20th century, Arts

Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina: The (im)Possibility of Writing the Female Self

By Alexandra Hills

The cultic tradition of German literary scholarship overlooks its few female exponents shadowed by inescapable male heavyweights of Germanistik. To toe the standard line, women in German literature are often limited to playing a supporting role to the eminent male genius whose ineluctable influence decides their fate, Goethe’s Gretchen for example. Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, published in 1971, is the first and only complete novel of her ‘Death Styles’ series for which it acts as an ‘overture’. In the cycle of novels that were to constitute the Death Styles series, Bachmann intended to present the vulnerability of women in a ‘murderous society'(Bachmann. I, Wirmussen wahre Satze finden. Gesprache und Interviews, (Munchen, 1983)). In an Austria recovering from dictatorship, Bachmann places the root of society’s latent violence in the most fundamental of human relationships: ‘Where does fascism begin? It doesn’t begin when the first bombs are dropped… It begins in the relationship between people. Fascism is the first thing that establishes itself in the relationship between a man and a woman.’ (GuI, 144) Malina is the psychological illustration of this dynamic of silencing and suppression of woman.

The novel is divided into three parts over which the silencing of the ‘Ich’ (German for ‘I’, the unnamed female protagonist of the novel) is choreographed: ‘Happy with Ivan’, ‘The Third Man’ and ‘Of last things’. At first, the work presents itself as a romance novel with ‘Ivan’ being the younger lover and ‘Malina’ an offish husband. However, it emerges that the Ich is a woman in search of a viable way of existence, trying to escape definition and subjugation, whose capacity of self expression becomes more and more limited until she is forced to un-write herself from the plot. The novel ends with the words ‘it was murder’. ‘Malina’, who throughout the novel becomes increasingly inseparable from ‘Ich’, is in fact conceptually indistinguishable from her as he is her male alter ego. He works at the War Museum, writes letters for government offices and presents himself as a preserver of institutions, values and nationality. In contrast, the anonymous female ‘Ich’ only gives herself a supporting role in the text, illustrated in character list at the beginning of the book where she is mentioned after its male participants. She gives very few personal characteristics, crossed out so many times that their authenticity is in doubt. Although she is the narrator, she has little confidence in her capacity to write, and the novel is titled Malina. Furthermore, as a female writer she is permanently battling to distinguish and differentiate her voice from the rest of an overwhelmingly male literary canon. She is a recognised public figure but fits the part uncomfortably; raising questions in the mind of the reader as to ‘Ich’s’ identity. The fact that she is not confined to the domestic sphere by a husband or father gives her a freedom to which she is ill-accustomed, resulting in a neurotic rootlessness, the resolution of which is the crux of the novel itself.

The first chapter ‘Happy with Ivan’ is the ‘Ich’s’ attempt of realising herself through a relationship with a man named Ivan, whom she considers to be essential for her future happiness: ‘How could this word, which already stands for the future, be anything other than Ivan’. The voice of the female ‘Ich’ cannot fully establish a stable identity, either in a relationship in which ‘the object of love becomes a metaphor for the subject’ (Kristeva. J, interpretation of the myth of Narcissus, in her Tales of Love (Columbia, 1987)) or in its distinction from its male alter-ego. Due to the two voices within her, male and female, the relationship with Ivan cannot succeed. Ivan cannot understand that she is ‘Malina’s creature’ and that her desires and emotions are thus regulated. Her male alter-ego is responsible for the instability of her personality as she permanently oscillates between ‘Ich’ and ‘Malina’, living at the frontiers of her feminine consciousness but forbidden access to her latent masculinity. Thus, the question of the subject is porous in Malina, limited to a grey area between being, possibility and annihilation. ‘Malina’ clarifies the self-delusion in ‘Happy with Ivan’ and fazes the lover out, both protecting ‘Ich’ from her irrational impulses and disallowing alternative modes of self-realisation.

The second chapter and reconstructed dream, ‘The Third Man’ submits the ‘Ich’ to further fragmentation as she is tormented by a father. This metaphor is of the ‘Eternal Masculine’ as the symbol of patriarchal order, in its micro and macrocosmic manifestations. Book burning, revolvers and gas chambers are mentioned as illustrations of this masculine metaphor. The ‘Ich’ fears the Father and is disgusted by his megalomania yet seeks recognition without which she risks disappearance and insignificance: ‘is no one worth anything amongst brothers?’ Women appear to not deserve a voice in the male order: ‘Father has torn out my tongue’, which denies access to knowledge, ‘my father knows where the door is but did not show it to me’. The Woman’s fate depends on the Father; his superiority warrants his abuse ‘he rips my heart and limbs out of my body’. The ‘Ich’ is not only harmed but conceptually deconstructed, another sign of fragmented identity. Her one lucid conclusion being: ‘I have understood everything’; that is, the dynamic of submission, transgression and suffocation of femininity as ‘the eternal war.’ ‘Malina’ intervenes to install rationality into this dream chapter, providing a stable narrative, which once again dismisses the ‘Ich’s’ irrational discourse.

In ‘Of Last Things’ the Ich’s ‘death style’ is determined. With the failure of the lover and the father, ‘Malina’ encourages his ‘creature’ to sign her life over to him: ‘Malina interrupts me, he protects me. But I think that his will to protect me will lead to my no longer being able to write’. The female subject is inadequate for self-expression as it can only define itself through relationships, proved unsatisfactory in the first chapter: ‘I lived in Ivan, I die in Malina.’ As the ‘Ich’ can no longer exist within an object of love, she becomes a ‘spirit that has no specific use ( Wolf. C, Die zumutbare Wahrheit Prosa der Ingeborg Bachmann in Die Dimension des Autors – Band 1, Sammlung Luchterhand p. 86. Translation my own). Malina displaces the Ich who mysteriously disappears through a crack in the wall, silenced by the male guardian of values and history. With the effacement of the ‘Ich’ the concept of gender vanishes, but the final three words refuse this displacement, highlighting the underlying dynamic: ‘It was murder’.

Bachmann’s Malina was received with scepticism by male critics who dismissed it as a ‘story of disease’, a transformation of the ‘feminine minus into a literary plus’ (F.W. Korff), but it is a significant novel which evidences the dilemma of women’s writing as the stabilisation of the female self. There can be no narrative if no identity is secured, thus the novel’s polyphony: letters, telephone conversations, dream sequences and poems battle it out; with no dominating mode ever decided upon. The ‘Ich’, who always signed her letters ‘an unknown woman’ as though conscious of her impending fate, is taken over by her male alter-ego ‘There is no woman here’. Christa Wolf said ‘Schreiben ist gross machen’, ‘to write is to enlarge’ (Wolf. C, Nachdenken Uber Christa T). Ingeborg Bachmann calls us to rethink the gender structures of society beyond which the female self can speak out.

Boa. E, Chap. 7 ‘Women Writing about Women Writing, in New Ways’ in Sheppard. R (ed), Germanistik (New York, 1990)
Kristeva. J, Tales of Love (Columbia, 1987)
Bachmann. I, Malina, Werke 3, Todesarten: Malina und Unvollendete Romane (Munchen 1971)

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