Bachmann, Ingeborg (1926–1973)

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Bachmann, Ingeborg (1926–1973)

One of the 20th century's most significant German-language authors. Pronunciation: ING-a-borg BOCK-mun. Born Ingeborg Bachmann on June 25, 1926, in Klagenfurt in Carinthia, southern Austria; died on October 17, 1973, in Rome from burns suffered in a house fire and complications resulting from a drug withdrawal; daughter of Mathias Bachmann (a teacher) and Olga (Haas) Bachmann; studied philosophy and law in Innsbruck and Graz, 1945–46; continued her studies in Vienna, minoring in Germanistik and psychology, 1946–50; wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the reception of Martin Heidegger's existential philosophy and was awarded her doctorate, 1950; never married but had long-term relationships with the composer Hans Werner Henze and the writer Max Frisch; no children.

Born the eldest of three children; left Klagenfurt to study in Innsbruck and Graz; published her first story at 20 and her first poems three years later; traveled to Paris and London (1950); after returning to Vienna, worked as a script writer and editor for the radio station Red-White-Red (until 1953); invited to a meeting of Gruppe 47 (1952) and later received the Gruppe 47 prize; supported herself as a writer (1953–73); moved to Italy; invited to Harvard (1955); published several volumes of poetry and a number of radio plays; worked as a dramaturg for Bavarian Television (1957–58); lived on and off in Rome and Zurich; wrote several opera libretti; awarded numerous prizes; made guest professor of poetics at the University of Frankfurt (1959); invited to spend a year in Berlin (1963); traveled to Prague, Egypt, and the Sudan; moved to Rome permanently (1965); published her novel Malina (1971) and a volume of stories Simultan (1972).


The Gruppe 47 prize for her volume of poetry Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time; 1953); made a member of the German Academy of Language and Literature (1957); among other awards, given the radio-play prize of the War Blind for "Der gute Gott von Manhattan" (The Good God of Manhattan, 1962), the Georg Büchner prize (1964) and the Austrian State Prize (1968).

Selected publications:

"Die Fähre" (The Ferry, story, 1946); "Ein Geschäft mit Träumen" (A Business with Dreams, radio play, 1952); Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time, volume of poetry, 1953); "Die Zikaden" (The Cicadas, radio play, 1955); Anrufung des Grossen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear, volume of poetry, 1957); "Der gute Gott von Manhattan" (The Good God of Manhattan, radio play, 1958); Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg, opera libretto, 1960); Das dreissigste Jahr (The Thirtieth Year, volume of stories, 1961); "Der junge Lord" (The Young Lord, opera libretto, 1965); "Der Fall Franza" (The Case of Franza, novel fragment, 1966); Malina (Malina, novel, 1971); Simultan (Three Paths to the Lake, volume of stories, 1972).

Ingeborg Bachmann's life was punctuated by political upheaval and violence. Though she was born in 1926 during the brief period of stability between the first and second World Wars, the relative harmony of her Carinthian childhood would be interrupted by an event that was to have far-reaching repercussions. In March of 1938, with the war machine in full-swing, Hitler invaded Austria. The invasion of Czechoslovakia would follow, and, by the next year, Britain and France would declare war on Germany. Although the annexation of Bachmann's country was accomplished with the support of many of her fellow Austrians, and German troops were met by cheering crowds, for Ingeborg Bachmann the influx of National Socialism signified a moment of unmitigated terror. She later reported: "There was a particular event that shattered my childhood. It was the moment Hitler's troops marched into Klagenfurt. It was something so horrible, that my memory begins with this day. … You could sense the hideous brutality, this bellowing, singing and marching—it was the first time I felt afraid of death."

The confluence of private terror and political turmoil would generate her most prevalent theme, human beings engaged in a "constant state of war." Her work would also explore the basis of fascism, not as a political phenomenon, but as a manifestation of everyday life. From childhood on, for Bachmann, war—whether begun by the Nazis, or perpetuated between the sexes—was "no longer declared, only continued."

With Austria now under the sway of National Socialism, the 11-year-old Bachmann left her coeducational high school in 1938 to attend an all-girls school from which she graduated in 1944. Although she hated practicing, she loved music, and from an early age wrote and played music with a friend. As Karen Achberger relates, the young Bachmann wrote her first poems because she needed texts for her songs; indeed, from this point on, all of Bachmann's material exhibits an intensely musical quality.

After the war, Bachmann went to university in Innsbruck (1945) and Graz (summer of 1946), studying law, philosophy, psychology and Germanistik. In 1949, she completed her doctorate on the reception of Martin Heidegger's existentialist philosophy at the University of Vienna, but, because of the conservative nature of academia at the time, she ruled out the possibility of a university career. As she later pointed out, jobs were not easy to come by in postwar Vienna. After she graduated, she was glad simply to have a job working in an office in order to support herself while writing. In 1950, Bachmann took her first trips abroad—first to Paris, where she met the poet Paul Celan, and then to London for a reading of her work and a meeting with the writer Elias Canetti, who was highly impressed by the originality of her work. As her predilection for radio plays might suggest, the early '50s saw her working as a scriptwriter and editor for the Austrian radio station Rot-Weiss-Rot (Red-White-Red). Her writing career received a further boost when, in 1952, she met Hans Werner Richter, the doyen of Gruppe 47, a preeminent group of postwar German writers, in Vienna. This meeting prompted an invitation the following year to appear before the Gruppe 47 in Niendorf, where she gave a reading during which she was said to have spoken "very quietly, almost whispered." But the quietude of this appearance met with an inverse degree of public approbation: she won the Gruppe 47 prize and found herself launched on her career as a freelance writer. Almost immediately, however, she abandoned the German-speaking world, and, although she returned periodically to visit, she departed for Italy to begin her life as an itinerant.

