Year in Reading

A Year in Reading: Tom McCarthy

By posted at 11:00 am on December 13, 2010 2


coverThe best book I’ve read this year, by a long chalk, is Ingeborg Bachmann’s Malina. It’s been something of a revelation. She published it in 1971: it was meant to be the first of a trilogy, but she died, pretty young and in odd circumstances, before getting the other two down. It’s hard to describe: nothing really happens in it. Maybe a woman dies, maybe not. It’s set in Vienna – but a massively overdetermined Vienna in which all of history, with all its attendant traumas, is┬ábreaking through the surface of the present. It’s structured almost musically, with motifs quasi-repeating, or echoing on several ‘channels’ as it were: so in a typical sequence we pan from a chessboard to maps and atlases, with place names – Venice, the Danube – reeling off; then the narrative opens to a vision of wars over territory, humanity displaced and starving; then back to the game.

The second section (it has a kind of triptych structure) is a phantasmagoric interlude to rival the “Circe” chapter of Ulysses: passages to hell, gas chambers, murderous fathers right out of Plath, whole cemetaries of dead daughters – all the while remaining within the Ringstrasse and its polite confines. Bachmann, it turns out, was a friend of Celan, Frisch, Boll, Grass – the whole gaggle of important German-language writers of her period. And she outshines the lot of them – except Celan, of course, but that’s all-but impossible. Apparently she and he had an intense correspondence which has survived: something to look forward to in 2011 if I can get my hands on it!

More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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2 Responses to “A Year in Reading: Tom McCarthy”

  1. Steve Mitchelmore
    at 4:43 pm on December 13, 2010

    Bachmann was a close friend of the greatest German-language writer of the post-war era: Thomas Bernhard. Surprised Tom didn’t know that. She appears as Maria in his greatest novel, Extinction.

    And the Celan-Bachmann correspondence was published in translation this Summer. They were more than friends. I reviewed it here:

  2. 8 Years in Reading: an Interview with C. Max Magee of The Millions | The Outlet: the Blog of Electric Literature
    at 9:17 am on December 16, 2011

    […] Romans. Sam Lipsyte on the obscure writer Hob Broun, Helen Dewitt on Edward Tufte. Tom McCarthy on Ingeborg Bachmann, Joshua Cogen on C.M. Doughty, and – maybe my all time favorite entry ever – book […]

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