Ingeborg Bachmann: ′Malina′ | 100 German Must-Reads - a unique list of 100 works of German literature published in English | DW | 08.10.2018

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100 German Must-Reads

Ingeborg Bachmann: 'Malina'

The 1971 novel from Bachmann's "Death Styles" series caused rare and vast disagreement among critics over how it was meant to be interpreted. The radically poetic three-part story was nevertheless a success.

"Death Styles": That was Ingeborg Bachmann's name for her three-volume novel series that she wrote in the 1960s. Malina was supposed to the be "overture," a "story within the self." The novel was published in German in 1971 by Suhrkamp publishing house. It was to be the only novel published from a completed manuscript during the poet's lifetime. All others remain fragments.

The publishers placed advertisements for the book in the weekly magazine Speigel — the first time they had ever done so. The move was successful, and the book sold well. But that wasn't a sure-fire bet since literary critics such as Marcel Reich-Ranicki would have preferred to have seen Bachmann continue writing poetry.

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'Malina' by Ingeborg Bachmann

A complex composition

Critics recognized the poetic quality that Bachmann used in her complex novel. She herself described the work as an "intellectual, imaginary autobiography." Yet any attempt to reduce the references in the novel to the author's biography would be fruitless. 

It's not easy to identify a narrative plot development in the novel, but the book's structure is clear. Three large chapters follow one another: "Happy with Ivan," "The Third Man," and "Last Things." Such as in a theatrical play, the author starts the book by listing the characters, defining the setting as Vienna and the time as the present.

The impossibility of love between man and woman

On the surface, the book is about the beginning and the end of a passionate romantic relationship between the nameless first-person narrator and "Ivan," the Hungarian neighbor, who lives with his wife and children in a street called Ungargasse. The narrator plays chess and smokes with her lover and in his absence, she waits desperately for him to call.

Filmstill from Malina

Isabelle Huppert and Mathieu Carriere in Werner Schroeter's 1991 film adaptation of the novel

The character of Ivan, who some interpret to be based on Bachmann's previous partner Max Frisch, remains oddly unclear. Hounded by work, averse to conflict, and unmoved by her desperation, Ivan reduces the narrator to her position as a woman. "He also says: I should be the one to run after you, you better not ever run after me..."

The novel's title is the name of the narrator's flatmate. The two share an apartment in one of Vienna's inner districts. Malina embodies masculine life principles. His job as a military historian, a civil servant position, anchors him in reality. Malina considers the narrator's erotic love for Ivan to be taboo, yet he tries to give her life order, both external and internal, so as to protect her from her own desperation. 

The trauma of femininity

When taken together, the complementary figure and the feminine narrator depict a veritable hermaphrodite.

"Ivan hasn't been warned about me. He doesn't know with whom he is running around, that he is dealing with a phenomenon which can also be deceiving. I don't want to lead Ivan astray, but he will never realize that I am double. I am also Malina's creation."

Manes Sperber, Dieter Wellershoff, Ingeborg Bachmann, Heribert Steinbaue

600th anniversary of the Vienna University: (l. to r.) Manes Sperber, Dieter Wellershoff, Ingeborg Bachmann, Heribert Steinbauer

But Malina's rational principles mean death for the feminine part of the self. "Kill Ivan," Malina orders, but the feminine narrator recognizes that this would also mean her end. "I have lived in Ivan and die in Malina." The novel's closing words are famous: "It was murder."

Bachmann's innovative manner of storytelling blurs all boundaries between fictional reality and imagination. The entire second chapter is decoupled from the setting of a love story. "This time the place is not Vienna. It is a place called Everywhere and Nowhere. The Time is not today. In fact the time no longer exists at all ..."

Patriarchal violence and suffering

As if in a dream, the chapter tells how the narrator suffered at the hands of her father. Bachmann shocks with descriptions of incestuous rape and barbaric patriarchal power:

"I dive deeper and scream under water: No! And: I don't want to anymore! I can't anymore! I know it's important to scream under water since it drives away the sharks, so it should also drive away my father who wants to attack me, to tear me to pieces, or he wants to sleep with me again, to take me on the reef so that my mother can see it."

Woman lying in bed with a cigarette between her lips

Scene from the movie "Malina" and also the way the author herself died

Literary scholars have interpreted the passages to be expressions of the author's suffering due to the hidden violence still present in Austrian societal structures — the crimes of National Socialism that had yet to be dealt with. The women's movement of the 1980s, which rediscovered Bachmann's novel, saw it to be dealing with the intolerable gender relationships of a patriarchal society.

Poetic lightness

Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek wrote the script for a successful film adaptation of the work, directed by Werner Schroeter in 1991. For Jelinek, Bachmann was the first woman after WWII who used "radical poetic means" to highlight "the ongoing effect of the war, torture, and extermination within society." It is Bachmann's poetic language that imbues Malina with a certain lightness, despite the novel's heavy subject and psychological depth.


Ingeborg Bachmann: Malina, Holmes & Meier,  (German title: Malina, 1971). English translation: Philip Boehm.

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in 1926. She studied philosophy, psychology, and German before achieving her literary breakthrough in 1953. From 1963-73, she worked her "Death Styles" project in Berlin and Rome. At the end of Malina, she speaks of the desire for sleeping pills and how her head must not fall onto the "hot stove burner." The poet, essayist and radio-drama writer died in September 1973 due to complications from burns she received after falling asleep with a lit cigarette.

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