-trois relationship with Nietzsche's friend and philosopher Paul Ree. There is a marvellous picture of the three with Nietzsche and Ree pulling the cart with her sitting in it with a whip in her hand. She later married an Orientalist scholar but.. she refused to sleep with him after marriage. Poor man! he tried to take his life by stabbing himself in his heart. Marriage of course didn't stop her from affairs with intelligent men, one of them being Rilke who was fifteen years younger to her when they first met.

The book is promising and reads breezily but will be of interest only to the newcomers. I personally enjoyed it and learned a lot from it but more intelligent and learned people should instead take up Rilke's and Freud's original works.

This is the original essay on book's official site. A review by author Hanif Kureishi here.

Oblomov Essay

An essay on the nineteenth century Russian novel Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov. It is long, it contains more than everything one would need to begin reading it. (Joseph Frank is also the author of a five volume biographical study of Dostoevsky. He knows everything.)

It is no surprise that Lenin (who was also born, incidentally, in Simbirsk) time and again refers to Oblomov as a figure embodying all the forces opposing the transformation of Russian society that he wished to bring about. Nor could Mikhail Gorbachev resist invoking Oblomov to characterize those opposing his policy of perestroika. But the book's appeal exceeds the country and the culture of its origins. Oblomovshchina is a spiritual condition and a social problem that we all may recognize, whether it delights us or not. As Richard Peace has observed, Oblomov "has significance beyond that of its continuing relevance to Russian society and Russian culture. Happy, indeed, would be the reader who beyond laughter at Oblomov's subterfuges...would not be aware, too, of an uneasy feeling of self-recognition."

As someone seriously suffering from the disease of Oblomovitis I have been meaning to read it for long. It was even on my list of "books for winter reading". But I have got distracted with some other books and also some work. (I did read Malina from that list. Post here.) This is not nineteenth century alas, everybody has to do some work, even the superfluous men.

Friday, January 26, 2007

"Sir, it is Sunday."

from a review of Pages from the Goncourt Journals in the latest New York Review of Books:

The recurrent personalities of the Journal are among the finest comic characters in French literature: George Sand, the "ghostly automaton" who chain-smokes cigarettes and chain-writes novels ("One day she finished a novel at one o'clock in the morning. 'Good heavens,' she said, 'I've finished!' And she promptly started another"); Alexandre Dumas fils, the health-obsessed son of a famous father, who agonizes over half a sentence for a year, "and then his father arrives from Naples and says: 'Get me a cutlet and I'll finish your play for you,' writes the scenario, brings in a whore, borrows some money and goes off again"; Émile Zola, tormented by ambition and bored by his own interminable sequence of novels; Hippolyte Taine, the "pot-bellied clergyman" with a "horrifying" wife, "who looks like a diseased silkworm which a schoolboy has daubed with ink"; and the star of the earlier volumes, the exuberantly friendly Flaubert, who dreams of Babylonian excess and leads a monkish life at Croisset—"he had given instructions to his servant to speak to him only on Sundays, and then only in order to say: 'Sir, it is Sunday.'"

Russian Thinkers

The New York Times about Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers:

“Russian Thinkers,” a 1978 collection of essays on 19th-century Russian intellectuals by the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, has virtually disappeared from bookstores across the city, including Barnes & Noble, Labyrinth Books and Shakespeare & Company. The Internet is not much help either: the book is sold out on bn.com, and though it can be ordered from Amazon, the order won’t be shipped for two or three weeks.

The culprit behind this Berlin craze turns out to be none other than Tom Stoppard and his epic three-part play, “The Coast of Utopia,” which opened at Lincoln Center on Nov. 27. Tucked deep inside the show’s playbill is a list titled “For Audience Members Interested in Further Reading,” with “Russian Thinkers” at the top.

I raved about the book a few times too on this blog ever since I read it last September. It was the best non-fiction book I read last year or perhaps one of the best collection of biographical and historical essays ever (not that I have read a lot but still). This is another nice article about the historical background of the Tom Stoppard play.

I read another book some time back titledViews from the Other Shore: Essays on Herzen, Chekhov and Bakhtin by Aileen Kelly, who also wrote an excellent forward to Russian Thinkers, which was quite good too. The Chekhov and Bakhtin essays are great introductions whereas many of Herzen essays left me stumped because it referenced Hegel a little too much. Though after reading I can now distinguish a left Hegelian from a right Hegelian! (Just in case someone is curious, I am neither, I am not a Hegelian! hehe!)

By the way, if you are an expert, you can help the editor prepare a new edition of Berlin's book. He is trying to identify the sources of a few quotations. Here is the list. (Though for some reason "rational" is spelled as "national" in few of the quotes!)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Reading Proust Again

I was reading this chapter from The Guermantes Way again today. It is about the death of narrator's grandmother after a protracted struggle with a disease. It is long, brutal and brilliant. It was soon after this chapter that I left reading Proust completely exhausted. I am now planning to pick it up again. Now I have a blog too so reading will be more planned and structured.

The complete text I linked to above is the old and unrevised translation by C K Scott Moncrieff. I am now reading the new penguin ones which are comparatively easier to read.

From the older version the final paragraph. It was also here that I learned a new word "Hyperaesthesia" something that describes the novel very well too.

Spoiler alert (Heh!)...

They made me dry my eyes before I went up to kiss my grandmother.

“But I thought she couldn’t see anything now?” said my father.

“One can never be sure,” replied the doctor.

When my lips touched her face, my grandmother’s hands quivered, a long shudder ran through her whole body, reflex perhaps, perhaps because certain affections have their hyperaesthesia which recognises through the veil of unconsciousness what they barely need senses to enable them to love. Suddenly my grandmother half rose, made a violent effort, as though struggling to resist an attempt on her life. Françoise could not endure this sight and burst out sobbing. Remembering what the doctor had just said I tried to make her leave the room. At that moment my grandmother opened her eyes. I thrust myself hurriedly in front of Françoise to hide her tears, while my parents were speaking to the sufferer. The sound of the oxygen had ceased; the doctor moved away from the bedside. My grandmother was dead.

An hour or two later Françoise was able for the last time, and without causing them any pain, to comb those beautiful tresses which had only begun to turn grey and hitherto had seemed not so old as my grandmother herself. But now on the contrary it was they alone that set the crown of age on a face grown young again, from which had vanished the wrinkles, the contractions, the swellings, the strains, the hollows which in the long course of years had been carved on it by suffering. As at the far-off time when her parents had chosen for her a bridegroom, she had the features delicately traced by purity and submission, the cheeks glowing with a chaste expectation, with a vision of happiness, with an innocent gaiety even which the years had gradually destroyed. Life in withdrawing from her had taken with it the disillusionments of life. A smile seemed to be hovering on my grandmother’s lips. On that funeral couch, death, like a sculptor of the middle ages, had laid her in the form of a young maiden.

"monkeys are monkeys"

This is the funniest thing I have come across in a while. (Click on it to enlarge).

Unbounded attention and feed to monkeys is enhancing their population in large numbers, making it a man animal conflict.

Monkeys are wild animals, don't domesticate them with bananas.

and the best:

Monkeys are monkeys, don't read holiness into them.

Got it from here.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema

The Pervert's Guide to Cinema is a two and half hours documentary on psychoanalysis and cinema presented by the colourful and charismatic Slovenian philosopher and critic Slavoj Zizek. It is actually far more enjoyable than it seems and not only for film buffs, though if you are a Hitchcock or a David Lynch fan then it will help because more than half of the documentary is devoted to a discussion of their films. He also brings in Tarkovsky (Stalker, Solaris), Kieslowski (Blue), Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick), The Piano Teacher (Michael Haneke), Persona (Bergman), Chaplin and The Matrix at many places to illustrate his arguments and hypotheses. He does give some plot details but I think he assumes that the viewers are familiar with the movies he is lecturing about.

I am not too familiar with Freud or psychoanalysis so I am not sure if I really understood what he is trying to say. I think he is arguing for "constructivism", the idea that reality is not "real" but rather constructed and cinematic fiction helps us understand how this reality is constructed in tune with our desires and psychic needs. He brings in similar theories about desire, sexuality, subjectivity and gender too. Those who are well read in these topics will really enjoy the documentary. Rest will just gape at Zizek and marvel at his personality and way of talking. He is one animated fellow. The way he speaks gives you an impression that his mind is racing fast with all the ideas and associations and his vocal chords are desperately trying to catch up. He garbles words, he moves his hands, leaves sentences incomplete, it is really very funny. (His accent is very funny too. He pronounces "phallus" as "faloos"!).

Another important feature of the documentary is that he himself travels to the actual locations where the movies that he is discussing were shot or to made-up replica sets. So we see him inside Dorothy's apartment from Blue Velvet, Club Silencio of Mulholland Dr, the room with the greenish light from Vertigo, the mother's cellar and the bathroom from Psycho and many other places. He goes to the Bodega bay where the heroine is first attacked by the birds in Hitchcock's the birds. He says while guiding the boat, "You know what I am thinking, I am thinking what Melanie is thinking. I am going to fuck Mitch." (He later says that birds are the maternal superego trying to prevent the sexual intercourse!)

