March 2012

Elizabeth Bachner


Exsulsate Jubilate: Reading "Malina"

I’ve been thinking about whether, on average, people are lonelier in real life than in novels. Even in plotless novels, even in Austrian novels, even in beautiful novels that are totally about the theme of loneliness and capture its bleak, stark, wind-tunnel feeling, usually there’s some intimacy, some connection, people connecting somehow. Even in a stream-of-consciousness novel about loneliness, in a bad, arty novel where it’s hard to find the characters, something about fiction makes itself into a story. It contains itself. In life people drift more, there’s less closure, there’s less follow-up, there’s even more murkiness -- which is a lot of murkiness. Novels have a terrible intimacy no matter what -- because of what’s exposed when you write one. Because of what happens when you read one. Because of all the people involved in getting the novel from me to you or from you to me, whether I’m the writer and you’re the reader or vice-versa, or we’re the novel’s producers or its publishers, or we’ve been hobbled into versions of ourselves as its characters. There are all these people, real and imaginary, breathing against our faces in any novel, not just accidentally jostling us like people in a crowded bar, but knowing us, or making us know them. In a novel, writing it, reading it, buying it, selling it, we can’t escape each other. A novel stays there. In life I think that people can actually forget about each other, one-sidedly, even. In life we can move on. Maybe.

I’ve been thinking again about Ingeborg Bachmann, how she burned to death alone in an apartment in Rome. She was in her forties, she wasn’t done yet with her trilogy of novels on styles of dying. And then there’s that scene in the first chapter of Malina, the chapter called "Happy with Ivan." The protagonist tells us that years before she ever met Ivan’s children, when she knew even less about him than she knows now, “he told me: I’m sure you’ve already understood. I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course, but no one else. I nod, although I hadn’t known, and it’s obvious to Ivan that it should be so obvious to me.” That’s one of the (many) scenes in the book that gets me most -- that feeling of, not just heartbreak and disappointment, but the swallowing it down and hiding it. “I nod, although I hadn’t known.”

I’m thinking of a sunny day, not un-recently, when I went to meet someone and go to the movies and go to my favorite restaurant and on the way to the movie I was trotting or galloping, I was just so happy, and then when I saw him I was much happier to see him than I thought I would be. Kissing him I didn’t wish, even a little bit, that he was someone else. Today it’s another sunny day, possibilities everywhere, and my feeling of loneliness isn’t nearly as bad as the embarrassment, all the trotting and galloping along, knowing I would be happy in life if we were at the movies together and eating nachos together and kissing like that, if I could be with him. In Malina: “Ivan says laughingly, but just once: I can’t breathe where you place me, please not so high up, don’t ever bring anyone else where the air is so thin, take my advice, learn this for later! I didn’t say: But who else am I supposed to after you? But you can’t think that after you I’d?”

I can’t leave this Ingeborg Bachmann novel alone, this Malina. I keep picking at it, like you pick at a skin problem. It might be the reason that someday I learn German. All I can think about this novel is, She nailed it. She nailed it, I wonder how you say that in German, it was like there was a thing, a problem, a creature flopping around in the middle of the room and it had to be killed and she just stabbed a fork into it and it stopped moving, god, that’s the worst metaphor, why is killing a creature something I want to see again and again? Why does anything have to be nailed? But I keep rereading this novel in the wrong language, a novel written by a woman in her forties whose former lover had just committed suicide, a woman who had quit writing poems and who had quit her lovers who were still alive, a woman who died two years later, with the rest of her novels unwritten or partly written. I am closer to this woman -- or maybe to her protagonist, who has no name, who only has the name Ich, the name I/Me -- than I am to my friends. I’ve read books about her, the ones that are out in English, and books by her lovers, Paul Celan who drowned himself in the Seine, Max Frisch who wrote about her. I’ve read about this novel, about patriarchy and Nazis and Austria and experimental this and stream-of-consciousness that and psychic disintegration, but I’m still at the "Happy with Ivan" part, I’m still visiting and revisiting what she shows there, about trotting and galloping after something or someone. I still haven’t even thought about the Malina part, the part about the man she lives with (she lives “in Ivan,” but she dies in Malina) -- just Ivan, this Hungarian man with little children, the children’s mother somewhere not in Vienna, his apartment near hers in their neighborhood, changing the geography of the world and her life. They play chess, she plays badly. He wants her to play hard-to-get, to not be there so eager for his call -- she can’t do that, she is just there, ready to gallop or trot to his place.

