War Diary

War Diary

By Ingeborg Bachmann

With Letters from Jack Hamesh

Edited and with an Afterword by Hans Höller

Translated by Mike Mitchell

Seagull Books, 2018


War Diary

This short book is best viewed as a package, so let me begin by enumerating its contents.

There is, to start with, a diary (or some extracts from a diary) kept by Ingeborg Bachmann and covering the period from about September 1944 to June 1945. In these pages she mentions her friendship, probable romance, with a British soldier named Jack Hamesh. She is able to discuss literature, politics and the like with him. Like her, he is Austrian. Unlike her, he is Jewish. In 1938 he had escaped from Vienna to London via Kindertransport, later enlisting in the British Army.

As well as the diary, the book contains several letters from Jack to Ingeborg, with these letters dating from Easter 1946 to July 1947, so a few years after the diary entries and their first meetings. The letters are intimate and candid about Jack’s feelings – it is clear that he loved her – and they clearly meant much to Bachmann: else why would she have kept them? His last letters are written from Tel Aviv, where had gone to live after the war, knowing that Ingeborg could not follow him. Vienna was over for Jack, his life there had ended in March 1938. The city was a deceitful dream. In one letter to Ingeborg he writes:

Remain my dear friend whom I need so badly and love very, very much and cannot forget.

Following the letters, there is an Afterword by Hans Höller, though in truth it is rather more than that. For Höller provides an overarching narrative that allows the reader – even one largely unacquainted with Ingeborg Bachmann’s work – to place the diary and letters within the context of her life, and Jack’s too, to some extent. One key sentence stands out and is worth quoting in full:

In her description [in the diary], the end of the 14 June [1945] meeting is like a dream picture of a new coming together after the catastrophe, like a picture Chagall never painted: after a Jew, driven out of Austria in 1938, has kissed her hand, the eighteen-year-old daughter of a Carinthian Nazi family climbs up into an apple tree that night and cries, thinking she never wants to wash her hand again.

Indeed, what was Ingeborg to do with her burden, her share of guilt and shame? Her family had embraced Nazi ideology (as did much of the Austrian populace) and although she rebelled against it (but how strongly?), Austria’s compromised history was hers too. She muses about the impossibility of betraying one’s own family yet could not fully accept them (their beliefs and deeds) either. Alone, she had to forge her own path.

We know of Ingeborg Bachmann’s close friendship with Paul Celan through their letters, dramatized in Ruth Beckermann’s film The Dreamed Ones, but it seems as though her relationship with Jack Hamesh, a Viennese Jew who emigrated to Palestine, was if anything even more intense.

Then we come to the last, the final item. There is a further note by Hans Höller, written after the publication of the first German edition, where he gives some information that had come to light regarding the life of Jack Hamesh. He lived in Israel until 1987, the year of his death, and his name there was Jakob Chamisch. Tellingly, we learn that among his effects was a signed photo of Ingeborg Bachmann dated 23 June 1946.

As I said: the book is a package. There are fragile items, surviving only as fragments (the diary is incomplete, we don’t have Ingeborg’s letters to Jack), but from them we can piece together an important friendship in the lives of two young people, both floundering in the violence of their shared history, each striving in their own way to make sense of themselves and their fractious times.

The publisher’s description of War Diary can be read here.

A Skeleton Plays Violin

A Skeleton Plays Violin

By Georg Trakl

Translated by James Reidel

Seagull Books, 2017

ISBN: 9780857424297

A Skeleton Plays Violin

Though sometimes described as a war poet, Georg Trakl (1887-1914) was only coincidentally so: that was where and when he died.

This book, the third and final volume of James Reidel’s rendering of Trakl’s poetry into English, is by far the most revealing of the three. For while volumes one and two gave us Trakl’s completed and published books – Gedichte (1913) and the posthumous Sebastian im Traum (1915) – this wide ranging, astutely chosen selection shows us where Trakl had been, what he was about, how he might have gone forward – or why an early death was not such an unlikely outcome. You get a rounded picture of the man and his work.

There are five sections to A Skeleton Plays Violin and, a big plus for a newcomer to the poet, a critical biographical essay by Reidel that spans the entire volume. The first section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1906-1909’, contains Trakl’s earliest poetry, all of which appeared in various Salzburg newspapers, Salzburg being the city where he grew up and indulged his passion for drugs (notably opium and cocaine) and rambling and moseying about: he was an enthusiastic Spazierganger, we are told.

In 1908 Trakl left Salzburg to study pharmacy in Vienna, a fateful career choice. He took in the literary and artistic scene, getting to know such luminaries as Karl Kraus and Adolf Loos, and was soon joined by his sister Grete. This period of his life finds unified, thematic expression in the poems in ‘Collation of 1909’, which in Reidel’s view ‘can be read as an unpublished early book’. You find passion, eroticism and despair in these poems, many directed towards his sister: in one poem, ‘Blood Guilt’, the language is stark and confessional. His admissions are the red-raw bruises of a desperate tussle. However, it is unclear whether Georg and Grete had an actual, physical relationship. It may be that he, like the Symbolist and Decadent poets he’d been reading, was toying with transgression and sin. Parking his taboo desires in the poems, as it were, out of harm’s way.