He doesn't shy away from provocative or politically incorrect statements. He is gardening the lawn just like in the opening scene of Blue Velvet and he says pointing to the tulips (which are also in the opening scene):

My Relationship with tulips is inherently Lynchian. I think they are disgusting. Just imagine aren't these some kind of, whaddyacallit, vagina dentata, dental vagina, threatening to swallow you up. I think flowers are something inherently disgusting, what a horrible thing these flowers are! Basically it is an open invitation to all the insects and beasts to come and screw me. I think flowers should be forbidden to children.

And then this theory about sexuality... just before he gets to "the orgy scene" from Bergman's persona.
We men, at least in our phallogocentric mode (mood?) of sexuality, even when we are doing it with the real woman, we are effectively doing it with our fantasy, a woman is reduced to a masturbatory prop, woman arouses in so far as she enters our fantasy frame, with women it is different, the true enjoyment is not in doing it, but in telling about it afterwards, of course women do enjoy sex immediately but I hope I am permitted as a man to propose a daring hypothesis that may be while they are doing it they already incorporate this minimal narrative distance so that they are already observing themselves and narrativizing it.

There was also a very intriguing scene where he connects the silencio scene from Mulholland Dr. with the smile of Cheshire cat, Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove and a similar scene from Fritz Lang's Testament of Dr. Mabuse. Some theory about "autonomous partial objects" and "death drive." It was very interesting.

Overall it is a fantastic documentary. It will help if you are a film buff with special interest in films with psycho-sexual themes (sexual repression, subconscious, fantasy, psychic breakdown etc). It is must see if you are enthusiastic about David Lynch, Hitchcock or Freud or all three.

This looks like a transcript of the film, but it covers only the first half. Still some fantastic photographs. Official website and trailers here. This looks like a good article too. I had earlier linked to a few youtube clips of zizek, which includes a couple from the movie too.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

After Nature: W G Sebald

After Nature collects three long (each around thirty-forty pages) narrative poems by W G Sebald. It was his first book to be published in German apart from his literary criticism and essays. The English translation came only after his tragic death though postscript informs that the translation was approved by him before his death. Michael Hamburger, a published poet and literary critic who has translated Holderlin and Celan, did the translation. Hamburger was actually a close friend of Sebald and he makes a guest appearance as himself in The Rings of Saturn too. The translation here, as it is with other Sebald's books, reads extremely fluently.

The three poems are written in free verse, in fact it feels like reading his prose work itself. Just the lineation makes the experience of reading a little different by disturbing the natural flow of a sentence. But still it is easy to see that it was written by same Sebald who wrote The Emigrants or The Rings of Saturn. In fact it is not just in prose style but also in content that it is similar to his prose works. Two out of three are fact ridden biographical portraits of remote and mostly forgotten figures and third is an autobiographical narrative which recounts some of his childhood experiences and of his experiences of living in Manchester, again something that he later wrote about in Vertigo and The Emigrants.

The two figures that Sebald writes about are, the medieval German painter Matthias Grunewald, whose grief laden life was the inspiration for most of his paintings that depicted suffering in religious terms, specially the crucifixion and the eighteenth century German botanist George Steller who went on a disastrous sea voyage from Russia to Alaska. They are both real historical figures and Sebald's scholarship in both the poems sounds scrupulous. But ultimately it is not the facts which count in the poem, it is the emphasis that Sebald gives on selective facts, as if everything was filtered through his own melancholic worldview, to describe how "natural" the process of death, destruction and dissolution is.

This is how an ecplise is seen by the painter and it is not difficult to see how Sebald projects his own interpretation on the events as perceived by the painter.

On the first of October the moon's shadow
slid over Eastern Europe from Mecklenburg
over Bohemia and the Lausitz to southern Poland,
and Grünewald, who repeatedly was in touch
with the Aschaffenburg Court Astrologer Johann Indagine,
will have travelled to see this event of the century,
awaited with great terror, the eclipse of the sun,
so will have become a witness to
the secret sickening away of the world,
in which a phantasmal encroachment of dusk
in the midst of daytime like a fainting fit
poured through the vault of the sky,
while over the banks of mist and the cold
heavy bLuís of the clouds
a fiery red arose, and colours
such as his eyes had not known
radiantly wandered about, never again to be
driven out of the painter's memory.
These colours unfold as the reverse of
the spectrum in a different consistency
of the air, whose deoxygenated void
in the gasping breath of the figures
on the central Isenheim panel is enough
to portend our death by asphyxiation; after which
comes the mountain landscape of weeping
in which Grünewald with a pathetic gaze
into the future has prefigured
a planet utterly strange, chalk-coloured
behind the blackish-blue river.

and then:
Here in an evil state of erosion
and desolation the heritage of ruining
of life that in the end will consume
even the stones has been depicted.

from the Steller poem, describing how he died:
At Tyumen they carry him out of the sledge,
drag his half-petrified body
out of the ice into the fire,
into a furnace house.
Now begins alchimia,
Steller recognises the mortem improvisam,
the stroke and all its appendage,
sees his death, how it is mirrored
in the field-surgeon's monocle.
Such are you, doctores,
split lamps,
thus nature has her way
with a godless
Lutheran from Germany.

After Nature is a great companion piece to his great prose works and in a way an introduction too. Those looking for Poetry with a capital 'P' might be disappointed with all the facts and the history and the prosaic-ness in the poems but then it can also, and perhaps should be, read as something written in an experimental prose style.

Two reviews from The New York Times and The New Republic. It seems that people Sebald talks of are not that forgotten after all, wikipedia remembers them too. The entries on Matthias Grunewald, George Steller and Vitus Bering, on whose sea voyage Steller went.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Philistines and Philistinism

This also appears in Nabokov's Lectures on Russian Literature. In the book an advertisement used as illustration accompanies the text. Published here without permission.

Philistines and Philistinism
Vladimir Nabokov

A philistine is a full-grown person whose interests are of a material and commonplace nature, and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideals of his or her group and time. I have said "full-grown person" because the child or the adolescent who may look like a small philistine is only a small parrot mimicking the ways of confirmed vulgarians, and it is easier to be a parrot than to be a white heron. "Vulgarian" is more or less synonymous with "philistine": the stress in a vulgarian is not so much on the conventionalism of a philistine as on the vulgarity of some of his conventional notions. I may also use the terms genteel and bourgeois. Genteel implies the lace-curtain refined vulgarity which is worse than simple coarseness. To burp in company may be rude, but to say "excuse me" after a burp is genteel and thus worse than vulgar. The term bourgeois I use following Flaubert, not Marx. Bourgeois in Flaubert's sense is a state of mind, not a state of pocket. A bourgeois is a smug philistine, a dignified vulgarian.

A philistine is not likely to exist in a very primitive society although no doubt rudiments of philistinism may be found even there. We may imagine, for instance, a cannibal who would prefer the human head he eats to be artistically colored, just as the American philistine prefers his oranges to be painted orange, his salmon pink, and his whiskey yellow. But generally speaking philistinism presupposes a certain advanced state of civilization where throughout the ages certain traditions have accumulated in a heap and have started to stink.

Philistinism is international. It is found in all nations and in all classes. An English duke can be as much of a philistine as an American Shriner or a French bureaucrat or a Soviet citizen. The mentality of a Lenin or a Stalin or a Hitler in regard to the arts and the sciences was utterly bourgeois. A laborer or a coal miner can be just as bourgeois as a banker or a housewife or a Hollywood star.

Philistinism implies not only a collection of stock ideas but also the use of set phrases, clichés, banalities expressed in faded words. A true philistine has nothing but these trivial ideas of which he entirely consists. But it should be admitted that all of us have our cliché side; all of us in everyday life often use words not as words but as signs, as coins, as formulas. This does not mean that we are all philistines, but it does mean that we should be careful not to indulge too much in the automatic process of exchanging platitudes. On a hot day every other person will ask you, "Is it warm enough for you?" but that does not necessarily mean that the speaker is a philistine. He may be merely a parrot or a bright foreigner. When a person asks you, "Hullo, how are you?" it is perhaps a sorry cliché to reply, "Fine"; but if you made to him a detailed report of your condition you might pass for a pedant and a bore. It also happens that platitudes are used by people as a kind of disguise or as the shortest cut for avoiding conversation with fools. I have known great scholars and poets and scientists who in the cafeteria sank to the level of the most commonplace give and take.

The character I have in view when I say "smug vulgarian" is, thus, not the part-time philistine, but the total type, the genteel bourgeois, the complete universal product of triteness and mediocrity. He is the conformist, the man who conforms to his group, and he also is typified by something else: he is a pseudo-idealist, he is pseudo-compassionate, he is pseudo-wise. The fraud is the closest ally of the true philistine. All such great words as "Beauty," "Love," "Nature," "Truth," and so on become masks and dupes when the smug vulgarian employs them. In Dead Souls you have heard Chichikov. In Bleak House you have heard Skimpole. You have heard Homais in Madame Bovary. The philistine likes to impress and he likes to be impressed, in consequence of which a world of deception, of mutual cheating, is formed by him and around him.