Ich is a writer. Ivan wants her to write books that aren’t so depressing, he disapproves of her writing books about murder and misery and death, books that add to the world’s suffering. “Nobody wants all of these books lying around in your crypt,” he tells her, “…there must be other books, like EXSULTATE JUBILATE, which make you mad with joy, you’re always mad with joy yourself, so why do you write like that. It’s disgusting to put all this misery on the market, just adding to what’s already there, these books are all absolutely loathsome. What kind of obsession is this anyway, all this gloom, everything’s always sad and these books make it even worse in folio editions.” She decides to write Ivan a beautiful book. And it’s all there in her head right away, the words and themes of this glorious, happy book. It’s only later that she loses her beautiful book, that it doesn’t get written, that she disappears into the wall and the book never exists. And she never existed. There was never any woman there at all.

In real life, not in novels, women don’t disappear into cracks in the wall, that isn’t a literal kind of murder, I don’t think. In real life, like in novels, you can catch on fire. I keep thinking about the apartment in Rome where Ingeborg Bachmann died in 1973, her lit cigarette. Lately I think about that apartment when I think about novels or when I think about love. In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned to death in Rome, for writing that the stars were suns. In real life our universe is minor, there are other galaxies extending billions of light years in every direction, there are billions of people wandering around and I guess maybe some of them are loved and others aren’t, and some of the loves match up and others don’t. There are a lot of suns. If we got exposed to the full force of our own sun we would all burn to death, but yet it is faded and minor and so distant.

A friend gave me a book about how to meet my Soul Mate, but the thing is that I really, really don’t want to meet my Soul Mate, not after that day at the movies, that right amount of sun, that way of being happy.

“At night Ivan asks: why is there only a Wailing Wall, why hasn’t anyone ever built a Wall of Joy?” And I think if I ever finish my own novel, I might name it that. Wall of Joy. Ivan’s smoking, talking about Paris, he doesn’t talk about bringing Ich with him, which is a sad feeling for her but there she is helpless in it, voiceless. She’s talking too much, though, without saying anything she wants to say, playing chess and losing, wanting to tell him how she’d gladly go to Venice with him, or the Wolfgangsee in the summer, a day-trip to a town on the Danube where she knows an old hotel with a wine that he likes. (“However, we’ll never travel to these places, since he always has too much going on, since he has to go to Paris, since he has to get up tomorrow at 7 o’clock.” ) She asks Ivan instead if he would want to see a movie. That way she might keep him from going home right away, she opens the paper to the movie ads. Ivan doesn’t want to go into town again, though, “he leaves the chess pieces as they are, empties his glass in one move, walks very quickly to the door, as always, without goodbye, perhaps because we still have the rest of our lives ahead of us.”

Ich has this happy book in her head, a crazy shower of words, brightly-colored commas. “Should this book appear, as someday it must, people will writhe with laughter after just one page, they will leap for joy, they will be comforted, they will read on, biting their fists to suppress their cries of joy, it can’t be helped, and when they sit down by the window and read still further they’ll begin to throw confetti to the pedestrians on the street, so that they, too, will stop, astonished, as if they had walked into a carnival, and people will start throwing apples and nuts, dates and figs just like St. Nicolas’s Day, they will lean out their windows without getting dizzy and shout out: Hear, hear! look and see! I have just read something wonderful, may I read it to you, everybody come nearer, it’s too wonderful!” Sometimes Ich gets to see Ivan’s children and have an ice cream, when he gets a free hour, a free evening. “We never discuss my time, whether my hours are free or not, whether I even know what freedom is or subjugation.”

“I would like to write an incunabulum standing up,” says Ich, “for twenty years have passed since I’ve loved Ivan, and it’s been one year and three months and thirty-one days on the 31st of this month since I’ve known him….” And then I can’t help but think about the author herself instead of her character, I can’t help but think about the author and Paul Celan, who was her lover and then not her lover and then her lover again, who was a father. The full quote: “Long before I first heard Ivan shout the word ‘gyrekek!’ or ‘kuss, gyrekek!’” [gyrekek is children in Hungarian], “he told me: I’m sure you’ve already understood. I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course, but no one else. I nod, although I hadn’t known, and it’s obvious to Ivan that it should be so obvious to me. JUBILATE. Poised over an abyss, it nonetheless occurs to me how it should begin: EXSULTATE.” Ivan has “set off something immense which is now radiating from me… I would like Ivan to need me like I need him, and for the rest of our lives.”  

