While Reading Ingeborg Bachmann's Malina
Graffiti portrait of Ingeborg Bachmann, Robert Musil Museum, Klagenfurt, Austria, 2011 (CC)
by Greg Gerke
My brand of nirvana often starts with a paragraph or a string of sentences with one maybe half-broken and knurled, a certain diameter that punctuation won’t govern — the part I break off and disregard isn’t always like the crust, sometimes it is as the over-sweetened glob of filling I’ll monkishly eschew from a pastry. This mode of transfusion makes the reading experience the cherished one, obliterating the need for drugs, orgasm or prelude to it — a simple few sentences holding to their own context though also now in the readers’, who will invisibly work them as a sculptor works the stone. The following paragraph from Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina, appearing early on, did it to me, sending multiple signals through my soul — think of the phone call’s spinning, circling and underwater journey in Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Red:
Long before I first heard Ivan shout the word “gyerekek!” or “kuss, gyerekek!” 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 obvious to me. JUBILATE. Poised over an abyss, it nonetheless occurs to me how it should begin: EXSULTATE.
Just a few days before reading this I came upon how Paul Valéry describes the bewitching nature of art for himself and others in a lecture “Remarks on Poetry”, given in 1927: “But man is man only through his will and power to preserve or to re-establish what it is important for him to salvage from the natural decay of things…All the arts have been created to perpetuate and change, each according to its essence, an ephemeral moment of delight into the certainty of an infinity of delightful moments.”
The delight in Malina is memory, because I wouldn’t have thought to think on the past — and certain pieces of the past only glitter a few times a year. It’s not necessarily the strict content of the Bachmann paragraph that moves me, in fact, when I read it I start to fog over after “I nod, although I hadn’t known…” because the import of “…I don’t love anyone. Except my children, of course…” is enough to snuff out anything the narrator might put in response or opposition to it. But I did read on through the fog and then picked up the beginning of the next paragraph (after two returns of white space): “However, since today is the first warm day of the year we’re driving to the GANSEHAUFEL.” That, with the vestiges of the bunker-buster bomb about love, put me twenty some years into the past, though I stubbornly held the present and my designation as “father” throughout the recall. I had driven with a divorced woman and her two young children to Karlsruhe, Germany where she would meet her parents for the day. Just in the beginning months of living in Europe, I gladly welcomed the chance to explore the country’s smaller cities; I walked around the notable palace and its gardens, before going off to the museum, the Staatliche Kunsthalle, to see the two Matthias Grünewalds, and then over to an obligatory cafe to write or read, but mainly to reflect on what I was doing with my life after absconding to Europe and sleeping on friends’ couches (or beds) and in youth hostels.
I don’t have any strict purpose when reading, but here’s the catch: reading introduces me to all dimensions (Heidegger talks of Past and Future as “something which is not, though not an absolute nullity, but rather something present which lacks something”). I was at the café, but I was my current age, thinking about family troubles, my child practicing active shooter drills though she did not know the cover game’s darker purpose, and I read Malina, not whatever book I’d brought years before, probably something by John Berger. And in reading more of Malina on that Emersonian “day of diamonds”, this new creation that I can’t quite call “myself” found that about sixty pages after the above paragraph, another page reverberated, showing the narrator meeting her lover’s children for the first time, in a car — she then rides with them for a little while. And so, my life was doubled, but I couldn’t be so shallow as to like a book just because it duplicated a few episodes of experience — it had to twin the vertiginous feelings; the warp and weft of the sentences, translated by Philip Boehme, had to penetrate something that mere tracery would scoff at. We couldn’t just share concerns either, we’d have to share secrets.
It’s not false to say that in reading, one can create oneself — and what had the Bachmann/Boehme/Gerke overdrive created? It’s comparable to that new dimension David Lynch presented at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return, where Laura Palmer is suddenly not killed that cold February night and a different vector of time is set in motion. It’s a close-to-freezing day in Karlsruhe and I’m sitting cross-legged in the café. The too-hot tea burns my tongue. I am less worried about the future, even though I have a child, and I am lonely, attaching myself to this woman and her own precariousness — the Faustian foibles I will endure, until I metaphorically leap from the cliff of lust to wreck below on large sea rocks. I’m in love with someone who will easily forget me, who will teach me cruelties I will later impose on others. And there is a sinking sense that with these days, these hours kept cloistered in new relationship anxiety, I’m willingly embroiling myself in a helter-skelter drama involving children — the hope and promise and the telltale reminder of the foul-up father who came to nothing because he was nothing but a gruel of potent seed. This then redoubles since, in some fashion, I am now him (what he should have been), sweating and smiling every day of my daughter’s life, unsure if mine, her mother’s or hers could unconscionably end.
