July 7, 2010

Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann [Austria]
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Born in Klagenfurt, Austria on June 25, 1926, Ingeborg Bachmann studied law and philosophy at the universities of Innsbruk, Graz, and Vienna. She received her degree from the University of Vienna for a dissertation on Heidegger in 1950.

Bachmann’s first poetry was published in Lynkeus, Dichtung, Kunst, Kritik, edited by Hermann Hakel, while she was attending the university. After her graduation, she went on to become a scriptwriter at Radio Rot-Weiß-Rot in Vienna. During these years she traveled to Munich to read at the influential gathering of post-war German poets known as Gruppe 47, an appearance arranged by the poet Paul Celan, whom she had met in Vienna. The reading was highly lauded, and the next year, 1953, Bachmann received the Gruppe 47 Prize for her first collection, Die gestundete Zeit (Borrowed Time). The wide success of that book led to requests for poems, radio plays, and opera libretti, a great number of which she produced over the next years.

The same year as her award, Bachmann moved to what would become her “beloved” Italy, first to the island of Ischia, and then to Naples and Rome, where she remained until 1957. In 1955 she also traveled to the United States at the invitation of the Harvard International Seminar, led by Henry Kissinger. The following year, her second volume of poetry, Anrufung des Großen Bären (Invocation of the Great Bear) was published. As a result, she was asked to deliver the inaugural lectures for the poetry chair founded at Frankfurt University in 1959, helping to assure her recognition as the most important German poet since Gottfried Benn. The same year she was awarded the prestigious Bremen Literature Prize.

During the late 1950s she continued to work in radio and television, now as dramaturge for Bavarian Television and Radio in Munich and Hamburg. But in 1958, she moved to Zürich, becoming involved with the Swiss author Max Frisch until 1962, when she returned to Rome.

Her 1960 libretto for Hans Werner Henze’s opera Der Prinz von Homburg and her 1961 colleciton of short stories, Das dreißigse Jahr brought her further acclaim. She was awarded the Georg Büchner Prize in 1964 and the Austrian State Prize in Literature in 1968.

In 1971 Suhrkamp Verlag published her novel, Malina. Bachmann’s collection of short stories, Simultan (R. Piper Verlag) was published the following year.

On September 26, 1973, Bachmann fell asleep in her Rome apartment while, apparently, smoking a cigarette in bed. The fire department found her unconscious and badly burned. She died three weeks later, on October 17 th, at the age of 47.


Die gestundete Zeit (Frankfurt: Frankfurter Verlaganstalt, 1953; Munich: Piper, 1957); Anrufung des Großen Bären (Munich: Piper, 1956); uncollected poetry published in Werke [4 volumes] (Munich: Piper, 1978).


Songs in Flight: The Collected Poems , translated and introduced by Peter Filkins (New York: Marsilio Publishers, 1994); Last Living Words: The Ingeborg Bachmann Reader, translated by Lilian M. Friedberg [selected poetry and fiction] (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005); Darkness Spoken: Collected Poems, translated by Peter Filkins (Brookline, Massachusetts: Zephyr Press, 2005).

Theme and Variation

That summer there was no honey.
The queens led their swarms away,
the strawberry bed dried up in a day,
the berrypickers went home early.

All that sweetness, swept on one ray of light
off to sleep. Who slept this sleep before his time?
Honey and berries? He is a stranger to suffering,
the one with the world at his hands. In want of nothing.

In want of nothing but perhaps a bit,
enought to rest or to stand straight.
He was bent by caves--and shadows,
because no country took him in.
He wasn't even safe in the wood--
a partisan whom the world reliquished
toher dead satellite, the moon.

He is a stranger to sufferin, the one with the world
[at his hands,
and was anything not handed him? He had the bettle's
cohort wrapped round his finger, blazes
branded his face with scars and the wellspring
appeared as a chimera before his eyes,
where it was not.

Honey and berries?
Had he ever known the scent, he'd have followed it
long ago!

Walking a sleepwalker's sleep,
who slept this sleep before his time?
One who was born ancient
and called to the darkness early.
All that sweetness swept on one ray of light
before him.

He spat into the undergrowth a curse
to bring drought, he screamed
and his prayers were heard:
the berrypickers went home early!
When the root rose up
and slithered after them, hissing
a snakeskin remained, the tree's last defense.
The strawberry bed dried up in a day.

In the village below, the buckets stood empty
like drums waiting in the square.
Then the sun struck
and paradiddled death.

The windows fell shut,
the queens led their swarms away,
and no one prevented them from fleeing.
Wilderness took them in,
the hollow tree among ferns,
the first free state.
The last human being was stung
and felt no pain.

That summer there was no honey.

Translated from the German by Lilian M. Friedberg

"Theme and Variation"
Reprinted from Last Living Words: The Ingeborg Bachmann Reader (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2005). English language ©2005 by Lilian M. Friedberg. Reprinted by permission from Green Integer.

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