As for ‘Poems, 1909-1912’, these were the bedrock out of which Trakl’s first book came. They were written, the last of them, when he was living in Innsbruck, where he worked at a military hospital. He apparently suffered from severe depression and panic attacks during this period. Indeed, ‘Poems, 1912-1914’, the seedbed of his second book burns with a curious intensity as well. The reader is exposed to a profusion of toxic, traumatic images that seem as intimate as memories. There is a compulsion to dwell on what is broken, abandoned and ephemeral. Riedel speaks somewhere of Trakl as a liminal being, a ghost perhaps, and it is in these poems in particular (take the poem beginning ‘O the leaf-stripped beeches, and the blackish snow’ as one instance) that you think of the peopleless landscapes of Caspar David Friedrich, which Trakl may have seen in Vienna (a fair few are housed in the Belvedere now). Every scene is haunted, a source of nagging pain. There is no peace, no letting go.

When the Great War broke out, Trakl’s training as a pharmacist meant that he was assigned as a medical officer to an infantry unit. During fierce fighting in Galicia, many of his comrades were wounded and he could do little to alleviate their suffering. He was out of his depth. To function at all, he began to self-medicate. Reidel’s final section, ‘Published Prose and Poetry, 1913-1915’, includes two very fine war poems – ‘In the East’ and ‘Grodek’ – but they transcend the desperate circumstances of the war (or perhaps: they do full justice to it?). Certain of Isaac Rosenberg poems, for example ‘Returning, We Hear Larks’, have something of the transcendent quality of these ‘war poems’ too.

Georg Trakl died of a cocaine overdose on 2 November 1914, the day before he was due to meet his patron, Ludwig Wittgenstein. It was a suspected suicide to start with, but in fact probably an accident. Mind, Trakl’s whole way of life veered, if not toward self-destruction then toward an embrace of reckless risk. Let the final words go to Karl Kraus, who is quoted within the book:

He is surely no victim of war. It was always inconceivable to me that he could live. His madness wrestled with godly things.

The publisher’s description of A Skeleton Plays Violin can be read here.

Charges (The Supplicants)

Charges (The Supplicants)

By Elfriede Jelinek

Translated by Gitta Honegger

Seagull Books, 2016

ISBN: 9780857423306

Charges (The Supplicants

As a showcase of Elfriede Jelinek’s stellar writing and her unique approach to drama, this astutely structured book could hardly be bettered.

It contains the title work, Charges, a ‘play’ (the reason for the quotes will become clear in due course) touching on the plight of migrants arriving in Europe, and two later additions to it: Coda and Appendix. These texts are followed by an interview, fairly wide-ranging in scope, between Jelinek and her translator, Gitta Honegger. I would recommend that the reader begins the book with this interview.

Here, she touches on her influences and background (she studied music, and in particular composition), speaks about the work of other Austrian writers (notably Peter Handke and Thomas Bernhard) and confesses to a fascination with Heidegger. She also discusses the experience of translating Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow and her particular methods of working and approach to her craft. I was struck by several remarks, for example that ‘writers don’t really have to know anything’ (in a context where she is contrasting herself with philosophers). Most enlightening of all, mind, with regard to Charges and its related texts is an explanation of her approach to drama:

But my plays are texts, basically like the novels, just that the ones are texts for speaking, the others for reading. And that’s the only difference.

In formal terms, what is intriguing about Charges is that there are no designated speakers, or characters as such. To be sure, there is a  collective voice or chorus (anyway, a ‘we’) and, arising out of this, you can discern (sometimes) distinct individuals (in the interview Jelinek talks of ‘linguistic templates’). But by no means are there characters as would be found in a conventional West End play. Rather, it is as though the text is a reservoir, or better yet a sea, not unlike the Mediterranean, out of which characters can be rescued or salvaged (or to change the metaphor: carved, excavated) though this process is not clear-cut. The individual voices are nebulous, fuzzy, difficult to reach. Some cannot be reached. They perish.

As one might gather from the subtitle in parenthesis, Charges leans heavily on Aeschylus’s great play (which I was privileged to see last year in a fine production at the Royal Exchange) to present the plight of migrants in Europe. It was topical when written in 2013, a chief inspiration for Jelinek being an incident where a group of asylum seekers occupied the Votivkirche in Vienna. And, God knows, it is topical now too. Disaffection with Angela Merkel’s open-door policy to immigration lay at the root of her disappointing result in the recent German election and the rise of the far right. And immigration is the predominant issue in the current Italian election too.

Recent years have seen a fair few works touching on migration crisis, notably from Ai Weiwei, and of these Charges comes across as one of the most compelling. The crucial question, present in Aeschylus too, is: What does our response to ‘them’ say about ‘us’? Do we recognise ourselves when we look at one unlike us? Are they part of our ‘we’, or not? Hannah Arendt was able to say ‘We Refugees’ and include herself among their number, can we say as much?

‘Best keep yourself clean and bright,’ advised the wise George Bernard Shaw, ‘you are the window through which you see the world.’

The publisher’s description of Charges (The Supplicants) can be read here.