“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Three Paths to the Lake
By Ingeborg Bachmann
Holmes & Meier

Three Paths to the Lakes was the second and final collection of short stories written by the Austrian author Ingeborg Bachmann and it contains five, loosely connected stories about women in the 1960s. Although Bachmann is still largely unknown amongst Anglophone readers, she remains an important figure in Austrian literature of the 20th Century, not only in terms of her writing, but also as a cultural figure: Bachmann rose to prominence as a poet very quickly (before, in fact, she’d even had a full book of poems published), and became perhaps better known in Austria as a prominent bohemian than a writer. Bachmann also garnered some unwanted publicity due to having several affairs with high-profile authors, including Paul Celan and Max Frisch. And Bachmann’s romantic image was further enhanced by her own unfortunate death from accidental self-immolation resulting from an unextinguished cigarette that set her room on fire while she was sleeping.
            But despite the emphasis often placed on her eventful life, Bachmann’s own fame rightfully stems from the simple fact that she was a phenomenal prose stylist, who has had a profound influence on several generations of Austrian writers (indeed, one of the most prestigious prizes for German-language literature is named after her), and Three Paths to the Lake demonstrates her mature style. All of the stories discuss women who feel isolated from the world around them in different ways. The first story, ‘Word for Word’, tells the story of a young interpreter who is engaging in an affair but remains incapable of opening herself to emotional intimacy (a fact underscored by her inability to sleep while in the same bed as her beloved); here, Bachmann uses the notion of interpreting between languages as an extended metaphor for the couple’s inability to communicate. In ‘Problems, Problems’, a young woman named Beatrix, who is just able to live on a small amount of money provided by her family, has difficulty envisioning any kind of future direction for her life. In ‘Eyes to Wonder’, Miranda, who suffers from extreme myopia but is too vain to wear the glasses she needs, becomes so concerned that her boyfriend will leave here that she actively works to drive him into the arms of another woman.
            But lest readers presume that Bachmann’s stories only discuss the lives of the mildly neurotic middle class, the fourth story, ‘The Barking’—which is the standout of the collection—details the life of an old woman who lives in near-destitution despite the fact her son is a prominent and successful psychiatrist; this beautiful story unfolds as the woman slowly develops a relationship with her son’s new wife, Franziska; the story takes several turns, however, as Franziska begins to realise that her mother-in-law is suffering from severe delusions, and a variety of other tumultuous events occur (and although they are suggested indirectly in the text, they are never fully explicated).
            The final story, ‘Three Paths to the Lake’, is about a successful journalist in her fifties who travels home for a brief vacation; despite the seeming simplicity of its premise, however, the story is also very much about World War II and Germany’s subsequent division into two separate states, and we also learn more about the subsequent (and often unhappy) fates of many characters from the previous stories. Bachmann’s Three Paths to the Lake is rightly considered one of the most important works of 20th-Century Austrian literature (no mean feat, given that the country also produced Kafka, Musil, Rilke, Stefan Zweig, Hermann Broch, Thomas Bernhard and Celan among many others, resulting in what is arguably the most interesting literary tradition of any European country in that period), and will, without a doubt, please any reader interested in European literature from the last century.

R.I.Y.L. Austrian Literature, Jenny Erpenbeck's Visitation, the final section of Roberto Bolano's 2666.

This review initially aired on Triple R's Breakfasters.

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