Ingeborg Bachmann, translated by Philip Boehm

May 29, 2019 
The following is from Ingeborg Bachmann's novel Malina, which uses the intertwined lives of three characters to explore the roots of society’s breakdown that led to fascism. Ingeborg Bachmann is widely regarded as one of the greatest German-language writers of the 20th century. Her poems, plays, stories, and only finished novel, Malina, have been championed by Paul Celan, Hannah Arendt, Günter Grass, Peter Handke, Thomas Bernhard, Christa Wolf, and Elfriede Jelinek.

One: Happy with Ivan

Having smoked and drunk again, counted the glasses and my cigarettes, saving two for today, as there are three days left till Monday, without Ivan. 60 cigarettes later, however, Ivan is back in Vienna, first he’ll call the time service to check his watch, then dial 00 for the wakeup service, which phones right back, immediately thereafter he’ll fall asleep as quickly as he alone can do, then he’ll wake up (with the service) in a grumpy mood he always expresses in different ways using sighs, curses, tantrums, complaints. Next he’s forgotten all about being grumpy and has jumped into the bathroom to brush his teeth, shower and shave. He’ll turn on the radio and listen to the morning news. This is Radio Austria. The news. In Washington . . .


But Washington and Moscow and Berlin are merely impertinent places trying to make themselves important. In my country, in Ungargassenland, no one takes them seriously or people simply smile at such obtrusions as they would at the proclamations of ambitious upstarts, no longer can they have any impact on my life, which once ran into someone else’s on the Landstrasser Hauptstrasse in front of a florist whose name I have yet to discover, and I only stopped running because there was a bouquet of Turk’s-cap lilies in the window, red and seven times redder than red, never seen before, and in front of the window stood Ivan, I don’t know what else was there, since I left with him immediately, first to the post office on the Rasumofskygasse, where we had to wait at two different counters, he at “Transfers” and I at “Stamps,” and this first separation was already so painful that upon reclaiming Ivan at the exit I was speechless. He didn’t have to ask me a thing because I had no doubt I would accompany him, go home with him right then and there, which to my amazement was only a few doors down from my own house. The borders were soon defined, after all only a tiny country had to be established, without territorial claims or even a proper constitution, an intoxicated land with only two houses you can find in the dark, even during total eclipses (solar and lunar), and I know by heart how many steps it takes, going diagonally, to reach Ivan’s, I could even walk there blindfolded.

Now the rest of the world, where I lived up to now—always in a panic, my mouth full of cotton, the throttle marks on my neck—is reduced to its petty insignificance since it is opposed by something truly powerful even if this only consists of waiting and smoking, like it does today, so no part of this force is lost. Because it’s twisted I have to unwind the telephone cord ten times, carefully, with the receiver dangling o the hook, so that it may again be handled easily in case of emergency, this way I’ll also be able to dial 72 68 93 before the emergency occurs. I’m aware that nobody will answer, but that’s not important, as long as Ivan’s phone is ringing in the darkened apartment, I know its exact location, the ringing is intended as an announcement to everything in his possession: I’m calling, it’s me. And the heavy deep armchair will hear it, where he likes to sit, suddenly dozing off for five minutes, and the closets and the lamp over the bed where we lie together and his shirts and suits and the underwear he’ll have tossed on the floor so that Frau Agnes knows what she has to take to the laundry. Ever since I’ve been able to dial this number, my life has finally stopped taking turns for the worse, I’m no longer coming apart at the seams, no longer getting into troubles I can’t get out of, I’m not progressing anymore nor am I swerving from the path—because I hold my breath, stopping time, and call and smoke and wait.

If for some reason or another I hadn’t moved to the Ungargasse two years ago, if I were still living in the Beatrixgasse, as during my student years, or abroad, as so often happened later, then my life would have arbitrarily taken some other course, and I never would have discovered the most important thing in the world: that everything within my reach, the telephone, receiver and cord, the bread and the butter and the kippers I save for Monday evening because they’re Ivan’s favorite, or the special sausage I like best, everything bears Ivan’s brand, from the House of Ivan. This benevolent and powerful company must have also acquired and softened the typewriter and the vacuum cleaner which used to make such an unbearable racket—the car doors underneath my windows no longer slam shut with such a bang, and even nature must have fallen under Ivan’s protection unintentionally, since the birds sing more quietly in the morning, allowing a second brief sleep.


But much more is going on since this assumption of ownership, and it seems strange to me that medicine, which considers itself a science and a very rapidly progressing one, knows nothing about the following phenomenon: the incidence of pain in my neighborhood is decreasing, between Ungargasse 6 and 9 fewer misfortunes occur, cancer and tumors, asthma and heart attacks, fevers, infections and breakdowns, even headaches and discomforts due to weather are on the decline, and I ask myself if it isn’t my duty to inform scientists of this simple remedy, so that Research—which claims to be able to combat all disease using more and more sophisticated medications and treatments—could make a great leap forward. The tremulous anxiety, the high tension hovering over this city and presumably everywhere has almost completely abated here, and schizothymia, the world’s schizoid soul, its crazy, gaping split, is healing itself imperceptibly.

