Famed Austrian writer Bachmann's only novel, set in Vienna and first published in 1971, takes on the vexed struggle between the sexes in a decaying city.
The narrator, an author, lives with her partner, Malina, but is madly in love with Ivan, who lives nearby. On the surface the story of an affair, the first section of the novel ("Happy with Ivan") captures the way love seems to affect the lover's surroundings: "the incidence of pain in my neighborhood is decreasing, between Ungargasse 6 and 9 fewer misfortunes occur...the world's schizoid soul, its crazy, gaping split, is healing itself imperceptibly." She plans to write a "glorious book," one that will make people "leap for joy." The threat to her happiness is not Malina, who "torments me with his impeccable self-control, his imperturbable trust," but something darker and harder to name. She is haunted by "murder thoughts" and the threat of violence, against anonymous women particularly. In the second section, ill and confined to her apartment, she is cared for by Malina while she dreams disturbingly of her father attempting to kill her beside "the cemetery of the murdered daughters." The postwar years hang over the city and the book. "Here there is always violence. Here there is always struggle. It is the everlasting war." As well as dreams, the narrative is interspersed with dialogues, an absurdist, hilarious interview, the story of a princess, fragments of the narrator's writing, and unsent letters she signs "an unknown woman." Her ways of coping as well as her despair come to feel inevitable. "I react to every situation, submit to every emotional upheaval and suffer the losses—which Malina notices, detachedly." "Most men usually make women unhappy," she tells us, "and there's no reciprocity, as our misfortune is natural, inevitable, stemming as it does from the disease of men, for whose sake women have to bear so much in mind, continually modifying what they've just learned—for, as a rule, if you have to constantly brood about somebody, and generate feelings about him, then you're going to be unhappy." In the book's final section, as Ivan's feelings cool and Malina's caretaking stifles, the narrator retreats into the story of a postman who, out of a sense of delicacy, stopped delivering the mail. "There is no beautiful book, I can no longer write the beautiful book."
Dense, compelling, often weirdly funny, a dark fairy tale told as a murder mystery. Rewarding and highly recommended.