The philistine, in his passionate urge to conform, to belong, to join, is torn between two longings: to act as everybody does, to admire, to use this or that thing because millions of people do; or else he craves to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club, to a hotel patronage or an ocean liner community (with the captain in white and wonderful food), and to delight in the knowledge that there is the head of a corporation or a European count sitting next to him. The philistine is often a snob. He is thrilled by riches and rank—"Darling, I've actually talked to a duchess!"

A philistine neither knows nor cares anything about art, including literature—his essential nature is anti-artistic—but he wants information and he is trained to read magazines. He is a faithful reader of the Saturday Evening Post, and when he reads he identifies himself with the characters. If he is a male philistine he will identify himself with the fascinating executive or any other big shot—aloof, single, but a boy and a golfer at heart; or if the reader is a female philistine—a philistinette—she will identify herself with the fascinating strawberry-blonde secretary, a slip of a girl but a mother at heart, who eventually marries the boyish boss. The philistine does not distinguish one writer from another; indeed, he reads little and only what may be useful to him, but he may belong to a book club and choose beautiful, beautiful books, a jumble of Simone de Beauvoir, Dostoevski, Marquand, Somerset Maugham, Dr. Zhivago, and Masters of the Renaissance. He does not much care for pictures, but for the sake of prestige he may hang in his parlor reproductions of Van Gogh's or Whistler's respective mothers, although secretly preferring Norman Rockwell.

In his love for the useful, for the material goods of life, he becomes an easy victim of the advertisement business. Ads may be very good ads—some of them are very artistic—that is not the point. The point is that they tend to appeal to the philistine's pride in possessing things whether silverware or underwear. I mean the following kind of ad: just come to the family is a radio set or a television set (or a car, or a refrigerator, or table silver—anything will do). It has just come to the family: Mother clasps her hands in dazed delight, the children crowd around all agog; Junior and the dog strain up to the edge of the table where the Idol is enthroned; even Grandma of the beaming wrinkles peeps out somewhere in the background; and somewhat apart, his thumbs gleefully inserted in the armpits of his waistcoat, stands triumphant Dad or Pop, the Proud Donor.

Small boys and girls in ads are invariably freckled, and the smaller fry have front teeth missing. I have nothing against freckles (in fact I find them very becoming in live creatures) and quite possibly a special survey might reveal that the majority of small American-born Americans are freckled, or else perhaps another survey might reveal that all successful executives and handsome housewives had been freckled in their childhood. I repeat, I have really nothing against freckles as such. But I do think there is considerable philistinism involved in the use made of them by advertisers and other agencies. I am told that when an unfreckled, or only slightly freckled, little boy actor has to appear on the screen in television, an artificial set of freckles is applied to the middle of his face. Twenty-two freckles is the minimum: eight freckles over each cheekbone and six on the saddle of the pert nose. In the comics, freckles look like a case of bad rash. In one series of comics they appear as tiny circles. But although the good cute little boys of the ads are blond or redhaired, with freckles, the handsome young men of the ads are generally dark haired and always have thick dark eyebrows. The evolution is from Scotch to Celtic.

The rich philistinism emanating from advertisements is due not to their exaggerating (or inventing) the glory of this or that serviceable article but to suggesting that the acme of human happiness is purchasable and that its purchase somehow ennobles the purchaser. Of course, the world they create is pretty harmless in itself because everybody knows that it is made up by the seller with the understanding that the buyer will join in the make-believe. The amusing part is not that it is a world where nothing spiritual remains except the ecstatic smiles of people serving or eating celestial cereals, or a world where the game of the senses is played according to bourgeois rules, but that it is a kind of satellite shadow world in the actual existence of which neither sellers nor buyers really believe in their heart of hearts—especially in this wise quiet country.

Russians have, or had, a special name for smug philistinism—poshlust. Poshlism is not only the obviously trashy but mainly the falsely important, the falsely beautiful, the falsely clever, the falsely attractive. To apply the deadly label of poshlism to something is not only an aesthetic judgment but also a moral indictment. The genuine, the guileless, the good is never poshlust. It is possible to maintain that a simple, uncivilized man is seldom if ever a poshlust since poshlism presupposes the veneer of civilization. A peasant has to become a townsman in order to become vulgar. A painted necktie has to hide the honest Adam's apple in order to produce poshlism.

It is possible that the term itself has been so nicely devised by Russians because of the cult of simplicity and good taste in old Russia. The Russia of today, a country of moral imbeciles, of smiling slaves and poker-faced bullies, has stopped noticing poshlism because Soviet Russia is so full of its special brand, a blend of despotism and pseudo-culture; but in the old days a Gogol, a Tolstoy, a Chekhov in quest of the simplicity of truth easily distinguished the vulgar side of things as well as the trashy systems of pseudo-thought. But poshlists are found everywhere, in every country, in this country as well as in Europe—in fact poshlism is more common in Europe than here, despite our American ads.

Death in Venice

I knew that Death in Venice was inspired by real life events but didn't know that the boy who caught thomas mann's fancy was a well known figure. I was just browsing the wikipedia and I came across this book called The Real Tadzio which recounts the backstory of the book. More details on the wiki page. There are links to his photographs too.

A review of the book here. More reviews here. I had read Death in Venice a few years back. I don't think I really appreciated it much then. I started it expecting it to be another Lolita type story but it was extremely serious, solemn and convincingly unfunny. (In a way, Nabokov was satirising a novel and an attitude like this.) I should check it out once again. I think I will understand more this time.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Earthquake in Chile

My german literature program continues. The latest acquaintance is the eighteenth century German writer Heinrich von Kleist. The Earthquake in Chile is only a (very) short story, of just ten or so pages, but it packs so many events and the narrative is so condensed and the story told in such great haste that one feels one has read a longer and fuller narrative. And you can't but finish a story once you have started which starts like this:

In Santiago, the capital of the kingdom of Chile, at the very moment of the great earthquake of the year 1647, in which many thousands of people perished, a young Spaniard accused of a crime, Jeronimo Rugera by name, was standing by a pillar of the prison in which he had been confined and was about to hang himself.

The Wikipedia has more details about the story. Frankly it is hardly a realistic story and it reads rather like a tall tale but it is written in a remarkably breathless style and I was surprised by how violent it was. I read somewhere that Kafka claimed Kleist as one of his influences too.

Kleist himself died in a violent and strange manner, in a suicide pact with a woman who was suffering from a terminal disease. This article has more details and looks very interesting but most of it went over my head.


Eros is a anthology or a triptych of three short films on the same titular theme directed by Wong Kar-wai, Steven Soderbergh and Michelangelo Antonioni. Actually the project was conceived as a homage to Antonioni who with his trilogy of movies L'Avventura, La Notte and L'Eclisse (and I'm a big fan of all three) in the early sixties virtually redefined movie eroticism. These three movies take an extremely pessimistic view of eros and its place in modern life but the three films collected here are anything but pessimistic. They celebrate eroticism with mournful melancholy (Wong Kar-wai), satirical riffs (Soderbergh) and last, but certainly not the least, full frontal (but extremely tasteful) female nudity (Antonioni).

The first piece by Wong Kar-wai has widely been praised in reviews and rightly so I think. It is called The Hand, and as this review says, "only arthouse good manners forbid adding the suffix '-job'." Wong Kar-wai is first of all a fetishist and it is fitting that clothes which he fetishizes most often are turned into sexual symbols in this film. Gong Li plays a prostitute who uses her (eponymous) hands to make the young and handsome, but shy and inexperienced, ladies' tailor more responsive to the female form. How else will he make great clothes for her? Rather predictably love and heartbreak soon follow. Wong Kar-wai is one of the world's greatest sensualist filmmakers and this short work is a great representative of his style too. There are no big original ideas in his film, he is not concerned with them, he is concerned only with texture of things and how our perceptions and senses work. I am normally not too excited about this style but he is definitely an exception.

The second piece by Soderbergh is relatively slight and I am not sure if I even understood it. An overworked alarm clock salesman is having trouble with a recurring erotic dream but his psychoanalyst is more interested in making paper planes out of his case files while he recounts his dream in detail. It is a slight and mildly amusing work. Also the two actors have a wonderful comic timing.

And finally it is a shame that the job of rescuing eroticism from idiotic teen movies and ugly, dull pornography and hyper-sexualized but deadening pop culture should fall over to a 92 year old, partially paralysed man (he has been paralysed since a stroke in the mid eighties). Antonioni's contribution The Dangerous Thread of Things will no doubt make you laugh with its embarrassingly high-flown dialogues and a completely preposterous narrative but it is also undeniably very erotic, unless one is made of wood or else a very stuffy film critic. A couple vacationing on some European Beach paradise are having some relationship trouble ("why do you always fill the air with empty words") and it looks like some unintentional and clumsy parody of those great Antonioni movies dealing with break-ups. At other place there are dialogues like, and the mysterious 'other' woman asks the man: "Can you handle my chaos? What chaos? Total chaos." It had me laughing like crazy but soon thereafter they also have some wonderful sex. In fact everything is so eroticised (the lead woman is topless (in a see-through) throughout) that a normal scene like a car passing through a narrow doorway with difficulty also acquires a sexual dimension. My only grouse with the film was that in the end when the two women, after cavorting alone in the nude on the beach, finally come face to face, it titillatingly ends without showing anything more! Antonioni got some really bad reviews for this work. He was called a "dirty old man", "a man who got horny in his dotage" and whatnot. Extremely uncharitable I say. Overall I think it is a very healthy experience. And yes the intertitle sequences are amazing too. The image on the poster above is taken from one of those sequences. Heartily recommended.

