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  • Love's Labour's RegainedThe Year in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland
  • Tobias Heinrich (bio)

The Austrian poet Ingeborg Bachmann and the Swiss novelist and playwright Max Frisch are generally regarded as one of the greatest but also one of the most mysterious couples of German literature, and not only because at the time of their relationship (1958–1962) both were among the most eminent writers in the German language. While Frisch had published two bestselling novels, Stiller (1954) and Homo faber: Ein Bericht (1957), Bachmann was known as one of the foremost poets of her generation through her collections Die gestundete Zeit (1953) and Anrufung des großen Bären (1956). Both shared an interest in the political upheavals to which Europe was subjected in the twentieth century, and with their work each contributed in a different way to the project of accounting for the crimes of National Socialism and the Shoah. Both also deal with the challenges and the often unavoidable failure of love. While Frisch's Homo Faber can be read as a critique of the masculine stereotype of a dispassionate and instrumental model for relationships, throughout her poetic work Bachmann's poems are characterized by a love dialogue with the poet Paul Celan—a love between a Holocaust survivor and the daughter of a Wehrmacht officer that could not survive in reality, but that has found an all-the-more vivid expression in literature. As part of the Salzburg Edition of Bachmann's writings and letters, in 2022, just before the fiftieth anniversary of her death, the long-awaited correspondence between Frisch and Bachmann was published by Suhrkamp in Berlin. For decades, the documents on which it is based were locked away in the archives of the Austrian National Library and the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich.

When Bachmann and Frisch met for the first time in Paris in July 1958, Frisch had been separated from his wife and three children for some time. The year before, Bachmann had decided against a marriage of convenience with her close friend, the composer Hans Werner Henze, in order to—as she writes in a letter to Henze from April 1957—explore the "dark continent" of love. The relationship between Frisch and Bachmann developed quickly. They moved into an apartment in Switzerland, [End Page 31] but soon relocated to Italy, which Bachmann had already adopted as her home in the early 1950s. Although both were deeply emotionally invested in the relationship, the two admitted to each other to having affairs. Bachmann, for example, was briefly involved with the German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger and the Italian Germanist and translator Paolo Chiarini. The relationship finally ended in 1962, when Max Frisch met the student Marianne Oellers, whom he would marry six years later. However, the lasting public interest in the relationship between Bachmann and Frisch is based less on the public nature of their connection—only a single photo showing the two together has survived—but on how it came to be reflected in the two writers' works. The first step was taken by Frisch with his 1964 novel Mein Name sei Gantenbein, in which the character of Lila clearly bears Bachmann's traits. Bachmann, on the other hand, makes a whole series of subtle references to the relationship in her only published novel, Malina (1971). In Montauk (1975), published almost two years after Bachmann's death, Frisch finally reflects from an autofictional perspective on his many failed relationships, including the one with Bachmann.

Since the relationship between the two writers is thus inscribed in their literary work, it is not surprising that the love affair has become a fixed point in biographical and literary studies of Bachmann and Frisch. In the case of Bachmann in particular, this tendency follows a questionable trend of exploring the life of the writer through her relationships with more or less famous men, which has been sparked or at least reinforced by the publication of tendentious memoirs by Hans Weigel, Hans Werner Henze, Adolf Opel, and others. The German scholar Sigrid Weigel attempted to counter this trend as early as 1999 with an intellectual biography of Bachmann that does not focus...