Originally published in Germany in 1971 and widely considered a masterpiece, this surreal novel uses the intertwined lives of three characters—the female narrator, her love interest Ivan, and her mysterious roommate Malina—to explore the roots of society’s breakdown that lead to fascism.
... a portrait, in language, of female consciousness, truer than anything written since Sappho’s Fragment 31 ... It’s a difficult book in which to find your footing. There are all sorts of references in it, to Schoenberg, to Vienna, to historical events, not all of which the reader will catch. But once you’re in, you’re in. You’re not decoding. Toward the end, you’re racing along, deep in the rhythms of the narrator’s thoughts, which are bone-true and demonically intelligent—and I mean it would be a real burden to be that mentally acute, it can’t go well for a person to know that much, it can only lead to ill health, drinking, and despair—and then the novel careens over a cliff ... [The narrator] is steeped in a broad lexicon of existential issues that burn her like lit cigarettes. She’s also very funny, especially in the third section of the book, when her mind goes into overdrive.
... an existential portrait, a work of desperate obsession, a proto-feminist classic, and one of the most jagged renderings of female consciousness European literature has produced. In its torrent of language, paralyzing lassitude, and relentless constriction of expectation and escape, Malina condenses—and then detonates—the neurasthenic legacy of the interwar Austrian novel. Summary does Malina no favors. Bachmann exhibits great impatience with tidy unities, and any attempt to capture the frothing consciousness at the book’s center is a little like trying to describe a captive tiger’s attack from the other side of the cage ... Malina’s many formal gambits, then, are not only the features of an avant-garde novel, but attempts to outpace the insufficiencies of a language that hides within it a system of control. Like the warping effect of capital, this totalizing grammar tends to co-opt its own critique ... The boil of the narrator’s consciousness is captured in intricate and surprising structures: the dynamic markings of orchestral music (accelerando, crescendo, presto, prestissimo), play-like dialogue, atonal scores, drug-induced mania, and letters signed by 'an unknown woman.' The effect is an acceleration of thought that enacts its own depletion, like the whirling vortex that drains a basin of its water.
Malina is a work of harrowing, head-spinning magniﬁcence, and Philip Boehm’s new English translation—a revision of his ﬁrst, which was published in 1990—brilliantly imparts the elegance of Bachmann’s mind, feral and full and excruciatingly alert ... Bachmann’s is a deft miscreation, relaying the deranging realities of being a woman by way of sentences that rush forth like life force from an open jugular ... Malina will perhaps be most perplexing to readers who believe that the most one can make of literature is perfect sense ... Bachmann is at the height of her powers in the book’s second chapter ... her prose glows white hot to illuminate the unthinkable—the deportations, the gas chambers, the murdered, the complicit—all the while refusing to reinscribe, or reify, fascism on the level of form ... The condition of paradox can be fiction’s prerogative and playground and—at a time when language is pulped from all sides in the pursuit of power—one of its most potent charges. As Bachmann’s books remind us: To cower in the delusion of certainty rather than reach for the greater and freer would damn us to fates we wrote long ago, ones we could have rewritten.