Al-Ahram Ueekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
8 - 14 June 2000
Issue No. 485
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Wine and Elephantine

Reviewed by Ernest Wolf-Gazo

Ingeborg BachmannIngeborg Bachmann in Aegyten, (Ingeborg Bachmann in Egypt) Adolf Opel, Vienna: Deuticke Verlag, 1996. pp191

During late April and the beginning of May 1964 the Austrian writer Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973) spent an important month in Egypt with her friend Adolf Opel. This book, written in German and edited by Opel, consists of the diary entries that Bachmann made during her visit, along with Opel's memoirs of the trip. The photographer Kurt-Michael Westermann has added an exquisite gallery of black-and-white photographs of the Egyptian landscape to the finished volume, and this is comparable to the photographs of the Pharaonic monuments taken over a century ago by Flaubert's friend Maxime du Camp. This gives the volume an additional aesthetic dimension, since the photographs are integrated with relevant passages from the memoirs and diary entries, many of which throw fascinating light on the Egypt of the mid-1960s.

Adolf Opel, Bachmann's companion on her Egyptian journey, is himself a well-known Austrian writer on architecture and has edited a notable volume on the Austrian architect Adolf Loos, a friend and contemporary of the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Another edited volume he is responsible for is his anthology of Contemporary Austrian literature translated into Arabic, which was published in 1995. This was the first ever such volume. Opel's collaborator on the present venture, Kurt-Michael Westerman, published an acclaimed volume of photography entitled The Bazaar in 1994. However let us move on to the centrepiece of the present beautiful volume, namely Ingeborg Bachmann herself.

Bachmann lost her life prematurely in 1973 in a fire in her hotel in Rome. As a result German literature lost a brilliant lyric-minded prose writer and poet, as well as an outstanding early advocate of women's rights, whose activities significantly predated the North American and wider European feminist movements. Though born in 1926 in the Austrian provincial capital of Klagenfurt, a town that was also the birthplace of the great German prose writer Robert Musil, she always considered Rome to be her second home. Surviving a childhood and youth spent during Austria's Nazi period, she went on to study philosophy from 1945 to 1950, being especially fascinated by the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein and Martin Heidegger, the two leading western philosophers of the 2oth century. Bachmann wrote her dissertation on Heidegger's language, and she was the first to recognize the genius of the prose style employed in Wittgenstein's philosophic work. In early essays on philosophy and language, Bachmann placed considerable emphasis on the importance of language and style to Wittgenstein's way of doing philosophy, which was, by the standards of the Austro-German academic tradition, quite eccentric. Only much later, in the early 1970s, did the German professional philosophic milieu pick up Bachmann's early hints on Wittgenstein.

She was first recognised for her poetry at a prize reading of the now famous German literary circle "Gruppe 47," a group which included the future Nobel Prize winners Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass. Her first volume of poetry was published in 1953, and entitled, On Borrowed Time, this contains reflections on a damaged childhood marked by melancholia, fear and angst. She later produced radio plays -- "Zikaden" -- that were set to music by the German composer Hans-Werner Henze. However she did not confine herself to creative work. Bachmann gave the prestigious Frankfurt University Poetry Lectures in 1959-1960, and in these she reconsidered her philosophy of poetry. Two collections of short stories followed in 1961, and these, later republished in 1972 as The Thirties and Simultan explore the psychological aspects of feminism long before the movement's later over-exposure in the media.

Thus, by the time Bachmann travelled to Egypt in the early 1960s she was already an established poet and playwright in Central Europe, with a highly promising career ahead of her. This writer remembers, as a philosophy student at Bonn University, how students of philosophy and literary studies would discuss Bachmann's work in the student cafeteria as it appeared. It was there that I heard Bachmann's name for the first time during the heydays of the student revolt in the later 1960s, an event in which she actively participated. This particular storm broke after Bachmann had returned from Egypt with her friend Opel.

Ingeborg Bachmann
In 1971, Bachmann started to publish her planned trilogy of novels, the first volume of which appeared as Malina. A posthumously published fragment of this, "The Case of Franza", reflects Bachmann's experiences in Egypt. Her complete works were published in four volumes in 1978.

