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from the May 2018 issue

“Bad Words” Illuminates Ilse Aichinger’s Bouts with the German language after the War

Reviewed by Anne Posten

I first encountered the work of the Austrian poet Ilse Aichinger about seven years ago. I was translating an article by a friend, in which Aichinger’s poem “Versuch” (“Attempt”) appeared, along with a reference to the poetic essay “Schnee” (“Snow”). I dutifully translated the poem, which read to me like a random assortment of nouns, plus a verb and an adjective, and the quotes from the essay, which I found intriguing but, in their linguistic particularity, frustrating to translate. I did not think about Aichinger again until the same friend happened to send me a few of her short prose texts last year—the very same “Snow,” and “Dover.” Upon reencountering them, I could not imagine how I could ever have read her work so carelessly.

There is something about Aichinger’s writing that requires attention and readiness, it seems, for I am not the only one who managed to forget about Aichinger after a first meeting. As Uljana Wolf and Christian Hawkey point out in their brilliantly concise introduction to Bad Words, it was Aichinger who indirectly brought Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan to “Gruppe 47,” the seminal meetings that significantly shaped post-war German literature. But while Celan and Bachmann are known and treasured in the English-speaking world, Aichinger remains undertranslated and nearly forgotten outside of her home language—a language which, ironically, she wrestled with, loved, and tried both to reclaim and to unmake.  

If it is a matter of readiness, the time is surely long-since nigh. The most striking thing about the late short prose works collected in this volume is their contemporary feel. Pieces like “The Jouet Sisters,” with its snap-the-whip, knockout ending, for which the reader is both ready and totally unprepared—“I’m waiting, I’m waiting—for monkey bread and peanuts, for cotton balls, pastry, and the heroes of the fatherland. For Ascension day and its one-way mission to heaven. My sweet doves, my wooden lights. How can I say Amen before you say it?”—could be mistaken for an Emily Berry poem. “Privas” seems a close cousin of Lydia Davis’ “Cats in the Prison Recreation Hall.” “Albany” is a few pages fallen out of Beckett’s The Unnameable. Yet Aichinger spoke her own tongue, wrote with her own logic. She was everything avant la lettre, and although her work may be read in light of such affinities, and may even allow us to look differently at other, better-known authors, we should be careful not to lose sight of what is most peculiar to her writing. It would be a disservice if these associations saved us the effort, and pleasure, of reading Aichinger on her own terms.

Born in 1921 in Vienna to a Jewish mother, Ilse Aichinger survived the Holocaust, though many of her relatives did not. Her early works, including Das Vierte Tor (The Fourth Gate) and Die Größere Hoffnung (The Greater Hope; Herod’s Children in an earlier translation) were explicitly concerned with the Holocaust, persecution, and recent European history. In the texts collected in Bad Words, which were written and published later (Eliza, Eliza in 1968 and Schlechte Wörter in 1976), the Holocaust still shapes every word, but it is not even remotely mentioned. Reading overt political sentiments into these works takes imagination; the closest one gets is “Rahel’s Clothes” (“do you have any idea why Rahel hasn’t asked for her things to be sent after her? After seventeen years?”) or “Balconies,” which can be read, among other things, as anti-nationalist satire.

But even these two texts, like all of the pieces in this volume, are ultimately concerned not with subjects or storytelling but with language itself and so are political on a level that is at once much deeper and more oblique. In contrast to Germany, post-war Austrian society did little to face or reckon with the horrors of its past; when Aichinger wrote, the past was still alive and still breathing through the German language. For this reason, Aichinger, like others of her generation, saw it as their task to grapple with, to write with or against or through a language that could no longer be trusted; a language become foreign, which could only be reclaimed through further foreignization—or through silence. In her acceptance speech for the Nelly Sachs prize in 1971, Aichinger spoke of an “attempt to translate muteness into silence, engaged silence, without which language and conversation are impossible.”

This attempt presents itself as rebellion against everything one expects of writing and language. Everyone who has taken a writing class or been edited has been enjoined to be precise. Aichinger revels in doing the opposite: She gives us named figures that appear to be characters but then lack the qualities that would mark them as such: they serve a poetic function, rather than a narrative one. She introduces such “characters” a paragraph before the end of a piece without so much as a polite nod at the reader’s perplexity. She writes impossible anti-narratives that turn ninety degrees in every sentence: rabbits suddenly reveal astonishing vocabularies, and humans turn out to be made of straw. The paradigmatic Aichinger sentence is one with two seemingly unrelated halves linked by a conjunction: “Day is breaking, but the stains are still here.” Nor is one mystery per sentence sufficient, as in “Or the mushroom pickers whose voices and steps I often hear, though it doesn’t make me happy.” Or what? What mushroom pickers? Why would they make anyone happy, let alone the speaker, who may or not be “The Mouse” of the title? There are sentences, too, beautiful sentences that, to borrow an image from Anne Carson, “stop themselves.” “I will try to act like someone who never arrives, someone untempted, someone untamed by having no silhouette,” is one. The sentence is perfectly grammatical, but we cannot take it apart to find its meaning. We cannot get behind it; it remains indecipherable, yet meaningful in its irreducibility and materiality—like a foreign word, a foreign sentence, perhaps.      