More reviews here. (mostly bad though, seems no self-respecting critic can like a movie in public which deals with sex without worrying about philosophy of existence and being and, well... Shameful, is all I can say.)

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Admiralty Spire

I found this wildly entertaining Nabokov's short story The Admiralty Spire on the internet. There are a few spelling mistakes but overall I think it is pretty okay (of course I recommend reading it from his book). It is about a peevish middle aged Russian man who is a writing a letter to a lady novelist protesting her inappropriate use (or that's what he thinks) of his own real life love story of his past for fictional purposes. And there is a curious twist in the end too.

You will please pardon me, dear Madam, but I am a rude and straightforward person, so I’ll come right out with it; do not labor under any delusion: this is far from being a fan letter. On the contrary, as you will realize yourself in a minute, it is a rather odd little epistle that, who knows, might serve as a lesson of sorts not only for you but for other impetuous lady novelists as well. I hasten, first of all, to introduce myself, so that my visual image may show through like a watermark; this is much more honest than to encourage by silence the incorrect conclusions that the eye involuntarily draws from the calligraphy of penned lines. No, in spite of my slender handwriting and the youthful flourish of my commas, I am stout and middle-aged; true, my corpulence is not flabby, but has piquancy, zest, waspishness. It is far removed, madam, from the turndown collars of the poet Apukhtin, the fat pet of ladies. But that will do. You, as a writer, have already collected these clues to fill in the rest of me. Bonjour, Madame. And now let’s get down to business.

He (or the lady novelist) takes the title from the famous Pushkin poem The Bronze Horseman. Two translations here and here. It is depressing to see how completely different the translations are. I felt the same reading Eugene Onegin too. The OUP and the Penguin/Viking translations were so different from each other though I think I liked the former by James Falen better.

Sunday, January 14, 2007


First Published in The New Republic

Ruth Franklin

The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann by Ingeborg Bachmann translated by Peter Filkins
(Northwestern University Press, 256 pp., $26.95)

"ABOUT THAT WHICH one cannot speak, one must remain silent": this apparent tautology, the famous last line of Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, has often been read as a statement of the predicament of German literature after World War II. The Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann came to regard Wittgenstein's formulation as her personal challenge. In an essay on the philosopher, she wondered: "Or could it mean that we've squandered our language because it contains no word that can touch upon what cannot be spoken?" Reclaiming the German language from that squandering would become Bachmann's life project.

From her first book of poetry, Mortgaged Time, published in 1953, to the short story collection Three Paths to the Lake, which appeared in 1973 and was the last of her works published during her lifetime, Bachmann wrestled with the problem of how to make sense of the crimes that Nazi Germany committed during the Holocaust--crimes so new and so shocking that they seemed to poison the German language itself, the essence of the German nation. Eventually Bachmann would come to see the legacy of the Holocaust as a brand of fascism that survived in the private sphere, in the relationships between men and women. At the same time, she would dream of a utopian language that could fill in the gaps, a language that could express the things about which one cannot speak and thus redeem the nearly universal silence of Germans in the face of, and even after, the Holocaust.

Bachmann's major enterprise, which she called Todesarten, or "ways of dying," was to be a prose cycle combining these themes. She died unexpectedly in 1973, having published only parts of it: Malina, a novel, and Three Paths to the Lake. In the tens of thousands of manuscript pages that she left behind were drafts for several other novels and short stories in various stages of completion, including The Book of Franza and "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann." Versions of both these texts were put together for the authoritative edition of Bachmann's collected works, published more than twenty years ago; and neither of them has been available in English until now.

BACHMANN WAS BORN in 1926 in the southeastern Austrian city of Klagenfurt, near the border with Italy and what was then Yugoslavia. (Klagenfurt is the capital of the province of Carinthia, where, more recently, Jorg Haider began his rise to power.) In an interview conducted more than thirty years after the Anschluss, she would refer to the march of Hitler's troops into Klagenfurt as the event that "destroyed" her childhood. "My memories begin with that day," she said. "The terrible brutality that was perceivable, the shouting, singing, and marching--that was the first time I feared for my life." Despite this violent beginning, the war years were comparatively uneventful for Bachmann. Her family remained in Klagenfurt, where she attended high school. After the war, she studied law and philosophy at the University of Vienna, and wrote her dissertation on the critical reception of Heidegger's existential philosophy.

In 1953, soon after the publication of her first book of poetry, Bachmann left Austria for good, moving first to Italy, then to Switzerland, and finally back to Italy, with sojourns along the way in various other countries, including Germany, France, and the United States. She was an active member of Group 47, the organization of German-language writers founded by Gunter Grass, and was a close associate of a number of writers, including Paul Celan. She never married, though she lived for a number of years with the composer Hans Werner Henze and later with Max Frisch, with whom she had an affair of legendary tempestuousness, reportedly driving him so mad that when she was away from him he slept with his face in his own vomit on occasion. She died in 1973 from burns caused by a fire in her apartment, the cause of which was never determined.

In his study of nationalism, Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson argues that language played a greater role in defining German nationhood than it did in perhaps any other country. By the end of the 1940s, certainly, the devastation Allied bombs had wreaked on Germany's landscape seemed to pervade even the German language. The writing taking shape in its wake, in the bombed-out cities of Berlin and Dresden, came to be called Trummerliteratur, literature of the ruins, and it was marked by its fragmented, stuttering nature. The title of Gunter Eich's "Inventory" tells it all: his poem is little more than a list of items ("This is my cap/ this is my coat ...").

This shocked austerity of style could not sustain itself for long, and by the end of the decade two schools of poetry were taking shape. One, led by Gottfried Benn, was concerned primarily with aesthetics. Benn preached that the lyric, absolved of any political responsibility, should be devoted purely to beauty. "Works of art are phenomenal, historically ineffectual, without consequence in reality," he said. "Therein lies their greatness." It is easy to understand the appeal of this summons to "art for art's sake," arising as it did in a recoil from both the Trummerliteratur and the nationalist propaganda that some poets had felt compelled to write under Nazism. (Benn initially sympathized with National Socialism, but he never joined the party, and he did not publish during the war years.)

Yet the de-politicization of literature in the aftermath of political catastrophe was not acceptable to all, and another school of poetry emerged in opposition. In response to Theodor Adorno's famous pronouncement that "to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric," some poets argued that if post-Holocaust poetry was to be anything but barbaric, it had to be more than just aesthetic: it had to examine, seriously and unflinchingly, the consequences of Nazism. This became the project of the so-called hermetic poets, foremost among them Paul Celan, Nelly Sachs, and Ingeborg Bachmann. As Bachmann put it, the task of the contemporary poet was not to provide his or her readers with cheerful entertainment, but to jolt them out of their postwar stupor. While the best work of these poets was unquestionably (and almost ironically) as beautiful as any German lyric, it was also unafraid to face the most important issue at stake for German writers in the decades after World War II: the aftermath of the Holocaust.

BACHMANN STARTED HER career as that nowadays unheard-of phenomenon: the celebrity-poet. Blonde, photogenic, and prize-winning, she became the darling of the German-language media with the publication of Mortgaged Time and, close on its heels, Invocation of the Great Bear (1956). She was profiled in Der Spiegel. Critics ranked her with Eliot and Rilke. She was invited to give a series of lectures at the University of Frankfurt. And then, abruptly, Bachmann stopped writing poetry altogether. She turned instead to radio plays, and eventually to fiction. Invocation would be her last collection of verse, although she would publish a handful of later poems during the mid-'60s that included some of her best work.

Bachmann's poetry is abstract, metaphysical, mysterious, and symbol-laden, yet at the same time it is stunningly concrete, filled with images of the natural world. Though some of the early poetry gestures ahead to her later preoccupation with gender and power, from the first line of the first poem in Mortgaged Time--"Smoke rises off the land"--she is riveted by the scorched earth of the postwar European landscape. This poem, "Leaving Port," can be read as a depiction of the metaphorical purgative journey that Germans must undergo before their redemption. "[H]ow much longer/will that twisted wood hold out against the storms?" the speaker asks. "There is nothing left of the land." Though the "monsters of the sea" lie in wait, the poem ends with a paean to hard work, the work of knotting ropes and bailing water, of rebuilding and maintaining the ship, and what it stands for:

The best thing is, in the morning,

to rise with the first light,

standing against an immovable sky,

paying no heed to impassable waters,

raising your ship over the waves

toward the sun shore,

the sun shore that always returns.

But other poems, in this collection and afterward, are more direct in their castigation of Germany, and less sanguine about the possibility of resurrecting the German language. "Harder days are coming," warns the collection's title poem in an ominous refrain. "Early Noon" transforms the brightness-bringing sun of "Leaving Port" into a symbol of reckoning.

