Here’s a weird book that more people should know about: The novel is called “Malina,” written by Austrian poet and author Ingeborg Bachmann in 1971. It’s quasi-experimental, extremely demanding and ultimately rewarding. “Malina” takes the form of a rambling internal monologue — occasionally broken up by bits of dialogue in script form — delivered by an unnamed female writer. The writer could be charitably described as neurotic, and she spends the entire novel teetering on the edge of some sort of nervous breakdown. The essence of what plot there is involves her love affair with a younger Hungarian man named Ivan, and her relationship with a vaguely sinister male roommate, the titular Malina.
Ivan and Malina are both reasonably interesting characters but never rise above ciphers, which is exactly how the narrator views both of them. Her inability to adequately perform even menial tasks is a recurring theme of the novel. One strangely humorous subplot involves her disastrous attempts to write letters of response to some undefined business associates.
The book is divided into three parts, with the first being the most linear and generally setting up the characters and themes, albeit in an obtuse way. The second part, a wild swerve into pure dream-logic, involves the narrator’s nightmares of violent persecution at the hands of her hateful father. A particularly memorable recurring setting from this section involves a graveyard exclusively for murdered daughters. The final section somewhat brings the novel back into order, but slowly builds up to a surreal climax that seems completely logical in the grand scheme of the narrator’s development.
There is a lot not to like about this book. At times, it almost seems like a parody of pretentiousness. Sample dialogue: “To act is not to act, in case it keeps going on the way you’re demonstrating. Then my mania is no longer growing but decreasing.” It actually makes even less sense in context considering that it has nothing to do with the preceding sentences. The characters all speak as though effectively communicating information is something to be avoided at all costs. Getting though this novel was a slog, and I would have given up had it not been for a New Year’s resolution to read more challenging books.
Still, I’m ultimately glad I stuck with “Malina.” The bizarre dialogue filled with dead ends and non-sequiturs actually builds a kind of hypnotic effect. The novel is beautifully written — no doubt reflecting Bachmann’s background as a poet — and if you don’t attempt to read the individual sentences for meaning, but rather take each paragraph as a whole, the novel has a way of washing over you. You slowly become sucked into this woman’s neuroses and desires and begin to empathize with her. After the first hundred pages or so, I stopped viewing the novel as an icy intellectual exercise and really became engrossed in this woman’s story.
The novel ultimately builds suspense, not from plot but from the narrator’s emotional state. I don’t mean in the sense of a psychological thriller where you wonder whether she’ll snap and stab somebody. The suspense comes from other, somehow much scarier questions. Will she ever find a way to exist on her own terms? Will finding happiness cost her what makes her unique? Is she even capable of writing the “happy book” she promises Ivan? Again, such questions seem almost unbearably pretentious, but in Bachmann’s hands, they genuinely seem to stem not from an author’s attempts to prove her intellectual credentials, but organically from the way her central character relates to the world.
Apparently, “Malina” has built a kind of cult following, no doubt enhanced by the fact that Bachmann tragically died in a fire, leaving “Malina” as her only completed novel. It makes sense that the novel never reached a wider audience. It’s so completely uninterested in being entertaining, or even traditionally engaging, that it’s kind of amazing that it was ever even published. It feels like Bachmann wrote the novel entirely for herself, and any audience receptiveness was purely incidental. This review is not a rave; the novel feels unnecessarily difficult at times. Still, I know I have never read, and will never read, another book quite like it. I’m truly glad I stuck with it, and hope others will give it a chance. Besides, any book that contains a multi-page digression about the psychic horrors of being a mailman has to be worth some time.