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Three Paths to the Lake’ by Ingeborg Bachmann has four short stories and a novella (the title story). I reviewed the novella here. I finally finished reading the four short stories. Here is what I think about them. 

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The four short stories in the book address different themes.

‘Word for Word’ is about a translator who travels with her friend to Italy. During her travel she thinks about her past and meditates on language. It is a story with a focus on the theme of language and meaning – on how sometimes even if we are able to translate words and sentences from one language to another, the process is mechanical and has no meaning for us.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

‘Problems Problems’ is about a young woman Beatrix, who is lazy, likes sleeping for most of the day, doesn’t like working and who goes once a week to the salon to get her hair done and get herself pampered, before meeting the man with whom she is having an affair. Beatrix is in no way admirable for her work ethic (atleast for most people), but we can’t help sympathizing with her and looking at things her point of view. When the story describes how hard it is for her to get up late in the morning and get ready to face the day and how it is better to go back to sleep, we smile (and we probably want to live that life J) The story doesn’t end well though, for Beatrix. It describes how a perfect day she had planned explodes on her face and she is left to pick the pieces. It is amazing what Bachmann does here – take an everyday scene like a young woman going to a salon to get her hair done and sculpt it into a beautiful work of art.

‘Eyes to Wonder’ is the story about a young woman Miranda, who has a vision problem, but who refuses to wear corrective glasses. Or rather she wears them sparingly and not on a regular basis. She sees the world with fuzzy outlines and she is happy with that. The fact that she doesn’t see the world in a crystal clear way helps her, as she is not able to see the unpleasant things around her. She considers perfect vision as a curse rather than a blessing. The first few pages of the story explore this theme and I loved that part of the story. The story then moves into a narrative, storytelling mode and the story lost some zing after that (atleast for me).

The last short story called ‘The Barking’ is about an old woman and her relationship with her daughter-in-law. The story also touches a little bit on her relationship with her son, who is aloof and ignores her. 

I enjoyed reading all the four stories. My favourites were some of the parts of ‘Problems Problems’ and ‘Eyes of Wonder’. I would have loved ‘Eyes of Wonder’ if Bachmann had focused more on the theme rather than on the plot.

Here are a couple of my favourite passages.

From ‘Problems Problems’ 

…her aversion to this awful normality to which people subjected themselves had coincided with the discovery of a perversion : her sleeping fetish. Granted, it was perverse, but at least she was something special in the midst of all these normal fools. Genuinely perverse. Everything else was such an absolute waste of time, the simple task of getting dressed and undressed was a real strain, but nothing could compare with her addiction to deep sleep, a sleep she had found her way into, could find her way into even fully dressed on the bed with her shoes on. When she considered that childish nonsense in the past, largely provoked by curiosity, and all the rest, which she today believed to be nothing but gross exaggeration, then sleep was the only read fulfillment: it made life worth living. 

From ‘Eyes to Wonder’  

Unlike others, she doesn’t need to see him in a sharp outline, doesn’t fix anyone with her eyes, doesn’t photograph people through her glasses, but rather paints them in her own style, relying on other impressions, and now Josef is her masterpiece and has been from the very beginning. She fell in love with him at first sight, although any eye doctor would have shaken his head at that, because Miranda’s first glances only result in catastrophic errors. But she holds fast to her first glance and of all the men she has known, Josef is the one whose early sketches and subsequent, more detailed drafts – in light, in darkness, and every conceivable situation – truly satisfy Miranda

The book has a beautiful introduction by Mark Anderson, in which he offers a sophisticated exploration of the stories and their themes. He also quotes Bachmann from some of her interviews and I liked a couple of those quotes. My favourite quote was this :

“War doesn’t begin with the first bombs that are launched or with the terror that one can write about in any newspaper. It starts in the relations between people. Fascism is the first element in the relation between a man and a woman…in this society war is constant. There’s no such thing as war and peace, there is only war.”

It made me remember something similar that Michael Haneke said about his film ‘The White Band’. Being a fellow Austrian, I wonder whether he was inspired by Bachmann when he said that.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I enjoyed reading ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. My favourite story from the book was the title novella, but I also liked the other stories.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

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Ingeborg Bachmann is one of my favourite authors, though I have read just one of her books – the short story collection The Thirtieth Year. This year, for German Literature Month, I was hoping to read atleast one of her books. So, I started reading her second short story collection, ‘Three Paths to the Lake’. This book has four short stories and a novella, which is the title story. I finished reading the novella yesterday. This post is about that novella. I will post about the other short stories separately. 

