War Diary by Ingeborg Bachmann. Edited by Hans Höller (trans. Mike Mitchell). Seagull Books, 108 pp. $15.00.
This English edition of a small German volume (published in 2010 by Suhrkamp) retains its slightly misleading title and authorial attribution: the “war diary” kept by the great Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann in 1944-45 takes up only fifteen pages of the book. According to the textual notes, the extant diary entries were typewritten on six pages, presumably from original, now lost, handwritten copies. (It isn’t clear when or why the transcription was produced.) In those pages, she describes, among other things, the development of a relationship at the end of the war with a Jewish soldier in the occupying British army, Jack Hamesh. The majority of the book is made up of Hamesh’s letters to Bachmann after emigrating to Palestine; the remaining pages consist of a series of annotations and an informed afterword by Hans Höller. While the whole volume is clearly valuable to Bachmann readers, who must be accustomed to fragments at this point, it would be fortunate if the letters could also find an audience among those interested in Jewish and Zionist life writing.
The diary entries comprise two separate, episodic accounts of the end of the war in Klagenfurt, when Bachmann was 18. In the first account, she describes the chaotic circumstances under which she must, like any 18-year-old, plan her future: for example, she signs away her right to go to college in Austria as the price of enrollment in a teacher’s college, thereby exempting herself from military service. The terms of this unfortunate bargain are short-lived: in the fullness of time she will attend several Austrian universities and receive her doctorate. Smaller escapes, though, punctuate these earlier entries. In one instance, the students of the town are sent out at 7 am to dig trenches for the defense of Klagenfurt—”[a]ll the children were there for the digging but not a single teacher”—and are left exposed and defenseless, near factories, when the air raid sirens begin. Full of disgust and outrage at the mendacity of the teachers, Bachmann flees the work site alone on her bicycle. She then refuses to return to the teachers’ college, assuming (correctly, it seems) that she and another deserting friend won’t be missed. Closer to home, she is more calmly defiant. She writes, “I have firmly resolved to carry on reading when the bombs come”—citing Rilke’s Book of Hours and Baudelaire (with minor errors) in French—and then reflects:
Perhaps it’s sinful just to sit and look at the sun. But I can’t go back down in the shelter any more, for hours, with the water running down the walls, and it gets so stuffy it almost makes you faint. You’re not allowed to talk because of the air but still the dull, mute masses in there are unbearable. I find the idea of perhaps perishing down there with the lot of them, like a herd of cattle, horrifying. At least in the garden. At least in the sunshine.
Bachmann famously described the entry of Hitler’s troops into Klagenfurt as the end of her childhood. From these pages, though, it isn’t clear what immediately followed. Here she seems to exist in a liminal zone between self-determination and powerlessness: she has worked out tactics of flight, but not full resistance or solidarity with others. This is an understandable response to an unclear, variable threat. Her good luck has spared her any immediate physical danger; the authorities she encounters are despicable but petty. But the bombings are quite real, as is the threat from the invading Russian army. She concludes these wartime passages with an uncanny image of sharing her bed with her childhood doll, who “can’t say ‘Mama’ any more, nor can I.” “No, there’s no point in talking to grown-ups anymore,” she laments. What will follow this silence: adulthood, or death?
In the subsequent diary entries, she continues to alternate between cynicism about social norms and forthright enthusiasm. When she meets Hamesh in the process of obtaining an identity card (she describes him as “short and on the ugly side”), he asks her peremptorily about her involvement in the Bund deutscher Mädel, the Aryan girls’ organization. She is terribly flustered: while her involvement was fleeting, she can only nod in affirmation, assuming a disavowal would be taken as an admission. She does manages to deny that she was a leader when prompted, but “simply can’t understand why you blush and tremble when you’re telling the truth.” This puzzlement becomes a refrain—she neither knows why Hamesh wants to speak to her again, nor why she’s so nervous when talking to him. When they talk about literature, her confusion and uncertainty immediately clears up: literature is solid ground. Intellectual camaraderie forms the basis for their friendship and affection; it also appears to furnish an introduction to philosophy and social theory for the young Bachmann, whose reading has mostly been literary.
The status of their relationship remains uncertain and somewhat fraught. She claims that everyone was shocked at her “going out with the Jew”; she takes pains both to tell her mother that the relationship is innocent, and to condemn the public bigotry: “I told her I’d walk up and down through Vellach and through Hermagor ten times over with him, even if everyone gets in a stew about it, especially then.” Behind both protestations are intense, inchoate feelings:
We talked until evening and he kissed my hand before he left. No one’s ever kissed my hand before. I’m out of my mind I’m so happy and after he’d gone I climbed up the apple tree, it was already dark and I cried my eyes out and thought I never wanted to wash my hand again. . . . This is the loveliest summer of my life, and even if I live to be a hundred it will still be the loveliest spring and summer.