I get into the bathtub with a few novels, a bad self-help book, An Accident of Hope: the Therapy Tapes of Anne Sexton, which makes me delighted not to be Anne Sexton, and some books of letters and diaries: Joseph Roth’s letters, Rosa Luxembourg’s letters, Spalding Grey’s diaries, John Cheever’s diaries. I notice that even when the letters and diaries are heavily-edited, they’re more plotless in a way than even plotless novels. Characters disappear. Relationships drift away without closure. People who are important become unimportant, things are left unchanged and untransformed and unresolved, things, some things, are left endless and meaningless, amounting to nothing. As a reader I feel like a creepy stalker, like a voyeur, I can force a plot and a conclusion around things when no plot or conclusion is there, I can get deeply inside these people’s lives and feed on whatever’s been revealed. Anything left private, I can invent. And as a writer. Well, as a writer I can take that sunny day in the movies and pin its wings down so it can’t move again. It might not make anyone bite their fists to suppress all their joy and glee, it might not make them lean out the windows and throw figs and apples onto the streets, but I can fix and freeze it. I can have it, even though I’ll never have it. It’s the most unsatisfying thing in the world, but there it is. Exsultate, jubilate.

One of the novels I bring into the bath starts with an epigraph, a Kafka quote: “If the book we are reading does not wake us, as with a fist hammering on our skull, why then do we read it? Good God, we would also be happy if we had no books, and such books as make us happy we could, if need be, write ourselves. But what we must have are those books which come upon us like ill-fortune, and distress us deeply, like the death of one we love better than ourselves, like suicide. A book must be an ice-axe to break the sea frozen inside of us.” The death of one we love better than ourselves. The bad self-help book explains to me -- and I’ve already heard it -- that if we obsess about someone, that person can feel it psychically, even if we’re nowhere near them, and they will be completely turned off and repulsed. We have to love ourselves first, and better, says the bad self-help book. But I don’t not-love myself, I just already have myself -- do other readers of these self-help books really get satisfied having sex by themselves without another person’s body involved, or having conversations with themselves? I mean, I wouldn’t be Happy with Ivan or whoever if I weren’t here, I’m just already here, I want to be at the movies with Ivan and kissing Ivan and talking with Ivan with myself too, myself and Ivan. I’m not frozen inside either, I’m trotting and galloping and burning, I’m almost 100 degrees and even though I’m minor, there’s so much of me here that eventually each of my systems will give out and I’ll be inchoate atoms in the plotless universe again. Which happens to everyone. Would we really be happy with no books? Or writing ourselves happy books? Could Kafka have written a happy book, an Exsultate Jubilate, if he’d wanted to? Maybe he wrote a happy book and burned it, and we don’t even know about it.

I don’t not-love myself, but I hate the bad self-help book. The bad self-help book doesn’t think that my life, my beauty, my conversation, my ideas, my warm blood, that anything about me would have worth to another being -- the bad self-help book sees the only measure of my worth in another’s eyes as managing to detach and not want him, to go to the movies alone or with some guy I love less than Ivan, to have nachos alone or with someone who I’m less excited to talk with than Ivan, to have sex alone or with someone I want less than Ivan, to sit in the bath and, instead of obsessing about that day at the movies, think about astronomy or Austrian literature.    

Ivan says, “Why don’t you go ahead and say it…That you want to come over again….I won’t permit you to say it.” Ivan needs Ich to play hard(er) to get, to be less eager, to trot or gallop toward him less. He tells her, You have to stay in the game. She says, “I don’t want any game.” He says, “But without a game it won’t work.” Ich explains in a radio interview that she doesn’t use drugs, she uses books for that. Later she’s sitting across from Ivan, he’s quietly smoking, they’re “silently smoking and talking.”

“…while we talk I can never allow myself to think that in an hour we will be lying on the bed or toward evening or very late at night, because otherwise the walls could suddenly be glass, the roof could suddenly be removed. Extreme self-control lets me accept Ivan’s sitting opposite me at first, silently smoking and talking. Not one word, not one gesture of mine betrays what is now possible and what will continue to be possible. One moment it’s Ivan and myself. Another moment: we. Then right away: you and I. Two beings devoid of all intentions toward each other, who do not want coexistence… I propagate myself with words and also propagate Ivan. I beget a new lineage, my union with Ivan brings that which is willed by God into the world. Firebirds Azurite Immersible flames Drops of jade.”

