Saturday, June 25, 2016

Bachmann’s diary fragment

My mind’s still in a whirl. Jack Hamesh was here. [. . .] We talked until evening and he kissed my hand before he left. No one’s ever kissed my hand before. I’m out of my mind I’m so happy and after he’d gone I climbed up the apple tree, it was already dark and I cried my eyes out and thought I never wanted to wash my hand again.’ This is a diary fragment written by the Austrian Ingeborg Bachmann, born 90 years go today, in the aftermath of the Second World War. She would go on to become an important German language poet and author, and to be much studied, after her tragically early death, by feminist scholars.

Bachmann was born on 25 June 1926 in Klagenfurt, Austria, the daughter of a headmaster. She studied at several universities before, in 1949, finishing her doctorate on the philosophy of Martin Heidegger at Vienna university. She worked for the Allied radio stations, which also produced her first radio dramas, and she became involved with a literary circle known as Gruppe 47, which included Hans Weigel, Heinrich Böll, and Günter Grass among its members.

In 1953, Bachmann moved to Rome, where she developed her literary work, with poems initially, successfully publishing Gestundete Zeit (Deferred Time) and Anrufung des Großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear). In 1958 she started a relationship with the Swiss writer and architect, Max Frisch, and consequently moved to Zurich. The relationship lasted only until 1962, and the break-up caused Bachmann much distress. She spent a year in Berlin before returning to Rome.

Bachmann also wrote essays, short stories and opera libretti, the latter in collaboration with Hans Werner Henze (Der Prinz von Homburg in 1960, and Der junge Lord in 1965). In 1971, she published her only novel, Malina. One night, in September 1973, she was seriously injured by a fire which occurred in her bedroom, and was taken to hospital. She died a few weeks later, possibly because the doctors that treated her had been unaware of her barbiturate addiction.

According to the Literary Encyclopedia, ‘Ingeborg Bachmann has been recognized as one of post-1945 German literature’s most important writers at least since 1954, when she was featured on the cover of West Germany’s prominent news magazine, Der Spiegel. Der Spiegel acclaimed Bachmann’s poetry a “stenograph of its time”, treating her poems as a turning point in post-war writing, a signal that German literature had overcome the Nazi past and resumed its proper place on the stage of world literature.’ Further information can be found at Wikipedia (more details in the German language entry), The Poetry Foundation, Institute of Modern Languages Research, or About Vienna.

There is no evidence that Bachmann was a diarist, but, in 2011, Seagull Books (University of Chicago Press) published a small book called War Diary with a few pages of a diary she kept in 1944 -1945, more in odd notes than a day-to-day form. Most of the book is taken up with letters written to her by a British officer, Jack Hamesh. According to the publisher, ‘War Diary provides unusual insight into the formation of Bachmann as a writer and will be cherished by the many fans of her work. But it is also a poignant glimpse into life in Austria in the immediate aftermath of the war.’ A review can be read at The Quarterly Conversation, which concludes with this comment: ‘It is somewhat curious that this and other juvenilia, such as the Letters to Felician, have been translated into English while so much of her critical writing remains unavailable.’

Here though are a couple of extracts (among the only ones which are actually dated) from the brief diary portion of the book.

11 June 1944
‘Liesl’s falllen in love with an Englishman, he’s immensely lean and tall and he’s called Bob. She says he’s very rich and went to Oxford. She talks of nothing else but him. Yesterday she said her only wish was to get away from here and go to England. I think she hopes he’ll marry her. But marriage between the English and Austrian women is forbidden by the military government. She said the wretched conditions here are never going to end and she’s been through too much, she can’t take any more and she wants to have a life at last. I can well understand her but then I get annoyed with her because she thinks I ought to marry an Englishman too and get away from here. Of course I want to get away but so that I can go to university and I’ve no desire to get married at all, not even to an Englishman for a few tins of food and silk stockings. Most of the English who are here are very nice and, I believe, decent. But I’m much too young, Arthur and Bill are very nice and we often talk a lot together and laugh a lot. We often play games like ‘Drop the Handkerchief’ and ‘Statues’ in the garden. Arthur’s always giving little Heinerle chocolate and a few days ago he suddenly went to Mummy, who’s still bedridden, and put some tea and biscuits on the quilt for her. She calls him Carrot-top because he has such red hair and she likes him best. I think he’s in love with Liesl as well. Bill too, but even more, and Arthur’s terribly jealous of Bob. Bob is quite unapproachable, we once spoke a couple of words but never again, not even when I thanked him for letting Liesl have the car to bring her mother back from hospital.’

14 June 1944
‘My mind’s still in a whirl. Jack Hamesh was here, this time he came in a jeep. Naturally, everyone in the village stared and Frau S. came over the stream twice to have a look in the garden. I took him into the garden because Mummy’s in bed upstairs. We sat on the bench and at first I was all of a tremble so that he must have thought I’m mad or have a bad conscience or God knows what. And I’ve no idea why. I can’t remember what we talked about at first but all at once we were on to books, to Thomas Mann and Stefan Zweig and Schnitzler and Hofmannsthal. I was so happy, he knows everything and he told me he never thought he’d find a young girl in Austria who’d read all that despite her Nazi upbringing. And suddenly everything was quite different and I told him everything about the books. He told me he was taken to England in a kindertransport with other Jewish children in ’38, he was actually eighteen then but an uncle managed to arrange it, his parents were already dead. So now I know how he comes to speak such good German, then he went into the British army and now in the zones of occupation there are lots of former Germans and Austrians working in the FSS offices, because of the language and because they know conditions in the country better. We talked until evening and he kissed my hand before he left. No one’s ever kissed my hand before. I’m out of my mind I’m so happy and after he’d gone I climbed up the apple tree, it was already dark and I cried my eyes out and thought I never wanted to wash my hand again.’

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