This evocation not of adolescent love, but of its precursor—wild joy in oneself and others, in defiance of all lessons and social expectations—infects the reader with uneasy delight. As becomes quietly apparent in the Hamesh letters, it doesn’t seem to have made the transition to love. We don’t have Bachmann’s replies, but they must have been disappointingly scant. The force within her euphoria seems, in the end, to have been more basic. toward the end of the “loveliest summer” paragraph she writes: “I’m alive, I’m alive! Oh God, to be free and alive, even without shoes, without food, without stockings.” In his afterword Hans Höller takes pains to link passages in the diary to other writings of Bachmann’s, particularly a section of The Book of Franza in which a similar encounter with a soldier plays out with a difference. He resists, though, a deeper account of how all of these experiences serve to build the literary world of love and death—and of impulsive, passionate childhood and an educated, fragmented maturity—of Bachmann’s entire oeuvre. The bookish quasi-romance is indeed a pivotal experience: finding an interlocutor, a(nother) reader, to share the literary garden, whether or not the bombs fall, whether or not there is anything to be done for community, country or any of a multitude of others. While Bachmann and Hamesh read Marx together, it seems that they will work out the answer to that final question differently.
In an epilogue not present in the German edition, Hans Höller reports that he was able to uncover much of what little information about Jack Hamesh survives. We learn through the diary that he was brought to England from Vienna through the Kindertransport, and that he joined the British Army. Apparently he was born in great poverty and apprenticed to a cobbler at the time of his flight from Vienna in 1938, when he moved to Palestine; he worked on several kibbutzim before joining the army, and returned to Palestine after being discharged. His lack of formal education—which he laments in one of the letters—makes him a surprising intellectual mentor for Bachmann, and it may be that she overstates the significance of their shared literary interests in his life. He rarely mentions books in his letters, which are frankly affectionate and often emotionally raw. More often, he uses the letters as an occasion to reflect on Israel/Palestine, the fate of nations, and his own uncertain destiny and efforts to be optimistic. In an early letter he admits that they didn’t get to know one another particularly well; when he describes Bachmann later as “A great woman, a brilliant researcher, and an ideal mother,” it is both touching and comical. The letters, over time, begin to register the gap between Europe and Israel in reality and imagination. It is hard to imagine what Bachmann made of his statement that “Not one Arab has had to leave his land” in the course of Israeli nation-building; but one also wonders how sincerely Hamesh intended his assurances that her difficulties were much more severe than his own.
Bachmann is a highly performative writer, and it is fascinating to read this early, apparently private document against the many personae and ironies of her later work. It is somewhat curious that this and other juvenilia, such as the “Letters to Felician,” have been translated into English while so much of her critical writing remains unavailable. Authors are not always well served by the publication of their immature writings, and in Bachmann’s case, critics seem eager to assimilate them into the unity of her work, sometimes naively. Adolescent writing is full of self-fashioning and failures of self-fashioning, particularly in diaries. The much more sophisticated treatment of identity, as well as the themes of these brief pages, in all of Bachmann’s mature work is of a different order entirely. If indeed she “just kept quiet about [her] poetry” in conversation with Hamesh, the encounter is necessarily limited. While Hamesh has his limitations as an interlocutor for her, even at this early age, his own words detail a fascinating, at times ambivalent transformation into a citizen of a new land: a role his “dear Inge” would never fully play. They would be interesting to read within, or alongside, a volume of similar letters to Europe from Israel.
Jessie Ferguson is a doctoral candidate in comparative literature at Stanford University. Her research focuses on essayism in twentieth-century fiction, and on fictionality and its discontents more broadly.
Read More on this Subject:
More from The Quarterly Conversation:
- Diary of a Bad Year by J.M. Coetzee Given the exultation and edification of reading Diary of a Bad Year, it would seem that J.M. Coetzee has definitively escaped the post-Nobel jinx. Though nominally in the postmodern camp, the novel notches low on the difficulty scale. To enter this hall of mirrors that is tangentially an account of...
- A Writer at War by Vasily Grossman I. When the German army sped across the Soviet border in June 1941 in a double-cross that left the more-than-adequately forewarned Stalin shocked and a few of his most prominent generals conveniently scapegoated and summarily shot, Vasily Grossman, too, was caught unawares. The Ukrainian novelist was fat, brainy, and Jewish,...
- My Little War by Louis Paul Boon My Little War Louis Paul Boon (trans. Paul Vincent). Dalkey Archive Press. $12.95, 120pp. We in America are, and have been for more than eight years now, living in wartime. Yet, it’s often easy for those of us who aren’t on or in direct contact with the front lines to...
- War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy It’s almost impossible to come to a novel with fresh eyes, and perhaps Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace is the example par excellence. Hailed widely as the greatest novel of all time, it is written by a man traditionally depicted as a giant among giants who stands atop in a...
- One Writer’s Beginnings: Dreams in a Time of War: A Childhood Memoir by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o Quietly and unobtrusively, the author draws out the influences that will shape his literary work and his political views in the years to come. By the end of the story, you understand the love of language and performance that drove Ngũgĩ to become a novelist and playwright. You see how...
Related posts brought to you by Yet Another Related Posts Plugin.
Read more articles by Jessie Ferguson