According to Mark Anderson in his afterward to Malina, it was the attention she received as a young poet that impelled her into exile. Her inability to deal with the fame generated by her appearance before Gruppe 47—coupled with the acclaim she received for her poetry collection Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time, 1953), her winning of the Gruppe 47 prize, and the cover story that appeared about her in the German news weekly Der Spiegel—set her adrift and created the defining feature of her life and work, her ephemerality.

Aside from public acclaim, Bachmann's appearance before Gruppe 47 had personal ramifications, occasioning an invitation to Italy and the beginning of a relationship with the composer Hans Werner Henze. She wrote opera libretti for

him, including Der Prinz von Homburg (The Prince of Homburg, 1958) and Der junge Lord (The Young Lord, 1964), and he wrote the music to her radio play "Die Zikaden" (The Cicadas, 1955), among other works. Ultimately, however, earning a living in Italy as a writer proved difficult for Bachmann. Her infatuation with the country, which she regarded as a kind of spiritual home, was thus interrupted by a stint in Munich working for Bavarian Television during the late 1950s. This sojourn in Germany was accompanied by professional accolades. In 1957, she was made a member of the Deutsche Akademie für Sprache und Dichtung (The German Academy for Language and Poesy); in 1959, she received the Radio Prize of the War Blind, and thereafter was invited to lecture on poetry at Frankfurt University. In 1964, she received the prestigious Georg Büchner Prize and a grant from the Ford Foundation at the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in Berlin.

In Munich, she also met the Swiss writer Max Frisch with whom she quickly became romantically involved. They lived together intermittently in Zurich and Rome, and in 1959 he proposed to her. Wanting to maintain her independence, she declined, finally ending the relationship in 1963. Max Frisch documented the vagaries of their relationship in his book Montauk.

Vienna, Naples, Rome, Munich, Zurich, Berlin—whatever the cause of her mobility, Bachmann never stayed anywhere for very long. She incorporated this trait into her writing, illustrating women's sense of displacement in the world, their disenfranchisement, alienation, and ultimate erasure. Her postwar poem "Exil" (Exile) remarks, "Ein Toter bin ich der wandelt/ gemeldet nirgends mehr/ unbekannt im Reich des Präfekten/ überzählig in den goldenen Städten und im grünenden Land// abgetan lange schon/ und mit nichts bedacht" (I am a dead man who wanders/ registered nowhere/ unknown in the prefect's realm/ unaccounted for in the golden cities/ and the greening land// long since given up/ and provided with nothing).

Linked to the theme of itinerancy in her writing is the issue of borders, dividing lines and the spaces between people. Unlike many of her contemporary male authors who provide a monolithic account of human existence, she stresses differentiation. For Bachmann, people are not all the same; though they might be subjected to similar determinants, men and women experience things differently. But disharmony between the sexes is not just a product of men and women's divergent experiences and competing interests. Disharmony, Bachmann tells us, arises because difference is not recognized. In her works, the male characters disallow women to express their own individuality and, in so doing, neglect the needs and identities of their female companions. They fail to recognize that in bowing to a patriarchal order the women must truncate their own existence. In the nameless main character of Malina, for example, this leads to death.

Although primarily concerned with manifestations of loss and alienation, Bachmann's work also represents the attempt to overcome loss and, as such, has a certain utopian quality. In contradistinction to their author, whose youthfulness reportedly conveyed a sense of fragility and vulnerability, Bachmann's characters embody a degree of indefatigability. They seem to know that though their situation is ultimately hopeless, and the ending dismal, there are, nonetheless, moments of redemption, and they persevere with their endeavors as if there were the possibility that things might end differently. In this world of short-term consolation in the face of long-term uncertainty, pleasure is gleaned from the prosaic, a doorbell announcing the arrival of a lover, for example, as in "A Type of Loss" in Songs in Flight.

Bachmann draws on images from her rural childhood, and in descriptions of nature and domestic life. We find dirty teacups, folded newspapers, stale cigarette smoke, stones and autumn leaves as she juxtaposes the reality of the everyday against larger aesthetic and moral considerations: the issue of female subjectivity, the imperative to create a new language and to preserve the social function of art.

