- Ingeborg Bachmann: Der dunkle Glanz der Freiheit by Andrea Stoll
Ingeborg Bachmann, who died over forty years ago, remains one of the most analyzed and researched Austrian authors. Her uncompromising poetic voice [End Page 140] and attention to the hidden crimes of postwar Europe have gained her international renown. However, it is not just Bachmann’s work but also her personality that have captivated readers from the time of her emergence onto the literary scene in the early 1950s and made her subject to processes of iconization even in the course of her own lifetime, as a recent edited volume has explored (Hemecker and Mittermayer, Mythos Bachmann, 2011). A comprehensive biography of the author has hitherto been missing, although a number of shorter volumes, including those by Hans Höller (1999) and Joachim Hoell (2001), and biographical film portraits about the writer exist. The endeavor of writing a biography has also been complicated by the fact that Bachmann’s literary estate in the Austrian National Library will only become available in its entirety in 2023. Bachmann was also a person for whom the private sphere was sacrosanct, notoriously managing her various friendships in the manner of a “Sektionschefin” (19). Nevertheless, “die überwältigende Fülle der werkgeschichtlichen Spuren,” access to Bachmann’s private estate in Carinthia, and the reminiscences of family and friends who are still alive provide ample material for the challenging task of writing Bachmann’s biography now, as Stoll explains (29).
Stoll proceeds to examine the stations of Bachmann’s life with which the Bachmann scholar will be familiar, from her early years in Klagenfurt to the increasingly troubled last decade of her life. Yet Stoll is able to cast new light on these episodes, particularly through her insight into Bachmann’s private correspondence with her family. For instance, Stoll describes how in 1944 Bachmann remained alone in the family home in Klagenfurt, by then subject to regular aerial bombardment, so that she could complete her studies at school, while her mother and siblings moved to her grandparents’ home in rural Carinthia. The image of a young girl remaining in a war-bombed town is symptomatic of the determination that would be a contributing factor for her later literary success.
A key focus throughout Stoll’s book is the issue of gender in postwar European society, whether in the patriarchal literary circles that Bachmann entered in Vienna, in her media reception, or in her relationships. Drawing on Bachmann’s recently published correspondence with Paul Celan, which Stoll coedited, she reads Bachmann’s decision not to follow Celan to Paris as a refusal to fall into the classic role of the woman supporting her genius partner (106). At this point, in her early twenties, Bachmann’s literary career could have ended before it began. Instead, Bachmann stayed in Vienna and determinedly [End Page 141] set about laying the ground for her later success, working for an American radio broadcaster, continuing to write poetry, and establishing contacts in the German literary sphere. Stoll describes how, throughout her life, Bachmann came into contact with the leading intellectuals of the day, from Theodor Adorno to Henry Kissinger, who, in a conversation with Stoll more than fifty years after first meeting the poet, describes Bachmann as “unique” in her quality of retaining her poetic sensitivity in spite of the demands of life (166).
Another key focus of Stoll’s narrative are the material instabilities of “eine[r] freien Schriftstellerexistenz” (133), which Bachmann embarked upon at the age of twenty-seven with her move to Rome. The main thrust of Stoll’s book, as indicated by its subtitle, “Der dunkle Glanz der Freiheit,” are the many sacrifices that Bachmann had to make in order to produce works of literature that lived up to the incredible demands that she placed on her artistic work. Bachmann was aware from an early age that high art exacted a high price: “Man muss nur dafür bezahlen, und unsere Engel sind dunkel” (146). If her responsibility to her art meant an abandonment of the material and personal security...