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‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is a novella of around a hundred pages and occupies around half of the book. It is about Elisabeth, a fifty year young woman. Elisabeth is single, she is Austrian, is a journalist and works in Paris. She is seeing a younger man who is twenty two years her junior. Her father lives in a small Austrian town called Klagenfurt. Her brother is recently married and lives with his wife in London. After attending her brother’s wedding in London, Elisabeth comes home to visit her father. She spends a week with him. During that time, she tries to live the country life which she lived during her childhood, goes on treks in trails which lead to the lake, reads the newspaper with her father and occasionally meets old neighbours. During her time there, she also looks back on her life, her relationships with her father and with her brother Robert and with the other men in her life – some of whom were friends, others who were lovers, who left her and broke her heart, and one of whom she married, but who was gay and who was more a friend than a husband. At the end of the week, she goes back home to Paris, and she and her latest boyfriend decide to breakup with each other (she is calm about it while he is upset because she is not upset), and it seems that her life will take a new direction the next day and the story ends with that.

ThreePathsToTheLakeByIngeborgBachmann

Like any other Ingeborg Bachmann story, ‘Three Paths of the Lake’ is not about the plot. Though it has an interesting plot with events from the current time and the past intricately and masterfully blended together. ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is more a commentary on life, on the relationships between parents and children, on the relationships between siblings, on the relationships between lovers and partners, on love and how elusive it is, on the complex relationships between men and women, on how our deepest beliefs can come unravelled when we stare truth on its face, on how we forge our identities and how we belong to a place, on how things change every moment and every day and every year, on how it is impossible to travel back to the past as everyone and everything has changed – the story is about this and other things. It is a beautiful meditation on life. Many times I felt that it might have been Ingeborg Bachmann’s own memoir, with the names changed and some of the events probably fictionalized for our benefit. But like in any great piece of literature, the main characters look like us. They could have been any of us. Or someone we knew.

 

The description of Elisabeth’s father at the beginning of the book reminded me of my own father. It went like this.

…there was nothing, absolutely nothing Herr Matrei needed, and in this respect he made things difficult for his children. It wasn’t just something he said, it was actually the truth : you couldn’t give him Dunhill pipes, gold lighters, expensive cigars, ties, extravagant gifts from extravagant stores, or useful things, either; he refused to accept anything, took good care of all he had, from pruning shears and shovel to the few household appliances an old man needed. He didn’t drink alcohol, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t need any suits, silk scarves, cashmere sweaters, or aftershave lotions and even Elisabeth, who over the years had developed an inimitable imaginativeness in finding the right gift for each and every kind of man, didn’t have a clue when it came to her father. His lack of needs wasn’t a quirk, it was congenital, and he would hold fast to it until his dying day.

When one of Elisabeth’s colleagues dies while trying to report from a war zone and she is having a conversation on it with her lover (her favourite of all her lovers) Trotta, he says this – one of my favourite passages from the book :

“The war you photograph for other people’s breakfasts hasn’t spared you either in the end. I don’t know, but I’m unable to shed a single tear over your friends. If someone jumps into the middle of crossfire to get a few good shots of other people dying, then getting killed is nothing special, considering the sportsmanlike ambition it involves, it’s merely an occupational hazard, nothing more.”

A pretty hard-hitting passage and one which is extremely difficult to disagree with.

My most favourite passage in the book though was this. It is about the relationship between women and men.

There was only one hope she didn’t and wouldn’t allow herself to hold on to : that if, in almost thirty years, she hadn’t found a man, not a single one, who was exclusively significant for her, who had become inevitable to her, someone who was strong and brought her the mystery she had been waiting for, not a single one who was really a man and not an eccentric, a weakling or one of the needy the world was full of – then the man simply didn’t exist, and as long as this New Man did not exist, one could only be friendly and kind to one another, for a while. There was nothing more to make of it, and it would be best if women and men kept their distance and had nothing to do with each other until both had found their way out of the tangle and confusion, the discrepancy inherent in all relationships. Perhaps one day something else might come along but only then, and it would be strong and mysterious and have real greatness, something to which each could once again submit.