For Bachmann, the main obstacle to communion between human beings is language. Following Ludwig Wittgenstein's assertion about the limitations of language in the Tractatus ("The limitations of my language imply the limitations of my world"), Bachmann calls for a new language, and in particular a language that can express the ineffable. She gives voice to this theme in the main character of "Everything," a man who tries to raise a child capable of articulating a new reality:

And I suddenly knew it is all a question of language and not merely of this language of ours that was created with others in Babel to confuse the world. For underneath it there smolders another language that extends to gestures and looks, the unwinding of thoughts and the passage of feelings, and in it is all our misfortune. It was all a question of whether I could preserve the child from our language until he had established a new one and could introduce a new era. … Teach him the language of stones! … Teach him the language of leaves!

After achieving acclaim as one of the most important poets of the postwar period (accolades included being invited to Harvard in the summer of 1955 and winning numerous prizes), Bachmann published a second and final volume of poetry in 1956, Anrufung des Grossen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear), and then turned to prose. In 1961, five years after the so-called "turning point" in Bachmann's literary oeuvre, she published the volume of stories entitled Das dreissigste Jahr (The Thirtieth Year). Although initially not well-received, her subsequent novel Malina (1971), part of the larger uncompleted work called Todesarten (Ways of Dying), established her, in Mark Anderson's words, as "one of the truly original, influential prose writers of contemporary German literature."

In 1965, Bachmann returned to Rome. Although relieved to be back in Italy, she suffered profoundly from depression and an increasing dependence on prescription drugs. As Beicken points out, the political engagement of her Berlin years was superseded by a sense of personal isolation and resignation. Despite this, she received for the first time acclaim in her homeland, receiving the Austrian State Prize in 1968. Ever the political person, she used this occasion to speak out against contemporary political and social occurrences. Her changing attitude toward Austria, and her final acceptance there, may have represented an end to her exile, but this was to be short-lived. Within a few years, she would be dead.

Ironically, the uncompleted Todesarten with its allusion to Brecht, foreshadowed Bachmann's own death. "There are many ways to kill," wrote Brecht. "You can stick a knife into someone's belly, take away their bread, not heal them from a disease, stick them in a bad apartment, work them to death, drive them to commit suicide, send them off to war, etc. Only a few of these things are forbidden in our country." After falling asleep while smoking in bed, Bachmann was consumed by fire and suffered serious burns. She languished in the hospital for a time and then finally died, not as a consequence of her injuries but from convulsions brought on by her withdrawal from the drugs she had been taking.

Aged 11 when the war came to Klagenfurt, Bachmann belonged to the generation of writers who were old enough to suffer the second World War but too young to affect its course. As such, her work can be seen as an effort to comprehend the horrors of Austria's National Socialist past and to search for new ways of going on. While transgressing Adorno's dictum that after Auschwitz the writing of poetry was an impossibility, Bachmann used her work as a vehicle for exploring the private and interpersonal manifestations of the political. In so doing, she demonstrated the need for remembering, for the disenfranchised to find a voice, and above all for a new language of hope.


Achberger, Karen R. Understanding Ingeborg Bachmann. Columbia: South Carolina University Press, 1995.

Bachmann, Ingeborg. Malina. Translated by Philip Boehm. Afterward by Mark Anderson. London: Holmes and Meier, 1990.

——. Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems of Ingeborg Bachmann. Translated and introduction by Peter Filkins. NY: Marsilio, 1994.

——. The Thirtieth Year. Translated by Michael Bullock. NY: Knopf, 1964.

Beicken, Peter. Ingeborg Bachmann. Munich: C.H. Beck, 1988.

Koschel, Christine, ed. Ingeborg Bachmann: Werke. Munich: R. Piper, 1978, pp. 418–423.

Lutz, Bernd. "Ingeborg Bachmann," in Metzler Autoren Lexikon. Edited by Bernd Lutz. Stuttgart: Metzler 1994, pp. 38.

suggested reading:

Bartsch, Kurt. Ingeborg Bachmann. Sammlung Metzler 242. Stuttgart: J.B. Metzler, 1988.

Lennox, Sarah. "The Feminist Reception of Ingeborg Bachmann," in Jeanette Clausen and Sara Friedrichsmeyer, eds., Women in German Yearbook 8: Feminist Studies in German Literature and Culture. Lincoln: Nebraska University Press, 1993, pp. 73–111.

Modern Austrian Literature. Vol. 18, no. 3–4, 1985.

Weigel, Sigrid. Die Stimme der Medusa: Schreibweisen in der Gegenwartsliteratur von Frauen. Dülmen-Hiddingsel: tende, 1987.


Correspondence, papers and memorabilia located in Vienna, Austria.

related media:

"Der ich unter Menschen nicht leben kann: Auf der Suche nach Ingeborg Bachmann," television film, directed by Peter Hamm (FS 2), 1980.

"Die Wahrheit ist dem Menschen zumutbar: Leben und Werk von Ingeborg Bachmann" (44 min.), television documentary directed by Gerda Haller (ZDF), 1974.

"Zu Gast bei Ingeborg Bachmann" (25 min.), television film directed by Karl Stanzl, 1968.

Vanessa Agnew , author of Red Feathers, White Paper, Blue Beads: A Natural History of the Colony

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Bachmann, Ingeborg (1926–1973)

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