A Year in Reading: Tom McCarthy

December 13, 2010 | 1 book mentioned 2 2 min read


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 breaking 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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was born in 1969 and lives in London. He is known in the art world for the reports, manifestos, and media interventions he has made as General Secretary of the International Necronautical Society (INS), a semi-fictitious avant-garde network. He is the author of C, Remainder and Tintin and the Secret of Literature.