Matthias Grünewald, Christ Bearing the Cross, c. 1524 (via)
The strangeness of the moment continues to amplify — at the Kunsthalle I had just seen Grünewald’s Tauberischofsheim Altarpiece (two panels: a Christ bearing the Cross and a Crucifixion), probably from 1523-25. They were as stirring as the Isenheim Altarpiece I will see in Colmar a few weeks later. And in twenty years’ time, with the pandemic and mass death and devastation happening everywhere, though largely covered up, we will seemingly be in a kind of neo-Grünewaldian space. But look what I’m getting to experience! And this trip, this abiding in Europe is just the beginning — and I look to the café table at that dark tower of Malina — a cover all black with two ghostly faces, the new edition — and I’m uneasy. Robert Browning’s “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” rises up, but I have no verse memory of his poem — it is only the title, forever linked to pictures from another neo-Grünewaldian artist — Akira Kurosawa’s Kagemusha and Ran. Other portals open.
What is at heart here? It wouldn’t be right to say I had an obsession with Grünewald or Bachmann or any one of the figures I’d come to lean on — I had an obsession with my father’s bookcase. It was a repository and reliquary for the hidden world buried in the books, though blooming in other forces throughout history. This world is comprised of passports to other passports, to other coffers, to the dry jewelled room underwater, not in a sunken ship, but in one comprising the underside of the earth, containing what we don’t see or feel unless admitted into the mysteries, though most rely on self-admission. I was five, six, seven, looking at my reflection in the glass doors of the bookcase before pulling focus and quizzing at the pocket paperbacks behind — Rousseau, Huckleberry Finn, Ian Fleming’s James Bond books. Today, when I watch Tarkovsky’s The Mirror and the scene of the boy, alone, looking into a mirror as the music of Henry Purcell’s “The Indian Queen” swells, which might be a scene of artistic or romantic awakening, I am back in front of that bookcase, pondering, but more truly yearning to think. A space is opened as I read Malina, though no one sees it, not even me. This is the space where my Other stands — but it always stands, there is no different position for it. This time can be preserved and “salvaged from the natural decay of things.” This quiet place is what is important to me. Marianne Moore: “The deepest feeling always shows itself in silence / not in silence, but restraint.” The deepest feeling of my life is that another dimension is all around us. This Other I refer to is not a doppelgänger, it is a dimension. Nature used to take me there, but now it is art, almost always art, lest it be conversation.
Who can enter this deepest feeling? How can they? Why would they? The pivot point of the aesthetic experience is to enter a different world: the play of the theatre, the film screen, the paint, music filling the space — these are strange planets where the imagination thrives. We share these aesthetic experiences to some degree, but we go to bed with ourselves and no one ever sees our dreams. How to convey? There must be restraint, but in that restraint of dreams is a restraint of desire, deeper feelings, fears. Art can touch in us what other humans can never, even when we’re coming. How can I tell someone that Malina has meaning for me, enough meaning to take me to a different dimension beyond its own story? How can I trust that such information wouldn’t be used against me? By restraint. I’ll tailor the confession to garner a slight mutation of feeling in the reader, as Malina has done to me.
About the Author
Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, LA Review of Books, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. Especially the Bad Things, stories, was published by Splice in 2019. See What I See is now available from Zerogram Press. Among those praising the book is Christine Schutt, who said, “See What I See is the very brew needed in these parched times. Greg Gerke’s generous, thoughtful reflections on the beguiling experience of art are full of uplift and reverence for the illuming efforts of writers and filmmakers: Louise Glück, William H. Gass, and William Gaddis, Stanley Kubrick and Paul Thomas Anderson, to name but a few.”