The only remaining excitement is a hasty search for hairpins and stockings, a slight quiver while applying mascara and manipulating eyeshadow, using narrow brushes on the lids, or while dipping flimsy cotton puffs in light and dark powder. Or an insuppressible moistening of the eyes while I run back and forth between the bathroom and the hall looking for my purse or a handkerchief, a swelling of the lips—there are just these tiny physiological changes, a lighter gait which makes you taller by half an inch, and losing a little weight because it’s going to be afternoon later and the offices will start to close and then these daydream-guerrillas will have infiltrated the Ungargasse and begun to incite, soon they have occupied it with their glorious proclamations and the only password they recognize, and how could that word, which even today stands for the future, be anything but Ivan.


It’s Ivan. Ivan, again and again.


Against the decay and order, against life and against death, against accident, constant threats from the radio, the newspaper headlines all spreading the plague, against perfidy seeping down from upstairs or up from downstairs, against a slow devouring inside and being swallowed up by the outside, against Frau Breitner’s insulted airs each morning, I hold my position, keep my early evening watch and wait and smoke, increasingly con dent and safe, with unprecedented endurance and security, because in this sign I shall conquer.


Even if Ivan was created just for me, as he certainly was, I can never claim him solely for myself. For he has come to make consonants constant once again and comprehensible, to unlock vowels to their full resounding, to let words come over my lips once more, to solve problems and recreate connections long since disrupted, and I will not stray from him one iota, I will align and superimpose our identical, high-pitched first initials we use to sign our little notes, and after our names unite we could begin with the first words, cautiously, once again paying heed to this world, compelling it to respect itself once more, and since we want resurrection and not destruction, we take care not to touch each other in public, nor do we look into each other’s eyes except furtively, because Ivan must first wash my eyes with his own, removing the images that landed on my retina before his arrival. Nonetheless after many cleansings a gloomy, fearsome picture reemerges, practically inextinguishable, whereupon Ivan rushes to cover it with some bright image to stop my evil eye and make me lose this horrible look—which I know how I acquired but do not remember, I do not remember . . .

(You still can’t, not yet, there’s so much upsetting you . . .)

But since Ivan is beginning to cure me, things cannot be all that bad on earth.


Even though at one time everyone knew, but since nobody remembers today, I’ll disclose one reason why it has to happen secretly, why I close the door, lower the curtain, why I am alone when I present myself to Ivan. I’m not trying to keep us hidden, I want to recreate a taboo, and Malina understood this without my having to explain it, because even when I’m alone and my bedroom door is open, or when he’s the only one in the apartment, he walks to his room as if there never were an open door, as if there never were a closed one, as if there weren’t any room at all, so as not to profane anything and so the first bold moves and last tender submissions might have another chance. Lina doesn’t clean up here either, for no one is supposed to set foot in this room, there’s nothing going on that might be surrendered to dissection and analysis, because Ivan and I do not mutilate or torture ourselves, break each other on the wheel or murder one another, and in this way we shelter ourselves, protect what is our own and not to be touched.

Ivan is never mistrustful, never asks questions, never suspects me, so my own suspicion disappears. Since he doesn’t criticize my two obstinate chin hairs, nor notice the first two wrinkles under my eyes, since the coughing after my first cigarette doesn’t bother him, since he even covers my mouth with his hand whenever I’m on the verge of saying something rash, I tell him everything I’ve never said before, in a different language, no holding back, because he’ll never want to know what I’m up to during the day, what I did earlier, why I didn’t come home until three in the morning, why I didn’t have any time yesterday, why the telephone was busy for a whole hour and who I’m talking to right now, for as soon as I start with an ordinary sentence and say: I have to tell you something, Ivan interrupts me: Why, what do you have to explain to me, absolutely nothing, not a thing, who do you owe an explanation, certainly not me, nobody, it’s nobody’s business—

But I have to.

You’re incapable of lying to me, I know that, I’m sure of that.

But only because I don’t have to!

Why are you laughing? It wouldn’t be a disgrace, you could still go ahead and do it. Go on and try, but you can’t.

And you?

Me? Do you have to ask?

No, I don’t have to.

I can try, too, but maybe I just won’t tell you something from time to time. What do you say to that?

Fine with me. I have to agree. You don’t have to do anything, Ivan, but you can.

While we’re working things out so effortlessly, the carnage continues in the city—insufferable remarks, commentaries and scraps of gossip circulate in restaurants, at parties, in apartments, at the Jordans’, the Altenwyls’, the Wantschuras’ or else they’re distributed for the more needy in magazines, newspapers, in movies and books where things are discussed in such a way that they depart, retreat into themselves, and withdraw into us, and each wants to stand there naked, eager to undress the others to the bone, every secret disappears, forced open like a locked drawer, but where no secret existed nothing shall ever be found, and the helplessness increases following the break-ins, the strippings, the searches and the interrogations: there is no burning bush, nor is even the smallest light illumined, not in ecstatic delirium, not in fanatic sobriety, and the law of the world lies upon everyone, more misunderstood than ever before.