Yes, if we are not able to find the person of our dreams, it is better to just be friendly and as Voltaire says in ‘Candide’, live a simple life and tend to our own garden. That is not a bad life – it is simple and beautiful and rewarding.

When I read Ingeborg Bachmann’s other short story collection ‘The Thirtieth Year’, I found it philosophical and intellectually demanding. I was thinking that ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ would be similar. But it wasn’t. It was definitely philosophical. But it was more accessible. (It is either that or I must have become a more sophisticated reader in the short space of a year). Bachmann’s prose flows beautifully and though there are long sentences with multiple clauses, while reading them, one doesn’t notice their length or complexity. Bachmann makes reading a difficult book seem quite easy with her brilliant prose style. I don’t know how she managed to achieve that.

With every story I read, Ingeborg Bachmann keeps getting better and better. I think ‘Three Paths to the Lake’ is my favourite Ingeborg Bachmann story yet. I loved it. I will be definitely reading it again. I am looking forward to reading the other stories in the book. And if I have time left still, I hope to read her novel ‘Malina’.


Ingeborg Bachmann

Ingeborg Bachmann

I can’t finish this post without saying this. One of my perennial regrets will always be that dear Inge left behind only a small body of work – two slim short story collections, one novel, two novel fragments, one collection of poetry, one slim war diary and one collection of letters. I wish she had written more. I wish she had lived longer. But I am grateful that she wrote what she did and left behind these beautiful, slim, literary masterpieces. My life would have been poorer without them.

Have you read ‘Three Paths to the Lake’? What do you think about it?

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I have heard of Ingeborg Bachmann before, but I have never got around to reading her books. When Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat recommended her books highly, I thought I will read some of Bachmann’s books for German Literature Month

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The first book I read was ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is a collection of short stories. ‘The Thirtieth Year’ has seven short stories. Some of them are short, but most of them are around 30-40 pages.

The Thirtieth Year By Ingeborg Bachmann

My favourite story was the title story ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is about a man who turns thirty and looks back at his past life and remembers his old friends and enemies and the beautiful moments and love he had and the quarrels he got into. This man also thinks about the future and contemplates on what he should be doing with his life. That is all what the plot is about. It can be told in two sentences. It is also described as a short story. Well, who is dear Inge trying to fool? This is no ordinary short story. Well, scratch out that adjective ‘ordinary’. That sentence should read ‘This is no short story’. I find it extremely difficult to describe what this beautiful piece of art is. The best I can come up with is that it is concentrated, exquisite poetry with profound philosophical insights which looks deceptively like a short story. I don’t know how Ingeborg Bachmann managed to pull that of, but she has. The first paragraph of the story grabs your attention – cunning Inge doesn’t miss that first paragraph trick  :

 

When a person enters his thirtieth year people will not stop calling him young. But he himself, although he can discover no changes in himself, becomes unsure; he feels as though he were no longer entitled to claim to be young. And one morning he wakes up, on a day which he will forget, and suddenly lies there unable to get up, struck by harsh rays of light and denuded of every weapon and all courage with which to face the new day..

 

and the story doesn’t let you go till the end. I found beautiful, deep insights in every page and my highlighting pen was working nonstop. If you don’t believe me, check out these passages, some of my favourite ones.

 

He will free himself from the people who surround him and if possible he will not go to new ones. He can no longer live among people. They paralyse him, they have explained him according to their own judgment. As soon as a man stays some time in one place he is transmuted into too many shapes, hearsay shapes, and has less and less right to appeal to his own self. Therefore he wishes, henceforth and for ever, to appear in his true shape. He cannot start this here, where he has been living for a long time; but he will do it there, where he will be free.

 

Why have I spent a whole summer trying to destroy myself in intoxication or to intensify my feelings in intoxication? – Only to avoid becoming aware that I am an abandoned instrument upon which someone, a long time ago, struck a few notes on which I helplessly produce variations, out of which I try furiously to make a piece of sound that bears my handwriting. My handwriting! As if it were important for something to bear my handwriting! Flashes of lightning have passed through trees and split them. Madness has come upon men and inwardly broken them in pieces. Swarms of locusts have descended upon the fields and left the trail of their devouring. Floods have devastated hills and torrents the mountainsides. Earthquakes have not ceased. These are handwritings, the only ones.