Where Germany's earth blackens the sky

a cloud looks for words and fills the crater

with silence,

before summer hears its call through the

thin rain.

The unspeakable, softly spoken, steals

over the land:

already it is noon.

Why did Bachmann abandon poetry? The answer is generally thought to be found in the poem believed to be her last, "No Delicacies. "Nothing pleases me anymore," the speaker laments:

Should I

dress a metaphor

with an almond blossom?

crucify syntax

on a trick of light?

Who will beat his brains

over such superfluities--

The crucial question at stake in this poem is, again, the role of the poet, and it is usually read as Bachmann's epitaph to her own poetic career--particularly the last line, which is often translated as something like "My part, it should be dispersed." Most critics have interpreted this line as a negation of the poet's capacity to better the blasted world in which he or she lives; but this reading overlooks a more subtle layer of meaning. In addition to signifying "should," the German verb Bachmann uses here, soll, is also a form of the subjunctive with no direct counterpart in English, used to refer to a claim that is not necessarily true. (Newspapers, for example, will use this construction when describing alleged crimes.) Thus, rather than reading the line Mein Teil, es soll verloren gehen as Bachmann's own pronouncement of a death sentence on her poetry, we can also see it as an ironic yet resigned criticism of those who would scorn her for not abiding by the traditional poet's role: "My part, they would have it lost."

This lament does not represent Bachmann's resignation of the struggle toward a new poetry. It is, rather, a reproach directed at those who advise her to "dress up a metaphor / with an almond blossom." And, instead of disappearing into the limits of language--Wittgenstein's escapism, in her view--Bachmann would give up only poetry, which she had come to see as an overly aesthetic art, a hermetic practice that was inappropriate for addressing a large audience. Growing ever more preoccupied with the human condition and the suffering of her fellow men and women, she turned to fiction and radio plays as a way to achieve greater social and political influence.

"Fascism is the first element in the relationship between a man and a woman," Bachmann declared repeatedly in interviews. It is a startling pronouncement, and an obviously exaggerated one; Bachmann occasionally tended toward hyperbole, particularly when talking to journalists unsympathetic to her ideas. But despite the exaggeration, something very close to the idea in this pronouncement must be recognized as the founding principle behind all her later work. What tempers its extremism somewhat is that while Bachmann certainly placed the blame for women's predicament primarily on men, she saw women not as victimized innocents but as complicit in their own oppression.

The germ of this idea may be located in her poetry, but it is easily missed amid the questions to which the verse returns again and again: the notion of exile, the exploration of the limits of language, the confrontation with the past. Two stories in The Thirtieth Year, Bachmann's first short story collection, which appeared in 1961, hint at it. In "A Step Towards Gomorrah," Charlotte, unfulfilled by her relationship with her husband, is tempted to have a lesbian affair; and the narrator of "Undine Goes," a monologue spoken by a water nymph who has been abandoned by her human lover, rails, "You monsters with your wives!" But the other stories in the book are narrated by men, and, like Bachmann's other early work, they deal primarily with the aftermath of the war.

But as Peter Filkins notes in the introduction to his translation of The Book of Franza, Bachmann had begun work on her Todesarten project as early as the 1950s, and some critics place the beginning drafts even earlier. Although she reconceived much of it after returning from a trip to Africa in 1964, it is nonetheless significant that these novels and stories were not the product of a mid-life epiphany, but serve as a backdrop to Bachmann's entire career. She managed to create lengthy drafts of Franza and "Fanny Goldmann" during the mid-'60s, but she put them aside to work on Malina, which she intended to be the "overture" to the Todesarten cycle. Death prevented her from finishing the project; drafts of other novels intended to be included under its rubric exist, but they are so fragmentary as to be incomprehensible.

Reading Malina, it is hard to imagine that Bachmann was deemed frivolous for turning away from poetry, or that the German popular press judged her womenoriented fiction to be "unintellectual." In the depth of its allusions to other texts (literary and musical) and the virtuosity of Bachmann's writing, which skips lightly from monologue to dialogue to fairy tale and even, to amusing effect, advertising copy and musical notation, Malina can be compared, at least in terms of its complexity, to the most inscrutable works of Joyce or Woolf. Indeed, it is a testament to the novel's difficulty that few critics have been able to agree on the most basic details of its plot, if it can even be said to have one.

Put simply, if that is possible, Malina tells the story of a woman who lives in Vienna and is a writer. This woman, who is never named, is involved in a love affair with a man named Ivan. She lives, platonically, with another man, the writer Malina. Over the course of the novel, the woman gradually disintegrates at the hands of both of these men. At the end, she disappears into a crack in the wall. The book ends with the declaration, "It was murder."

Simple on the surface, this statement is deliberately open-ended. Who was murdered? By whom? Like the other works in the Todesarten cycle, the novel is primarily meant to depict some of the ways in which women are brutalized in their relationships with men. But Bachmann also considered Malina to be in some sense a whodunit. In copy that she wrote for the book's front cover, she asked the reader: "Murder or suicide?" Christa Wolf has famously argued for suicide; but what is interesting about the question, and about the book's ending, is Bachmann's own reluctance to assign blame. Were her position on the brutality of male-female relations as unambiguous as some of her statements suggest, such a question would not be possible.

Most critics see the character of Malina as the narrator's Doppelganger, as Bachmann herself called him, an interpretation that only increases the degree to which the woman is responsible for her own fate. Others see him as the true narrator of the Todesarten cycle. (One of the previously untranslated drafts that Filkins includes as part of his version of "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann" supports this hypothesis.) But the final effect of Malina is frustration. It resists all attempts at neat interpretation; and it is probably best understood as a portrait of a woman's mind in turmoil, with the ending accepted as tantalizingly ambiguous.

FROM ITS FIRST lines, one might think that The Book of Franza were also some sort of murder mystery: "The Professor ... had dug his sister's grave. He had already arrived at this hypothesis before he had the least proof in hand." "He" is Martin Ranner, Franza's brother and the narrator of much of the book. (The ambiguity caused by "his" in the first sentence is a product of the translation. It would be clearer, though more awkward, to say, "The Professor ... had dug Martin's sister's grave," or, sticking more closely to the text, "The Professor ... had been the ruin of Martin's sister.") As in Malina, the elements of the traditional detective story--murder, hypothesis, proof--are all present; but readers familiar with Bachmann will rightly expect a very untraditional murder mystery. And since the book, like much of Bachmann's prose, switches points of view frequently and is largely based in thought rather than action, it is fully as mysterious as Malina.

The book's fragmentary nature makes it all the more difficult to grasp. Franza was first published in German as part of the definitive collection of Bachmann's collected works, edited by Christine Koschel and Inge von Weidenbaum. That version of Bachmann's draft of the novel, titled Der Fall Franza, or The Franza Case, has been used by scholars and students for more than twenty years. In 1995, however, Monika Albrecht and Dirk Gottsche published the drafts of Franza in their entirety as part of their "Todesarten"-Projekt, a five-volume edition that brings together all of Bachmann's papers related to the Todesarten works: Malina, Franza, "Requiem for Fanny Goldmann," and Three Paths to the Lake, as well as drafts for several other novels and stories. Albrecht and Gottsche's volumes, which the two compiled from Bachmann's 10,000-plus-page archives in Austria and Germany, made available drafts and texts that were previously inaccessible to anyone who was unable to journey to the archives.

Filkins has chosen to include a fair amount of material from these drafts, and he has also reordered quite a bit of the previously published material. Thus his translation of Franza is a very different book from what has been known as The Franza Case, even down to the title. (His choice of title, he explains in the introduction, is based on Albrecht and Gottsche's research, which revealed that Das Buch Franza, literally The Franza Book, was the last title that Bachmann herself used for the novel.) By analogy, imagine that all of Ralph Ellison's drafts for Juneteenth were published in a huge edition for scholars. Then imagine that a German scholar translated the novel; but instead of working from the version published by John Callahan, he decided to interpolate various extracts from the drafts. German readers of Juneteenth would have quite a different experience of the novel than American readers.

BUT FILKINS HAS tampered very little with Franza's fundamentals. At the beginning of the first of Franza's three sections, Martin has just received a telegram from his sister, Franza, who has run away from the sanatorium to which her husband, the eminent Viennese psychologist Leo Jordan, has sent her for some rest. Though it has been several years since he has heard from his sister, Martin--a geologist about to embark on a research trip to Egypt--sets out to search for her, and discovers her in their childhood home, with her head in the oven. As he calms and cajoles her, Martin and Franza revisit their recollections of World War II, and Franza remembers a fleeting teenage affair with the British captain of the Allied troops who liberated their southern Austrian town. On the last night before Martin is to leave for Egypt, Franza tries to drown herself in a nearby river, and he decides to take her along on his trip.

The book's second section, which takes place during the boat journey to Egypt, is built almost entirely of fragmentary monologues spoken by Franza as she recounts to Martin the terror of her marriage to Jordan, who has traumatized her so greatly that at first she is unable to speak about it "without screaming or beginning to tremble." At this point Bachmann begins to hint at what the third section will make explicit: that Franza had assisted Jordan with a study he was preparing of the horrific experiments Nazi doctors performed on concentration-camp inmates, and that at some point research and reality became confused, and Jordan began to experiment on Franza. (Hence The Franza Case.)