Some knowledge of Bachmann's poetry and the philosophy that underlies it is useful in appreciating the volume under review. Bachmann was the foremost poetess of the post-war German-speaking generation, protesting and rebelling against the psychological cage in which women still found themselves even long after the war had ended. Indeed, she can be considered as a pioneer of the German feminist movement of the 1970s, although her name is now little noticed outside feminist groups with literary interests. Perhaps Bachmann's failure to find a wider international audience has most to do with the fact that she has only recently been translated into English. Her thematic and lyric descriptions are often in themselves "extreme" in order to flesh out and give expression to the extremities in which women and men often have to live and in which they experience themselves.

One of her most important poems, for example, "Explain to me, Love," describes happiness, sorrow and the fate of Eros in densely metaphorical language. Her extreme states specialise in night, darkness, reality and illusion. In "Malina," we encounter a woman living between a real man and the phantom of one, or, as we post-moderns would term him, a virtual man. The consequences for Bachmann of this division are destructive, since there is no longer a clear dividing line between the real and the dream.

Bachmann's work, in fact, can be best seen in relation to that of the German-speaking poets Göttfried Benn, Georg Trakl, and, from the last century, Hölderlin. Human despair, the thematic of each of these, Bachmann takes to ever greater extremes, making it the leitmotif of her poetic style. Finally, she maintains, we are all living on borrowed time. However we need poetry as much as we need bread in order to survive and to remain fully human beings. We do not live by bread alone. And it is in her lyric poetry, grounded as it is in the primordial experience of love, that Bachmann claims immortality is to be found. For these reasons perhaps it is no accident that Bachmann was so fascinated by the extremes of landscape that Egypt is so often noted for by European visitors to the country: the desert, the Nile, the green, the blue, the black.

For their Egyptian journey Bachmann and Opel prepared themselves by reading a German edition of Flaubert's Egyptian Diary, as well as the English paperback edition of Emil Ludwig's novel The Nile, and Egon Friedell's cultural history of Egypt and the Orient. As far as they were able, they retraced the steps of Flaubert and his companion Maxime du Camp, endeavouring to relive these earlier European visitors' lifestyles. However, there were delicate differences, and traces of these can be seen by comparing the photographs taken by du Camp with those in the Bachmann volume.

Bachmann and Opel travelled from Berlin, via Vienna, Prague and Athens, arriving by ship in Alexandria on 30 April 1964. They took the train from Alex to Cairo, where they stayed with a friend of Opel's from his student days, an American called Jim Hatch, on a houseboat anchored on the Agouza shore of the Nile. Then on Sharia Al-Gabalaya, now on Sharia Um Kalthoum, this houseboat still exists. Hatch had written to Opel that "I am living on a houseboat on the Nile in Cairo. It is large, romantic and old. I hope that you can come and stay with me ...." This letter is reproduced on page 81 of the present volume. Bachmann and Opel took him up on his offer, and together the three explored the touristic and cultural aspects of Cairo, Giza and the Citadel, taking in the traditional felucca ride on the Nile. At Groppi's Bachmann exclaimed enthusiastically "... you can get real Italian ice cream there, a colonial luxury!" (91) And, this writer adds, you can get excellent strawberry jam there too in the 1990s. The group visited the new Cairo Tower and the Egyptian Museum, where, of the Pharaoh Ramses the Great, Bachmann commented that he was "the greatest publicity campaign in antiquity." (95)

Bachmann and Opel proceeded to Aswan and Abu Simbel, taking in Karnak and Luxor on their way. Later they visited Hurghada, Qena and the desert. Of the temple of Queen Hatshepsut near Luxor, Bachmann noted in her diary "Greek, a thousand years before Greece." (139) At the Cataract Hotel in Aswan she noted seeing from the window of her room " and the Island of Elephantine." (151). The two finally returned to Cairo by train on May 27th. Before leaving Cairo for Athens, they had a last drink with their American friend Jim Hatch at the Nilometer. However, at some solitary moment Bachmann seems to have found happiness and her soul peace in Egypt, for, making her last diary entry of her Egyptian journey near the Nile in Cairo, Bachmann writes ".. a night on the Nile, when all the stars are lit."

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