Later she does that thing again where she hints about a movie, he’s already seen it, he doesn’t respond with another invitation, it’s unclear “whether Ivan would take me along another time….whether I could see the children again or whether Ivan wants to keep his two worlds forever separate, in case they are no longer worlds. We begin playing chess and don’t have to talk anymore, the game is tedious, involved, stagnant, we don’t get anywhere, Ivan is attacking, I’m on the defensive. Ivan’s attack comes to a stop, it is the longest, most speechless game we’ve ever played, Ivan doesn’t help me once, and today we don’t finish... Ivan wants to go home right away and go to bed, apparently I played so tediously it tired him out, his game was equally uninspired. Good Night!” Malina comes home and says she would’ve lost by a mile, he somehow knows which side of the chessboard was hers. She and Ivan feel like “the world converging” -- she and Malina, “since we are one, the world diverging.” Right now it feels like I’ve never read a novel that reminds me more of (my) real life, of my outside-of-novels self. And right now it feels like I’ve lost an unfinished tedious chess game, and I really don’t like chess, and I want something about me to be important about me other than whether I’m talented at pretending not to care, and right now I want to make sure I never have to hint about another movie, and right now I want to crawl into a crack in the wall. Maybe this will all feel different when it’s not today. (“Today,” says Ich, “is a word only suicides ought to be allowed to use.” “I just cannot say to Ivan,” muses Ich, “who is my joy and my life: you alone are my joy and my life! since then I might lose Ivan even more quickly…”)

Ich asks Ivan “whether he once thought and what he used to think and what he thinks today about love.” He smokes, he asks if she’s trying to set a trap for him. She says, yes and no. She’s thinking he’s not even a yard away from her, she’d like to throw her arms around him, she says, “But what if I didn’t feel anything either?” He says, “It’s enough that I come to see you, isn’t it? My God what impossible questions you ask!” Ich says, triumphantly, “That’s all I wanted to know, whether they’re impossible questions. I didn’t want to know anything more.” Ivan is dressed and doesn’t have very much time left. He says, “You’re pretty funny sometimes.”

(I keep thinking of something Ingeborg Bachmann wrote in a letter to Paul Celan: “I love you and I do not want to love you.” And he wrote, “Let us no longer puzzle over what is irretrievable, Ingeborg.” But you can’t think that after you I’d?)

Later in the book, long after "Happy with Ivan," Ich has nightmares, she stops sleeping, she has nightmares again, she takes pills, in her nightmares she screams the word No in many different languages. “What is left of me is frozen inside the ice, an inert mass….” And someone among the warm spectators up above asks, “What kind of book will it be, what will your book be?” And she answers, “A book about Hell.” She gets out of the ice “to perish in the fire, with a melting skull,” and I think again about the author, Ingeborg Bachmann instead of the character Ich, how she burned to death in Rome the year before I was born so I never got to share any of the world with her. I don’t know whether it was the death of someone I love better than myself, or a suicide.

In Ich’s dream, her father takes away her clothes and throws them on the street. He hits her with glass and she’s smeared with blood, he orders her bookshelves to be torn down and she tries to place herself in front of the books, she throws her bloodied body in front of the book-burning men’s feet and she says, “Just leave these books in peace, just these books, do what you want with me, do what you want…” but the men do burn the books, her father burns five or six at a time, Holderlin and Kleist, Virgil and Lucretius and Voltaire. The men say Heil Book, and Ich squats by the books and tries not to get blood on them. “Good night, says Josef K. to me.” In another dream, a man comes to give her news, the man she loves has died: “My life is over, for during the transport he has drowned in the river, he was my life. I loved him more than my life.”

In the final section of Malina, Ivan says to Ich: “Your problem is you don’t have anything that needs you to be there!” And later, “once more Ivan is beginning to suspect that I love him,” and so she has to hide it better. And later: “In the apartment I lie down on the floor, thinking about my book, I can’t find it, there is no beautiful book, I can no longer write the beautiful book, without any reason I have stopped thinking about the book long ago, nothing more comes to me, not a single sentence. But I was so sure the beautiful book existed and that I would find it for Ivan.” But it doesn’t exist, we’re just left again with a book about Hell. Or the book about Hell and the beautiful book are the same book. And Ingeborg Bachmann’s book is about intimacy and horror, and both wars, and life and death, and happiness and unhappiness, but the thing it completely nails, freezes in time and space, freezes in today, is that trot or gallop to the sunny movie, and then, that feeling of shame with it. The feeling of having to hide it. Writing EXSULTATE JUBILATE when you’re at the lip of an abyss, or, understanding that the book will never exist. Not for Ivan and not for you and not for anyone.

In real life, more than in even the most obscure and difficult novels, everything gets tangled up with everything else, so it’s hard to tell the difference between stars and suns or truth and fiction or minor and major or freezing and burning. So sometimes you have to swallow it, I guess. Pretend you knew all along, even though you’ve just found out. Nod, like it’s obvious.