Gisela Brinker-Gabler, Markus Zisselsberger, eds. "If We Had the Word": Ingeborg Bachmann, Views and Reviews. Riverside: Ariadne Press, 2004. v + 302 pp. $34.00 (paper), ISBN 978-1-57241-130-2.
Reviewed by Kathrin Bower (Department of Modern Literatures and Cultures, University of Richmond)
Published on H-German (June, 2007)
This collection of essays grew from a 1996 symposium held at SUNY-Binghamton to commemorate what would have been Ingeborg Bachmann's seventieth birthday. Gisela Brinker-Gabler, the symposium organizer, provides a brief foreword to the volume. Brinker-Gabler begins by articulating parallels between Ingeborg Bachmann and the poet Sylvia Plath, both in terms of their poetic prowess and their fascination with death, but the foreword is primarily a short literary biography of Bachmann, noting the highlights in her career and the difference in reception between her poetry and prose. While the foreword does serve to situate Bachmann as a writer, it does not provide an introduction to the collection of essays and is marred by moments of opaque phrasing and the unfortunate misspelling of Plath's name in the very first sentence.
A translation of Bachmann's "Sterben für Berlin" (1961/62), which appears here for the first time in English, precedes the scholarly essays. Just as the foreword avoids articulating the rationale for the sequence and selection of the essays, the explanation for the inclusion of this prose fragment is left to the reader. Nevertheless, its inclusion is an apt choice in lieu of an introduction, since it illustrates many of the themes taken up in the subsequent analyses of Bachmann's work: the self-conscious attention to language, the associative jumps, the concern with history, politics and memory, and the complexity and alienation inherent in human relationships.
The collection of thirteen essays is divided into three categories: "On Lyrics and Language"; "Todesarten"; and "Remembrance and History." Peter Filkins opens the first category with an analysis of three of Bachmann's poems in support of his assertion that her life and career were akin to a musical composition on the theme of "the unspoken." Frederick Garber's essay argues for a reading of Bachmann's poetry as a subversion of history and begins with a close reading of "Das Spiel ist aus" (1954) as a guide for the collection Anrufung des großen Bären (1956). The subversion he refers to in this section, however, is not really of history, but of fairy tales, or, as he phrases it, "cultural history" (p. 34). Garber reduces a long, complex poem to a series of poetic types and does not engage in a real analysis of its dimensions and depth. He is clearly fascinated by the concept of "mortgaged time" in Bachman's first collection of poetry as well as by the idea of guilt in her works. In his readings of several of Bachmann's poems, Garber remains focused on questions of allegory and genre, in line with his argument that Bachmann's efforts to elude the fixity of language and achieve a state of timelessness could be read as attempts to resist categorization according to specific genres.
Sabine Gölz's essay contrasting Apollinaire's "Le Pont Mirabeau" (1913) and Bachmann's "Die Brücken" (1952) is the longest and most detailed contribution in the collection. Gölz argues that Bachmann's poem is a re-reading of Apollinaire's with a shift of focus from a specific bridge to the deconstruction of a poetic subject. Gölz maintains that Bachmann not only leaves behind the gendered subject of Apollinaire's poem, but also attempts to transcend the specificity of subject positions altogether. In her view, Bachmann achieves a deconstruction of the Apollinaire poem and its desire for permanence within the canon by emphasizing the instability of language and the linguistic play of signification. Gölz does an elegant job of exploring the bridge motif both between the two poems and within Apollinaire's oeuvre and reveals her familiarity with the intricacies of Apollinaire's text. Gölz's thorough knowledge of "Le Pont Mirabeau" and its antecedents and her desire to demonstrate this in detail creates an imbalance in her contrastive reading of Apollinaire and Bachmann, to the extent that I, at least, questioned whether it was necessary to devote twice as much space to a discussion of the former poet in a collection of essays on the latter.
The fourth essay, by Barbara Agnese, offers a rather unconventional approach to the intellectual connections between Bachmann and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, reading Wittgenstein through Bachmann rather than vice versa. Agnese depicts Bachmann as a clairvoyant interpreter of Wittgenstein who anticipated the trajectory of his philosophical works and argues that Bachmann and Wittgenstein are connected by a foundational belief in the power of the word and by a rebellion against the strictures of language.