Because Ivan and I only tell each other good things and sometimes things intended to make each other laugh (but without ever laughing at anyone), because we’re even able to smile when preoccupied and so find the right way to get back on track, to get back together, I hope we might effect a general contamination. Slowly we will infect our neighbors, one after the other, with the virus whose most likely name I know already, and if an epidemic should ensue, it would benefit all humanity. But I also realize how difficult it is to catch, how long one has to wait to be ripe for contamination, and how difficult, how completely hopeless things were for me before it happened!


Since Ivan is looking at me questioningly I must have said something, and I hurry to change the subject. I know what the virus is called, but I’ll be careful not to mention its name in front of Ivan.
What are you muttering about? What’s difficult to catch? What disease are you talking about?
It’s not a disease, I’m not talking about a disease, I’m only thinking some things are hard to catch hold of.

Either I really do speak too softly or Ivan doesn’t understand what Malina would have understood, guessed, grasped long ago, and he can’t even hear me—thinking or talking—and besides I’ve never told him anything about the virus.

A lot of things have intervened, I’ve accumulated more antibodies than you need to be immune—mistrust, indifference, the fearlessness which comes from too much fear, and I don’t know how Ivan coped with such resistance, such impregnable misery, the nights so perfectly rehearsed for insomnia, the unbroken anxiety, the obstinate renunciation of everything. But all this came to nothing in the very first hour, when Ivan didn’t exactly drop from heaven but did stand before me on the Landstrasser Hauptstrasse, his eyes smiling, very tall and slightly bowed, and for that alone I should bestow on him the highest distinctions—the absolute highest—for bumping into me and rediscovering me as I once was, my earliest layers, for retrieving me from underneath all the rubble and I shall beatify him for all his gifts—but for which gifts?—since no end is in sight and none is allowed to arrive, and so I’ll begin simply, with the simplest gift of all, namely, his ability to make me laugh again.


At last I’m able to move about in my flesh as well, with the body I’d alienated with a certain disdain, I feel how everything inside is changing, how the plain and diagonally striated muscles relax, freeing themselves from their constant cramps, how both nervous systems convert simultaneously, because nothing takes place more distinctly than this conversion, an amending, a purification, the living factual proof, which could also be measured and labeled using the most modern instruments of metaphysics. It’s good that I immediately grasped what had so struck me in that first hour, and, consequently, that I joined Ivan without any fuss, without any preconceived ideas. I didn’t waste a moment: an event like this, which you’ve never known, which you can’t know about in advance, which you can’t have heard or ever read about, requires the utmost haste in order to occur.

The slightest trifle could nip it in the bud, strangle it, stop it during takeoff, so sensitive is the genesis, the germination of this most powerful force in the world, simply because the world is sick and doesn’t want a healthy force to prevail. A carhorn could have interrupted the first sentence, or a policeman ticketing a badly parked scooter, a passerby could have staggered between us, bawling, a deliveryman could have blocked our view, my God, it’s impossible to think of everything that might have gotten in the way! I could have been distracted by an ambulance siren and looked down the street instead of at the bouquet of Turk’s-cap lilies in the window, or Ivan could have asked someone for a light and never would have seen me. Because we were in such peril standing by the storefront, because even three sentences would have been too many, we quickly departed the danger zone, letting a lot of things just be. That’s why it took us so long to get past the first small, meaningless sentences. I don’t even know whether you could say today we’re able to talk and converse with one another like most people. But there’s no rush. We still have our whole life, says Ivan.


Nonetheless we have managed to conquer our first few sets of sentences, foolish starts, incomplete phrases, endings, surrounded by the halo of mutual consideration. Up to now most of these may be found on the telephone. We practice them over and over, as Ivan calls from his office on the Kärntnerring or again late in the afternoon or else in the evening from his home.


Hello. Hello?

It’s me, who’d you think?

Oh right, of course, sorry

How I am? And you?

I don’t know. This evening?

I can barely understand you

Barely? What? So you can

I can’t hear you very well, can you

What . . . is something?

No, nothing, later on you can

O.K., sure, I better call you later

I, I really should see these

Of course if you can’t, then

I didn’t say that, only if you don’t

In any case let’s call each other later

All right, but closer to six, since

But that’ll be too late for me

Yes really for me as well, but

Maybe it doesn’t make much sense today

Did someone come in?

No, just Fräulein Jellinek is here

Oh, so you’re not alone anymore

But please, later on, for sure!

Translated from the German by Philip Boehm


From Malina by Ingeborg Bachmann. Used with permission of New Directions Books. Translation copyright © 2019 by Philip Boehm.

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