Once the siblings reach Egypt, where the third section of the novel takes place, Franza finds some solace in the desert, and realizes that "she no longer had to hold still for any experiment. Another experiment was beginning, and that she would perform on herself." At first it seems as if she will be able to work through the horrible after-effects of her marriage. Yet she begins to suffer dizzy spells, and another woman tells her of a German doctor who is able to "work miracles." When she meets him, she recognizes him from her work on Jordan's book: he was a doctor in the concentration camps. She pleads with him to euthanize her, but he angrily refuses, which puzzles and somewhat amuses her. "I'm only asking for something that he used to do willingly and without being asked to do it, and yet now someone comes along and is not allowed to beg for it and pay for it," she marvels. "What kind of world is this?" But Franza's distress does not last long. Soon after her encounter with the doctor, she and Martin travel to the pyramids, where she is raped by a stranger. Falling unconscious, she hits her head on the rock, and dies of complications from the injury.

BACHMANN INTENDED The Franza Book, like the other works in the Todesarten project, as a sort of case study of the fascism in human relationships. In fact, no other of her novels addresses the issue as directly as this one. Yet it is Martin, not Franza, who gives the problem its name, and Franza herself is somewhat skeptical of it. "You say fascism," she remarks to her brother, "but that sounds strange, for I've never heard that word used to describe a personal relationship.... But that's an interesting idea, for it had to begin somewhere. Why does one only refer to fascism when it has to do with opinions of blatant acts?"

In making this admission that the idea of fascism in a marriage at the very least "sounds strange," Bachmann nodded to her many contemporaries who expressed doubt or even hostility about her projection of fascism into the sphere of personal life. Those doubts were not willful, of course. To compare the Nazis' oppression of Jews to a domineering husband can be seen as trivializing the most terrible event of modern history. And yet it is clear that this was by no means Bachmann's intention. She was hardly insensitive to the enormity of the Holocaust.

Of all Bachmann's work, indeed, Franza is the text most directly concerned with the Holocaust itself. In addition to exploring the connection between the tyranny of men and the tyranny of the Nazis, Bachmann examines the very tangible, physical impact of the Holocaust on Franza's life. Not content to have Franza emotionally tortured by her husband, like most of her other heroines, Bachmann has taken matters a step further: Franza must literally reenact the suffering of Holocaust victims with her own body. So what might this mean?

It seems unnecessary to have to point out that Germans (and Austrians) did not suffer during World War II the way Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and so many others suffered; and yet they experienced the suffering of any people whose country is at war and is then defeated. A passage in Franza vividly illuminates the terror of this time, especially for a child:

Now and then planes still flew low in dense formations over the houses, and since they took precise aim on anything that moved, she once had to throw Martin to the ground and cover him.... And then one time a bomber patrol returning south from Vienna released a couple of leftover bombs, collapsing the little train station as a waiting train full of people from town was thrown from the rails, tearing the people within to shreds. Then it was quiet again. During that spring death was a given.

Again, nobody would argue seriously that such horror can be equated with the torture experienced by those who were imprisoned in the concentration camps. Bachmann certainly did not make such a coarse identification. In fact, she made no single identification at all. She found herself, instead, in a morally and imaginatively complicated place. She was a victim of fascism, but she did not suffer the worst of it. Politically and intellectually, there is no doubt that she identified with the survivors far more than with the perpetrators. (In a notorious incident, Bachmann and Celan publicly declined Heidegger's request that they contribute poems to his seventieth-birthday Festschrift.) Yet Bachmann never tried to erase the fact that she was Austrian. Far from it: she was proud to be an Austrian writer, invoking Kafka and Musil as her forebears, and her writing is almost exclusively concerned with Austrians. This intellectual and ideological conflict--the problem of identifying both with the victim of a crime and with the perpetrator--can perhaps be seen as giving rise to the central irony of Bachmann's fiction: that her female protagonists are not only the victims of oppression, they are also as responsible for their silencing as the men who seek to oppress them.

In his introduction, Filkins states that his primary goal was to create a readable translation that would bring Bachmann's work to a wider audience. In the service of readability, as he freely acknowledges, he has deviated in a number of ways from the standard German text, the Koschel-von Weidenbaum edition. To begin with, he has broken up a number of Bachmann's notoriously lengthy paragraphs and sentences in order to make them more accessible. Shortening German sentences in their translation into English is quite usual, but I wish Filkins had preserved more of Bachmann's paragraphing. It is difficult to understand why he chose to insert breaks in certain places, especially in the second section, where the paragraph breaks occasionally detract from the dreamlike quality of Franza's musings. There are also some minor errors in Filkins's translation.

More troublesome, I think, is his drastic departure from the Koschel-von Weidenbaum version. While Albrecht and Gottsche's work was not available when that edition was published, the bewildering collection of Todesarten fragments--some of which are internally contradictory and contain writing that Bachmann would almost certainly have discarded--is useful only to the most serious scholars, who would surely be able to read them in the original. For this reason, little is gained from Filkins's additions or, most importantly, from the re-ordering of Part II, which, to this reader at least, makes far more sense in the original version than it does in Filkins's. Moreover, while Koschel and von Weidenbaum used brackets and ellipses in their edition to denote fragmentary text, Filkins presents his as a unified whole, which does a disservice to the general reader, who might skip the explanatory "Translator's Note" and thus be unaware of how many different drafts exist. And a better way to improve Franza's readability would have been to include the short story "The Barking," from Three Paths to the Lake, which functions as a sort of prequel to The Book of Franza.

But I do not mean to quibble too much. Filkins's translation is certainly not bad. It is lucid, and for the most part it is faithful, in letter if not in structure, to the original. The important thing is that Filkins has made this strong and significant book, which in many ways is more accessible to ordinary readers than Malina, available in English for the first time. The Book of Franza has been unknown here for too long. Now, at last, its pains and its perplexities may be read and pondered.

Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan in Mainz, 1953


By Ruth Franklin

MANY TYPES OF AMBIGUITY: The enigma of Ingeborg Bachmann

First published in the Harper's Magazine

Robert Boyers

The enigma of Ingeborg Bachmann

Discussed in this essay:

Letters to Felician, by Ingeborg Bachmann. Edited and translated by Damion Searls. Green Integer Books, 2004.95 pages. $9.95.

Malina: A Novel, by Ingeborg Bachmann. Translated by Philip Boehm. Holmes & Meier, 1999. 256 pages. $15.95 (paper).

There is mischief in formulation. Write something striking and decisive, and you are bound to open up as many questions as you sought to resolve. When a character in a story by Ingeborg Bachmann declares that "well said is half lied," he is uttering a "truth" and bearing witness to the inherent slipperiness of formulation, especially when it is terse and provocative.

Bachmann was a relentless formulator. She was drawn to language as if it held the key to every human hope. "No new world without a new language," one of her characters intones. It is like Bachmann and her characters to say all sorts of things with conviction, without knowing quite what they entail. Bachmann was not committed to irrationality, but she mistrusted elementary reasonableness and took refuge in formulation, presumably in the hope that it would carry her past ambivalence and confusion. Although she suggested that the truth was unsayable, she nevertheless said, repeatedly, what she took to be the truth. "This inhuman fixing," she called the impulse to unimpeachable assertion, "this insanity which flows from people and is frozen into expression." If she was one of the great writers of the last century, she was, all the same, deliriously dissatisfied with her medium, and her characters likewise often insist that words "are only words" and merely allude to the fact that "something exists."

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1926 and died in Rome in 1973, in a mysterious fire that some have suggested was, in fact, a suicide. She won early fame as a poet but devoted the last fifteen years of her life to fiction, which initially seemed to many readers a disappointing species of "women's fiction"; later, however, her stories and her novel Malina made her one of the most celebrated writers in Europe. Although her works are available in excellent English translations, and a number of films have been made from her fiction, she has never had much of a following in the United States, and it is fair to say that even in American feminist circles she is rarely invoked as an exemplary figure. The publication of a slender volume of Bachmann's letters to a fictional addressee, written when she was eighteen, encourages us to ask why an indisputably major writer should have remained so little known here.

It may well be that Bachmann's failure to attract an enthusiastic readership in the United States has had mainly to do with her unreliability. Although inclined to decisive pronouncements, she seems always ready to disown what she says. Her most famous utterance, which can be found with variations in a number of different works, has it that "fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman." This idea also is cited in books and essays devoted to Bachmann's work. Again and again, critics take Bachmann to have been concerned, above all things, with the violence done to women by men, their "exploitation at the hands of men," as Damion Searls has it in the introduction to Letters to Felician. Nothing, it seems, could be more definite than the sentiment inspiring Bachmann's resounding formulation.

And yet there is, at the center of that formulation, a metaphor. To say that "fascism is the first thing in the relationship between a man and a woman" is not to say that gender relations are the same as relations between, say, Nazis and Jews. Metaphor, to be sure, is always suggestive, but it operates best when it is not taken to be coercive. We yield to the logic of Bachmann's metaphor about "fascism" without believing that, if we are to read her sympathetically, we must accept that men are fascists and women their victims.