Shifting registers a bit, Robert Pichl's essay opening the "Todesarten" segment offers a structural analysis of Bachmann's short story "Ihr glücklichen Augen" (1969). Although Pichl begins with a rallying cry to revive the lost art of structural analysis and simultaneously reveal the intertextual richness of Bachmann's story, his reading remains curiously undeveloped. Pichl could have taken a page (or two or three) from Gölz in fleshing out his analysis of the structural elements of the text and in taking many of his references to intertextuality beyond the level of allusions.
The next three analyses all center on Bachmann's much-discussed novel Malina (1971). Monika Albrecht contests the idea in some feminist scholarship on Bachmann that Malina represents a move toward a narrative voice beyond gender dichotomies. She argues that the "I" in Malina, like Charlotte in "Ein Schritt nach Gomorrah" (1956/57) is embedded in a male perception of power and female identity. Karen Achberger focuses on music and female absence in the novel, and asserts that the text showcases the destruction and not the self-destruction of the female voice. Moving from music to film, Ingeborg Majer O'Sickey contrasts Bachmann's novel, Elfriede Jelinek's screenplay, and the resulting film production by Werner Schroeter in an analysis of the gendered characterization of the "I." O'Sickey reveals how the transformation of the novel into a film destroyed the complexity of the I/Malina relationship and typecast the I as a masochistic hysteric female. The typical complaint that the book was better than the movie here has serious political implications for an understanding of the feminist critique in Bachmann's novel.
Concluding the second section are Brinker-Gabler's reading of the story "Simultan" (1968) and Sara Lennox's analysis of "Drei Wege zum See" (1972). Brinker-Gabler discusses Bachmann's use and depiction of language in its many dimensions, particularly in light of increasing globalization and mobility, and offers some compelling observations on the transition from interpretation to translation in "Simultan." Sara Lennox takes an intriguing tack in her reading of "Drei Wege zum See," highlighting questions of postcolonialism through a comparison with D. H. Lawrence's short story, "The Woman Who Rode Away" (1925). Like several of the other scholars in this collection, Lennox examines Bachmann's female protagonist as a split subject, for example, one combining both power and passivity. In the case of Elisabeth Matrei, the split in gender identity does not give rise to greater sensitivity to imperialism, but rather blinds Matrei to her own implication in the system she believes she is working against.
The last section, on "Remembrance and History," brings together an analysis of remembrance in Bachmann's poetry and prose, a comparison of Bachmann and poet Inge Müller, and a reading of Bachmann's oeuvre as a self-conscious representation of history. While Andrea Stoll's points that history and remembrance are inextricably linked and that historical context is critical to understanding Bachmann's writing are no revelation, she does a good job of bridging the genres and periods in Bachmann's work from the earliest poetry collection to Malina. Karen Remmler's essay is also concerned with the relationship of history and memory and she uses a selection of Müller's poems to read repressed memory and trauma against the narrative of official, public memory, while relying primarily on Bachmann's prose fragment Franza (1966) to exemplify parallels between the two writers and the way their respective countries, GDR and Austria, deny responsibility for history through myths of nation. Borrowing Frederic Jameson's concept of "metacommentary" and playing on Michel Foucault's use of the term "archive," Michael Eng embarks on an examination of the relationship of language and history and of the text in and as history. Eng's essay incorporates a rich mix of theoretical perspectives and expands upon the interpretive reach of scholars such as Remmler and Sigrid Weigel. Eng's primary contribution is to read Bachmann's Franza as "an interpretive text" (p. 272), or "metacommentary," in which representation and reflection occur simultaneously.
While some of the essays in this collection would be useful to undergraduate or graduate students researching specific works by Bachmann, taken as a whole the volume would be of most interest to Bachmann scholars, particularly those curious to explore in detail the many intertextual threads in her works.
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Kathrin Bower. Review of Brinker-Gabler, Gisela; Zisselsberger, Markus, eds., "If We Had the Word": Ingeborg Bachmann, Views and Reviews.
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