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"The truest portrait of female consciousness since Sappho"


In the New Yorker, novelist Rachel Kushner reflects on the novel Malina by the criminally underrecognized Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-73). The novel was originally published in 1971. It was first translated into English in 1999 by Philip Boehm; a revised translation will be published by New Directions this summer. As Kushner writes, Malina is an odd and elliptical book about a seemingly mundane romance between the female narrator and her neighbor. But in its subtly lacerating prose, it captures the psychic experience of being a woman in a patriarchal and nihilistic society. Here’s an excerpt:

Can a man understand “Malina”? Completely … A man can appreciate “Malina.” He doesn’t have to suffer it, whereas a woman who reads this book might feel the same burns and itching from the wool dress the narrator puts on late in the narrative—not by choice but by cosmic attrition, as her possessions start to go missing. But “Malina,” which was first published in 1971, is not a novel that is easy for anyone to understand, in a more normal sense of comprehension—the who, what, and why. I won’t pretend. It’s a difficult book in which to find your footing. There are all sorts of references in it, to Schoenberg, to Vienna, to historical events, not all of which the reader will catch. But once you’re in, you’re in. You’re not decoding. Toward the end, you’re racing along, deep in the rhythms of the narrator’s thoughts, which are bone-true and demonically intelligent—and I mean it would be a real burden to be that mentally acute, it can’t go well for a person to know that much, it can only lead to ill health, drinking, and despair—and then the novel careens over a cliff.

Image of Ingeborg Bachmann via Granta.