 

He has spent so many useless hours with other people, and although he made no use of the hours now either, he did bend them towards him and sniff at them. He came to enjoy time; its taste was pure and good.

 

Today he was another man. He felt good only when he was alone, he no longer made demands, demolished the edifice of his wishes, gave up his hopes and became simpler day by day. He began to think humbly of the world. He sought a duty, he wanted to serve. To plant a tree. To procreate a child. Is that modest enough? Is that simple enough?

 

Love was unbearable. It expected nothing, demanded nothing and gave nothing. It did not allow itself to be fenced in, cultivated and planted with feelings, but stepped over all boundaries and smashed down all feelings.

 

Men do not love freedom. Wherever it has come into being they have quarrelled with it. I love freedom which I too must betray a thousand times over. This unworthy world is the result of the uninterrupted spurning of freedom.

 

Did you like them?

 

My second favourite story or stories rather – there are two actually and I liked both of them equally well – were ‘A Step Towards Gomorrah and ‘A Wildermuth’.

 

Looking at the title, you would have guessed what ‘A Step Towards Gomorrah was about. It is about a happily married musician Charlotte, who during the course of an evening, finds herself attracted towards another woman, an attraction which throws light on her present life. Though she is happily married, this new found attraction promises something which will satisfy a deep yearning in her heart and change her life in a profoundly beautiful way. Well, but that is the beauty of a magical evening – there is so much of promise, but when we get up the next morning we have to get back to our mundane life. And Charlotte has to pick up her husband at the railway station the next day morning. Does she or doesn’t she? Does she accept her present mundane life and chug along or does she allow the evening’s promise to flower? You have to read the story to find out. My favourite lines from the story were these :

 

The arrogance to insist on her own unhappiness, her own loneliness, had always been in her, but only now did it venture to emerge; it blossomed, ran wild, smothered her. She was unredeemable and nobody should have the effrontery to redeem her…

 

‘A Wildermuth’ is about a judge who tries to find the truth about everything, starting with the cases which come up before him in court. The first part of the story talks about a case which is being argued in his court. Towards the end of the hearing, the judge gets up and starts shouting ‘Stop telling the truth’ or something similar. The second part of the story is told in the first person from the judge’s perspective and it describes how his fascination for the truth started and how it all ended up with his saying ‘Stop telling the truth’. The first part of the story reads like a legal thriller and we hope that there will be twists and turns and we also hope that the person who is charged for murder is really innocent or he has really good reasons for committing the murder. Things don’t turn out that way though. The second part of the story is a philosophical meditation on the nature of truth and whether it can be really ascertained. The judge’s point of view, at the end of the story, is presented in these passages :

 

Yes, what then is the truth about myself, about anyone? The truth can be defined only in respect of point-like, minute moments of action, steps in the process of feeling, the most minute steps, about one drop after another out of the thought stream. But then it would no longer be possible to deduce that a person had such massive characteristics as ‘thrifty’, ‘good-natured’, ‘cowardly’, ‘thoughtless’. All the thousand thousandths of a second of liking, desire, aversion, calm, agitation that one passes through – what can be deduced from them? One thing only : that a man has done much and suffered much…

 

…why…must we tell the truth, my friends? Why should we in fact choose this damned truth? So that we should not slip into lies, for lies are human handiwork and the truth is only half human handiwork, for there must be something on the other side – where the facts are – to correspond to it. There must first be something on the other side for a truth to exist. It cannot exist alone.

 

      I’m after the truth. But the further after it I go the further away it is, flickering like a will-o’-the-wisp at all times, at all places, over very object. As though it were only tangible, as though it only had solidity, if one doesn’t move, doesn’t ask many questions, rests content with the crudest facts. It must be set for medium temperatures, medium looks, medium words. Then the result is a continual cheap agreement between object and word, feeling and word, deed and word. The well brought up word that is forced to accept this mute world of buttons and hearts with compassion. Indolent, apathetic word set on agreement at all costs.