There are readers, however, who will want to believe precisely that, and who will therefore be disappointed when a writer like Bachmann makes it difficult for them to uphold such a simple, terrifying view of men and women. Such readers might find more satisfaction in the work of another Austrian woman writer, Elfriede Jelinek, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature last October and to whom, therefore, much greater attention has lately been paid. Jelinek is best known in the United States for her 1983 novel, The Piano Teacher, which was made into a feature film a couple of years ago, and she is rightly described by the Nobel Prize committee as "a dauntless polemicist" with an instinct for "burning issues." But one might also note that she has an instinct for what Ruth Franklin, in The New Republic, calls "incomprehensible pseudo-philosophical musings," "banal . . . propaganda," "pornographic" imagery, and a succession of crude "gender stereotypes" to which she unremittingly subscribes. Whereas Bachmann was fiercely, and fruitfully, conflicted about everything, Jelinek is in doubt about nothing. Whereas Bachmann evokes the bitter, the desperate, and the indescribable in a language tense and unstable, Jelinek has an appetite for slogans, simplifications, and rant. If, in Bachmann, one is always alert to how much is withheld, unsaid, in Jelinek one feels that nothing is left out and that there is nothing this writer will not say for effect and attention.

Bachmann is invested in a delicately patient examination of consciousness and never confuses the moral life with the striking of ideological postures. Although she sometimes wrote with the baffled anger of a woman with grievances to express, she was never a mere grievance collector, and her descents into hysteria were oddly balanced by a miraculous and deeply serious lucidity. Attracted as she was to fashionable ideas about the unbridgeable gap between feeling and reason, she was inveterately skeptical about categorical distinctions, and could be playful even in the face of the standard platitudes she entertained.

In a long essay on "The Feminist Reception of Ingeborg Bachmann, Sara Lennox reports that German feminists have long fought among themselves about the meaning of Bachmann's work and its relation to the "theoretical assumptions" informing views of women as "victims of the dominant [patriarchal] order." Did Bachmann urge women to "keep their distance from men"? Did she believe that the culture in which her women lived--the culture of the European middle classes--"was determined to destroy them"? Many feminist critics read Bachmann as if she intended to promote such views. Others argued that "Bachmann's feminism is always full of unresolved paradoxes" and that only "wishful thinking" could account for the attempt to make Bachmann "conform to our ideas about... the proper form of feminist (or other) theory and practice." Some even went so far as to challenge the equation of "patriarchy with other structural forms of oppression" (like fascism), maintaining that Bachmann was far too intelligent to believe what some of her more ideologically inclined readers attributed to her.

It will not do, with a writer like Bachmann, to defend her by suggesting that she is not really interested in ideas, or that gender relations in general do not matter to her. She is not a writer who writes just about herself. For all of the formal chaos she sometimes allows, she does not let her narratives wander where they will, or drift in and out of relevant involvement with what seem to be her principal concerns. Her characters are never permitted to be entirely free of the ideas that define their importance to her. Even where the surface of the prose is given over to the mercurial fever dreams of one or another character, the current of thought is directed by the author's obsessive engagement with recurrent issues or problems. It may not always be easy for us to hang on to the thread that binds one thought to another, but we are never in any doubt about the general direction of the thought process. The center in Bachmann--the sense that certain things are indisputably essential--tends always to hold, however blurred or splintered the many radiating perceptions or sensations.

In fact, the new translation of Bachmann's Letters demonstrates how her work grows out of a relatively small number of basic concerns. Letters to Felician is by no means "Bachmann's first mature work," as Damion Searls willfully contends; the letters are the affecting outpourings of an adolescent writer who, in 1945, was apparently experiencing love for the first time and somehow managing not to connect her state of mind with the war that had just come to an end. To regard these items as "mature," one would have to pretend that they were not mawkish or sophomoric, not the effusions of a young person who fancies herself to be "enchanted" and "pure." We can locate in this work signs of the darkness and internal contradiction that mark Bachmann's mature fiction, but here they are merely signs, fragmentary foreshadowings, nervous eruptions without context or discernible purpose. When we read in these letters that "two people are in me, neither understands the other," we can say only that this comes from a divided, gifted, possibly disturbed young woman. We do not know what more to think of her, because she offers us no situation in which to place her, no "before" or developmental sequence that would make her more than the symptoms she displays.

What is most striking about these letters, though, is the pattern they exhibit. The author, or persona, is alternately submissive--often to the point of self-extinction--and assertive. The beloved is for her "everything," her "only altar," the one she is forever "ready to serve." She, on the other hand, is "ordinary and small," prepared to "lose all dignity" in the service of her "Lord." Yet she is also fearful, open and vulnerable before "a mouth trying to drink from me." Exalted by the sacrifice she is prepared to make, she is yet "in the kingdom of bitterest joys," alert to the fact that the consummation she seeks will leave her "by the wayside somewhere," not ever truly satisfied. The one who is devoutly urged to "come and cast your will over me" is unfortunately going to leave her with "nothing" she can call her own. Her assertions of "unbelievable happiness" are balanced by feelings of "inconsolable depression." Although she is "unworthy," she nonetheless refers to "everything that's missing," and she can almost bring herself to imagine that she has coming to her more than she has. She may be, as she says, "incapable of thinking anything rational," but she will not altogether accept that impoverishment.

To read only these letters by Bachmann is to wallow with her in a pathetic species of confused desire and self-contempt. Nothing here is worked out, nothing gets Bachmann beyond what reads like adolescent mania or neurosis. Those who wish to read the letters as windows "onto the human condition" or as blueprints for a theory of women's bondage to men are of course free to do as they like, but then they also ought to ask themselves why the persona here should be regarded as exemplary or typical when she is so often hysterical or delusional and given to exaggerated effusions of balked hero-worship.

So much that we find in Bachmann's mature writing is absent from Letters to Felician that it is futile to cite but a single missing element. In Letters we have the combination of unsatisfiable desire and willed, hysterical identification with, or worship of, a powerful other. But as Bachmann's work ripened, the longing was increasingly represented as impossible, exaggerated, ludicrous; the objects of worship made to seem unworthy; the self-immolation depicted as strangely sick and fascinating. The standard Bachmann persona, early so defenseless and small, came later to seem intermittently fierce, brilliant, and always fatally complicit in her sorry fate. If in the letters the "two people" locked together were unable to understand each other, in the mature fiction the victim and her "other" are often in fruitful communication. In Bachmann's novella Three Paths to the Lake (1972), Elisabeth Matrei finds her life "poisoned" by her lover Trotta, and is consumed by that "undertone of contempt [toward other persons] which had always been characteristic of Trotta." But she finds as well that, once he is out of her life, "Trotta's voice" can be important to her, can become the foundation for "her own voice," strengthening her, separating her from the weak voices of others less determined than she to confront the "real things" in life. For every token of subjection in the mature Bachmann there is some countervailing urgency, however little the instinct to self-assertion can sustain itself.

Another way to say this is that there is a fundamental tension in Bachmann's mature work, a vitality that is, if never completely effectual, at least desperate and often savage. She says no to the forces within her that press her to disappear; she imagines escape, retribution, even as she suffers her condition, strangled by fear and ambivalence. The despair of Bachmann's characters is often robust. If they are prisoners, lifers, they are not altogether maimed or impotent. Their thrashings about and eruptions of fitful protest or indignation are unmistakable signs of life. They will suffer and accept, but they will continue to ask why and they will not go gently.

There are exceptions to this pattern in Bachmann's fiction, characters who are treated as objects of satire, figures who are merely pathetic, for whom it is impossible to feel genuine compassion because they are entirely symbols of a condition they can do nothing but reflect. Such characters exist to prove a point and so do not exist for us as if they were fully human beings. That Bachmann was after more than this--more than an indisputable demonstration of the terrible lives to which women are irrevocably consigned--is clear in the great majority of her stories and in her central masterpiece, the novel Malina (1971). Tempted as she was to banish from her thoughts variety, surprise, and optimism, she resisted total capitulation even as she yielded a part of herself to the terrible, reductive impulse. "Dead," thinks Charlotte in the 1961 story "A Step Towards Gomorrah." "Dead was the man Franz and dead the man Milan, dead a Luís, dead all seven whom she had felt breathing over her... those who had sought her lips and been drawn into her body." That reduction of all men to one man, of all life to no life, of otherness to irrelevance or extinction, is a powerful force in all of Bachmann's work, an expression of a savage recoil from the encompassing sense of subordination. But the work lives in the alternation from the one instinct to the other, in the refusal of Bachmann's imagination to settle for a complacent victimization.

Mary Gordon gets it exactly right when, in a 1986 review of Bachmann's stories, she observes that "the relations of men and women call up at once Bachmann's profoundest dualizing pessimism and her most visionary hopes." Just so, Bachmann moves from pessimism to hope when she thinks about the capacities of women. At one moment her character Charlotte wants to teach her disciple to speak "slowly, exactly, and not permit any clouding by the common language," but almost in the same breath she scorns the available "language of women," which is, she observes, good for nothing but "a jumble of judgments and opinions."