But Aichinger’s rebellion is not unprovoked. It is a counter-rebellion against a language grown unruly and unusable (“Down, words! Bad words, bad!” I like to imagine her saying in the title story). In several of the pieces, she makes her attitude toward language explicit, by turns sorrowfully, by turns playfully. “Bad Words” is something of a manifesto against precision, against “good” words: “They are too close to what they stand for,” she writes: “I know what I’m doing. I know that the world is worse than its name, and that because of this, its name is also bad.” In “My Language and I,” language is an indifferent companion that the speaker caters to and attempts to engage, to no avail. Speaker and language are locked in a relationship from which all romance and understanding has disappeared, though not all love: “I will do what I can for it. The conversations alone will help . . . in time, no one will want anything from my language. And I will do my part. I will weave in a sentence here and there to make it free of suspicion.”

In other pieces, Aichinger’s struggle with language is tacit but uncompromising. In “Hemlin,” for example, a central proper noun functions as a sort of totem, but its meaning changes—it is a child, a place, a woman, an object, a feeling. A proper noun is that most specific of the parts of speech, that irreplaceable, specific name that means only itself; to change its meaning challenges the very possibility of signification. And this is precisely Aichinger’s aim: to reject the rules of language, to reject the (power) structures that have shaped all of the world’s bloody history but without rejecting language itself. She chooses a different way: and who is to say that crossbeams don’t have “certain connections to floodplains,” after all?

The different way is often sound, and what masters of it are at work in this volume. Aichinger and her translators have a sense of rhythm that never falters, from the first line of this volume to the last. Whole paragraphs of  “Dover” could be sung like jazz—there is the same blend of freedom and certainty, the alternation of a kind of staccato scatting and lyricism.  Every word is perfect, not, of course, in its precision, but in its music:

And what about friendships made in Dover? Do they survive, or do they dissolve once they’re up against the familiar commensurabilities? It’s either this way or that. Dover doesn’t rely on friendships. Dover has its droolers, its rope-jumpers and pebble-players and its seldom-stranded sailors. It’s either this way or that with friendships in Dover, you get what you get. And if it’s this way or that, and if that’s what you get, then Dover will always plead for us: whether in Denver, in Trouville, or in Bilbao. It will entreat the places of the world for us with its easy gaze. It will keep an eye on the madhouse of Privas and all the other madhouses, too. It will not omit the things that don’t measure up to it—it will draw on their weaknesses, and on its own weakness. It won’t forget about industry, diligence, naïveté, nor that everything will be over soon. It will not shove aside our failed desperation, which is all we have. Not Dover.

That this text holds its sonic magic in translation is a testament both to the extraordinary ears and poetic wisdom of the translators and to Aichinger herself. Each word feels both surprising and inevitable: in English as in German. This surety of voice is rare, and the integrity of the English text certainly has much to do with the palpable kinship between Wolf, Hawkey, and Aichinger—in the fearless pleasure in subverting and remaking language and its constructs—but it is also a result of Aichinger’s translation-like approach to writing. She unmasks all writing for the process of translation it is and mocks the norms that suggest otherwise—the norms that crave clarity and correctness and logic: “I won’t care whether you can say pound when [rain] only gently touches the window panes—or if that would be saying too much. Or too little, if the rain threatens to shatter the windows. I’ll leave it at that for now. I’ll stick with pound—let others worry about the rest.” These are the same norms that see translation as an art of failure, and Aichinger, Hawkey, and Wolf laugh in these norms’ faces. It is a bitter laughter, perhaps, a laughter that knows loss and destruction—a laughter that knows what it means to be laughed at.

The volume ends with “Snow,” the essay that eluded me on first reading. It is a perfect ending in that it doesn’t let the reader off the hook and doesn’t float away into the unparseable poetic prose that we have been allowed to revel in for so much of the book. Instead, it reminds us that all this—the words, their connections, our use of them—matters.

These are our choices, something we can compare. One can also rightly maintain that rain comes before snow in more than one respect, but I’ve been suspicious of everything one can maintain rightly for a long time . . . Maintaining and raining usually go too far but in most cases don’t achieve what matters. If at the time of the Flood it had snowed and not rained, Noah’s selfish ark wouldn’t have helped him one bit. And that’s only one example.”

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