Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Author's Portrait: Ingeborg Bachmann

Always in the beginning of July, the town of Klagenfurt, Austria, changes for a couple of days from the quiet capital of the federal province of Carinthia into a buzzing hub of modern literature: it’s the venue of the Festival of German-language Literature. Its highlight is the award of one of the most prestigious literature prizes in the German-speaking world named after the late Austrian poet, playwright and novelist Ingeborg Bachmann. From 4 to 7 July 2013 the finalists for this year’s prize will read their texts in front of the jury, an interested audience and TV cameras. For me this is reason enough to portray the writer today.

Ingeborg Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, Austria, in July 1926. Her father was a teacher of languages in a grammar school and later a headmaster. The entry of Hitler’s troops into Austria in March 1938, which was hailed in many places of my country, and everything that followed had great impact on her view of the world making her take a firm stand against war and violence for the rest of her life. In 1944 she went to university to study philosophy, psychology and German philology in Innsbruck, Graz and Vienna. As a student she had a love affair with the poet Paul Celan. In 1950 she presented her doctoral thesis on Die kritische Aufnahme der Existenzialphilosophie Martin Heideggers (The Critical Reception of the Existential Philosophy of Martin Heidegger). 

As from the early 1950s Ingeborg Bachmann earned a decent living as an editor and scriptwriter for the Allied radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot. She became a member of the literary circle called Gruppe 47 that loosely united German-language writers like Ilse Aichinger, Paul Celan, Heinrich Böll (Nobel Prize for literature 1972), Marcel Reich-Ranicki and Günter Grass (Nobel Prize for literature 1999). At a conference in 1952 she read her lyrical poetry which was her literary breakthrough. The following year she gave up her job and moved to Italy working as a freelance writer and travelling a lot, while partly living with the German composer Hans Werner Henze. During their relationship she produced libretti for Hinze’s Operas Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg: 1960) and Der junge Lord (The Young Lord: 1965) and several poems which he set to music. 

In 1958 Ingeborg Bachmann met the Swiss writer Max Frisch and plunged into a difficult relationship with him which influenced the work of both and lasted until 1962. The early 1960s saw her moving between Rome, Zurich, Munich, Berlin, and Frankfurt (where she held the newly created chair of poetics at the university during the winter term 1959/60) and travelling to Egypt, the Sudan and the German Democratic Republic. She settled down permanently in Rome in 1963. During this time she also began reconsidering her choice of literary genre. She took to writing few poems and concentrating on prose instead. In spring 1973 she made a reading tour of Poland visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau among others. 

The literary work of Ingeborg Bachmann can be called feminist writing because of its woman-centred perspective, but this is a label which was developed only later on. Apart from her poems which have been translated into English and collected in a bilingual volume titled Darkness Spoken (2005), Ingeborg Bachmann’s most important works comprise the early radio plays A Deal in Dreams (Ein Geschäft mit Träumen: 1953), The Cicadas (Zikaden: 1955) and The Good God of Manhattan (Der gute Gott von Manhattan: 1958) published in English as Three Radio Plays (1999), her partly autobiographical cycle of stories titled The Thirtieth Year (Das dreißigste Jahr: 1961), the novel Malina (1971), and the volume of stories Three Paths to the Lake (Simultan: 1972). 

Ingeborg Bachmann died from severe burns in a hospital in Rome, Italy, in October 1973, three weeks after her apartment had gone up in flames. Until today it remains uncertain whether the fire was an accident caused by her having fallen asleep with a burning cigarette or if it was suicide.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find a biography in English, but there's at least Uwe Johnson's Trip to Klagenfurt: In the Footsteps of Ingeborg Bachmann.

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