      And beyond this there are nothing but opinions, slick assertions, opinions about opinions and an opinion about the truth that is worse than the opinions about all truths…

 

I also liked the story ‘Everything’ which is about a man who wants his son to be different in a fundamental way when compared to other children but when his son turns out like everyone else he stops loving his son. (My summary is inadequate though – this is not exactly what happens, as what happens in the story is more complex than that. That is also one of the themes of this story – the inadequacy of language.) As the narrator describes it :

 

It was all the same to me whether Fipps went to the grammar school later or not, whether he developed into something worthwhile or not. A worker wants to see his son a doctor, a doctor wants to see his son at least a doctor. I don’t understand that. I didn’t want Fipps to become either cleverer or better than us. Nor did I want to be loved by him; there was no need for him to obey me, no need for him to bend to my will. No, I wanted…I only wanted him to begin from the beginning, to show me with a single gesture that he didn’t have to reflect our gestures. I didn’t see anything new in him. I was newborn, but he wasn’t! It was I, yes, I was the first man and had gambled everything away, and done nothing!

 

The other stories in the book were interesting too. ‘Undine Goes’ is about a mermaid / water nymph who reveals her own perspective on human beings – on how humans do terrible things but are also endlessly fascinating and how it is very difficult to resist loving them. ‘Among Murderers and Madmen’ is about a few people who were on opposite sides during the war (the Second World War) – some were part of the persecuting side and the others were part of the persecuted side – now sit on the same table as friends and have dinner and the consequences of that. In ‘Youth in an AustrianTown, the narrator looks back at his childhood in an Austrian town, when dramatic things were afoot and things changed irrevocably. This story had one of my favourite first sentences – it was actually the second sentence, but I am taking poetic licence here  :

 

“The first tree…is so ablaze with autumn, such an immense patch of gold, that it looks like a torch dropped by an angel.”

 

When I read that sentence, I knew that I was going to love the rest of the book. I was not wrong.

 

One of the recurring themes across the stories is the inadequacy of language, on how language is imperfect and approximate and how it obscures more than it reveals while trying to describe people, places, events, things, feelings, the atmosphere of a time and place and how we try to be more and more precise and use new words in different layers to describe old ones so that the core meaning at the centre could be revealed. And how we often end up making things more obscure than when we started. It made me think about what Philip Larkin once said about a good poem (as described in the book “It must be Beautiful”) :

 

A good poem is like an onion. On the outside, both are pleasingly smooth and intriguing, and they become more and more so, as their successive layers of meaning are revealed. His aim was to write the perfect onion.

 

I can’t resist comparing Ingeborg Bachmann with one of my favourite writers Marlen Haushofer, because both of them are Austrian and both of them had parallel careers.

Ingeborg…

Ingeborg Bachmann

…and Marlen

Marlen Haushofer

The main difference between them, which jumps at me, is this. While reading a Marlen Haushofer novel one gets a feeling that one is talking to one’s mother or one’s favourite aunt and hearing family stories of the past. There is a lot of warmth and love in that conversation. While reading an Ingeborg Bachmann book, the experience is different. It is like having an intellectual conversation with a philosopher who shares her profound insights on the human condition. It is probably because of their backgrounds – Haushofer studied literature and was a homemaker and a writer while Bachmann studied philosophy and was an academic and a writer. Both so different and both such a pleasure to read.

 

Though Ingeborg Bachmann was a renowned writer in her time, she wrote only a few books. I could find only seven of them in English translation – two collections of short stories, one novel, one collection of two novel fragments, one collection of poetry (published as two different collections, originally), a collection of letters that she and Paul Celan wrote to each other and a war diary. I want to read all of them some day.

 

The edition of ‘The Thirtieth Year’ I read has a wonderful introduction by Karen Achberger which gives an overview of Ingeborg Bachmann’s life and her work and also discusses all the stories in the book and the themes they explore.

 

I think you know this already, but I have to say it nevertheless. I loved Ingeborg Bachmann’s ‘The Thirtieth Year’. It is a wonderful piece of poetry in prose which conveys lyrical impressions of people and places and reveals philosophical insights into the human condition. I can’t wait to read my next Bachmann book.

 

It has been a slow start for me during this year’s German Literature Month. I hope to catch up in the next few weeks.

 

Have you read ‘The Thirtieth Year’ or any other book by Ingeborg Bachmann?

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