A painful and considered novel, not totally finished, but a door to some new possibilities for fiction. Or possibly a dead end.
Bachmann’s earlier stories collected in The Thirtieth Year were very much in a straight line from Mann and Broch. Educated men (they are almost always men) think about and discuss matters of justice and morality that their circumstances belie. They don’t bring much new to the field except for a very evocative style, and for the 50’s, the plots are archaic, relying on the sort of personal/political trauma that was being abandoned by her contemporaries. “A Step Towards Gomorrah,” an apocalyptic lesbian power struggle almost devoid of larger context, gives the most indication of where she was going, and is the best of the batch.
Her later stories, from Three Paths to the Lake, keep the style but drop the ideological orientation in favor of a more particular and partial view of damaged personalities and relationships, with gaps of information, irreparable disconnections, and hints of total breakdown. “Word by Word,” about a translator breaking from her knowledge of language and consequently from the people in her world, is so immersive in its particular affliction as to rank with any Germanic fiction I’ve read of the last 50 years.
The Book of Franza isn’t the most extreme example of her later approach (the story it’s bundled with, “Requiem for Fanny Goldman,” is far more nightmarish and histrionic), but it’s the clearest I’ve read, where she significantly ties a woman’s breakdown to mythological and historical elements. Its nihilism, however, is total; I can’t think of any redemptive moment in the story that Bachmann actually endorses. But it’s a measured nihilism, far closer to Joanna Russ than Celine, and Bachmann’s ability to articulate it while spinning the prose into a vortex of disorienting mental collapse is impressive.
The book is a companion to one of the later stories, “The Barking,” which introduced Franza and her monster of a husband, Leo. She assists him with his studies on concentration camp survivors, and he is rather terrible to her. Neither focuses on the particulars of Leo, indirectly addressing his effects on his mother (in “The Barking”) and Franza herself (in the novel). Franza’s already fled from him in the novel, and her brother Martin is taking care of her. She describes living with Leo as living with the force of destruction and terror itself. (What is seen of Leo strangely anticipates the narrator William Kohler of Wiliam Gass’s The Tunnel. Doped up on pills, having been to a sanitorium, and hardly in a functional state, she drags her brother to Egypt, where she communes with those exploited by “the whites,” wanders in the desert and, somewhat willingly, dies.
The focus on the symptoms and the victim over the causes–the narrative of the victim who is so damaged as to comprehend only slowly what has happened and what is happening–mixes uneasily with Bachmann’s parallels between Leo/Franza and the greater masses of the exploited. Franza does not have a victim complex, but she is so broken as to be unable to clearly articulate her reasons for her journey. The novel is an indictment of the traditional forms of rational discourse as being inherently fascistic, and so, as with “Word for Word” it’s the failed process of articulation itself that has to contain the significance. The result is inherently ambiguous. The linkages to the third-world and the hostile but honest forces of the desert are consciously grafted on, seemingly by Franza’s subconscious intent, but this explanation risks being too cogent given Franza’s decaying mental state.
Mark Anderson in the introduction to Three Paths to the Lake says:
Brother and sister travel to Egypt in a semi-mystical retreat from contemporary Western civilization that owes much to Robert Musil’s use of the same theme in his novel The Man Without Qualities. Invoking the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, Musil’s and Bachmann’s novels explore the themes of incest and twin personalities to gain access to a mystical “other state” beyond conventional patriarchal relation.
I don’t know much from semi-mystical retreats, but this seems pretty wide off the mark, and not just because Franza completely dominates Bachmann’s book. Musil doesn’t seem to be Bachmann’s main target, but he’s clearly in the line that Bachmann is attacking, because he is still trying to get at truth through aggressive (post-Nietzschean) discourse. Bachmann not only discounts that kind of effort, but lumps it in with the stated evils of Leo’s studies and classical European society. Franza gains a kind of immanent metaphysical knowledge at the end, but it is hardly a solution. It’s a statement against the entire process.
The Book of Franza was not finished, but what remains is one of the more honest venues for an author who got around her intellectual bent and came out very dark. The treatment has something in common with the degenerative approach of Wolfgang Koeppen, but is far more of a break with the past. It is nihilistic without being obnoxious, placing it far above E.M. Cioran and probably above Celine. Its attempts to carve out an autonomous response to the male-dominated genres which enveloped Bachmann are far more successful than Christa Wolf. What it lacks, perhaps intentionally, is coherence.