However various and contradictory Bachmann's fictions, they do, all of them, enact the struggle of characters--not always women--to get free of something: an oppressive partner, a feeling of indifference, a homesickness, a dependence. Often they are disgusted by their own capacity to dissemble, to be dutiful, to pretend to pay attention though they are wholly self-absorbed. In "Word for Word" (1972), one of Bachmann's best stories, Nadja reflects that she herself "talked about everything with the same superficiality." A gifted and successful simultaneous translator, "she lived," Bachmann writes, "without a single thought of her own, immersed in the sentences of others," and although the story allows her moments of wild, sometimes punishing humor, she is never sure what she wants. Nadja often indulges in wishful thinking and indiscriminate criticism. Her repudiation of everything around her is "hopeful" only in the sense that Nadja will not settle for what she is. We understand that the real issue is not her immersion in "the sentences of others." If she is ever to get free, in fact, she will need--so Bachmann suggests--to acknowledge her own complicity in the circumstances that control her.

Bachmann's insistence upon the necessary struggle to get free did not cause her to write as if she had a fixed agenda. Nothing in her work is consolidated, nothing stands still. Unable to live an ordinary life, Bachmann's characters are always burning with rage or impatience or grief. "Bachmann's vision," as Gordon has written, "is structured by a series of mutually annihilating pairs: thought and action, life and truth, female and male." Like her characters, Bachmann has little use for comfortable accommodation, though she imagines she wants nothing more. No sooner does she opt for "truth" than she allows herself to prefer instead "life," pleasure, happiness. If men, or patriarchy, would seem to signify oppression, then in due course such terms must also be shown to signify more--even, perhaps, some promise of liberation. The "pairs" in Bachmann are "mutually annihilating" because she thrives on opposition and antagonism, sees things not simply as they are but as they might be. No principle or person exists in Bachmann without its complementary or oppositional other. And because Bachmann sees and thinks in this way, she is never susceptible to the simple charity that allows things merely to be. Turmoil is an essential ingredient of her medium, and although she is powerfully drawn to defeat, she never quite allows herself to assume the posture of the principled victim.

Bachmann's greatest work is Malina, though this fact is sometimes obscured by scholars who are more excited by the unfinished novels she left behind. Those--The Book of Franza and Requiem for Fanny Goldmann--contain traces of an ideological agenda Bachmann would likely have submerged and obscured had she lived to complete them. The translator of these fragments, Peter Filkins, writes in his admirable introduction of his efforts to "rearrange" passages so as to produce "readable" texts, but he concedes that we cannot know what the "final shape" of the novels would have been.

But we do know that Bachmann published Malina and completed it at the time she was working on the unfinished books, which were intended for inclusion in a cycle of novels entitled "Ways of Dying." These novels, says Filkins, "would chronicle the multitudinous ways in which individuals, particularly women, are 'murdered' by a society that Bachmann felt erased and silenced them." But such accounts of Bachmann's intentions are at once plausible and misleading: plausible because Bachmann sponsored such accounts in interviews and speeches, and misleading because the fiction itself by no means supports such a summary.

At the heart of Malina we find a trio of figures. The female narrator, a distinguished Austrian writer, more than a little mad, is in love with Ivan, the divorced father of two young children, though she lives with Malina, a minor writer and functionary upon whom the woman extravagantly relies. Throughout a fragmentary narrative that contains letters, interviews, fairy tales, dreams, the woman gravitates from the one male figure to the other, now dreaming of "happiness" with the fatherly Ivan, elsewhere identifying with the "omniscient" Malina, who seems to know her better than she knows herself.

Is the woman "victimized" by these men? Do they represent the standard torsions of male "power" and patriarchal privilege? Everywhere in the novel there are signs that may be taken for the effects of male power. Ivan wants her to write only happy books, and briefly, dutifully, she tries to satisfy him. Once she fears that Malina will catch her "prostrate before the telephone... like a Moslem on his rug," hoping against hope that Ivan will call her. When, at another time, Ivan casually lifts his hand, she flinches as if he were about to strike her, and as he pins her arms back, apparently to stop her from some fit of hysteria, he asks, "Who's done this to you, who's put such nonsense into your head," thereby invalidating her, denying that she has in fact anything to fear. In addition, the novel often refers to war, rape, and murder. "Most men usually make women unhappy," the woman says. When you get right down to it, she reflects, "every man really is sick," and if things are worse in Vienna than elsewhere, that is because it "is made for universal prostitution" and "all the ramifications of the male disease" are readily played out there.

But the woman who furnishes these observations is clearly disturbed. What is more, she consistently resists or undercuts her own "insights." If she did not, the novel would read like a psychotic rant. To be sure, writers such as Toni Morrison have used "madness" to identify the pernicious effects of racism and sexism on women, and there are other writers for whom "madness" functions--however improbably--as an affirmation of female selfhood. But Bachmann does not portray madness in this way, and in Malina it is represented as disabling, terrifying, and totally unproductive. When Bachmann's narrator says, "No normal man with normal drives has the obvious idea that a normal woman would like to be quite normally raped," she does not affirm her character's selfhood or cheer her on. In fact, the narrator's sweeping and irrational generalizations are routinely made to seem symptomatic of her illness, if also unnerving by virtue of the partial truths they express.

Were the narrator herself reliable, that is to say, a credible witness, we should of course credit what she tells us as if it were, simply, the truth. But she herself often does not know the difference between what she fantasizes and what she remembers, and the brilliance of Malina has much to do with its combination of attributes, its existing at once as meditation, parable, dream vision, fairy tale, and prophecy. If the novel as a form typically assumes a more or less rational relationship between the individual and her world, Malina challenges that requirement, forcing its readers to ask not only what things mean but also why meaning in Bachmann must always be problematic.

The key to understanding the narrator's pronouncements on "men" lies in Bachmann's treatment of the character Malina. When the woman imagines that her father had ordered her bookshelves "to be torn down," she tears "the French books from his hand, since Malina had given them to me," suggesting, as she does at many other points, that Malina is by no means to be associated with oppressive patriarchs and that she deeply values what he has tried to do for her. When she is possessed by despair and self-pity and tells herself the lie that the Ivan who clearly does not love her was the "one single beautiful human being" who might have saved her, Malina urges her to "stop falling down all the time. Get up. Go out, have fun... do something, anything!" Supposing that she is made to be the grateful consort of a man like Ivan, made to be a mild, uncomplaining partner and the obedient caretaker of two darling children, she is corrected by Malina, urged to "learn a new style of struggle," to accept that, if she is ever to be at one with herself, she will renounce the idea that she is a "normal" woman with "normal drives" and a fate that resembles that of women with whom she has virtually nothing in common.

That Malina himself should be seen as a tormentor is entirely understandable when particular lines are isolated or ripped from their proper context. Even the woman is occasionally afraid of him, though most often she expects from him, and receives, encouragement, protection, and a species of tough love not at all reducible to popular clichés. In fact, for all of her fear and agitation, the woman understands much better than many of Bachmann's readers what Malina means when he says that "you can only be of use to yourself by hurting yourself" or when she imagines him saying of Ivan, "Kill him! kill him!" Whether or not Bachmann intended us to regard Malina as the woman's alter ego--the suggestion has been widely entertained--he exists unmistakably in the novel as a substantial being with physical traits, speech patterns, and a disposition altogether distinct from the woman's. And the fact that he is a male figure endowed, for better or worse, with what the woman takes to be distinctly male characteristics-"steadfast and composed," one who understands "without my having to explain it," a man with "nothing to settle"--cannot but suggest that, for Bachmann, the woman's essential failure is her inability to break out of the prison of her own narrowly constructed female identity.

Such an idea will hardly find favor with readers bent upon wringing a partisan "message" from Malina, those who want to find in Bachmann what Ruth Franklin has called the "particularly virulent sort of radical feminism" epitomized by last year's Nobel Prize winner. But again, Malina is not a polemical novel. If we say that Bachmann's narrator allows herself to be destroyed, permits her mentor, Malina, to help her destroy what is inauthentic within her, needs him to emerge within her as the strength to deny what she cannot truly want for herself, do we thereby betray or violate a "truth" about "patriarchy" and gender relations too sacred to be challenged? Do we thereby compromise our sense of Bachmann as a writer who had the nerve to get to the very bottom of a woman's experience without fear of melodramatic exaggeration?

To contend that no virulent formulation we can pull from Malina begins to capture the spirit and meaning of this novel is to contend, simply, that Bachmann invests everything she writes with a scrupulous uncertainty and misgiving. Bachmann is not committed to a rational program or a critique of any existing order, much as her work serves, at least in part, as a demonstration of the terrible effect that the established order can have on a deeply intelligent and deeply feeling person. No one who reads Malina--really reads it--can suppose that it provides answers to the questions Bachmann raises or adequate political responses to "fascism" or the vicissitudes of ordinary gender relations. The air of excess and extremity that circulates in her pages should not distract us from the essential seriousness of her desire to understand what baffles and pains her. To read her as if she had a program to propose or a constituency to represent is fatally to misread, and lose, a major writer.


By Robert Boyers