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Short Stories by Ilse Aichinger


Ilse Aichinger (on left) and her twin sister, Helga


Nota bene: All of the texts mentioned below have been translated into English.



As briefly indicated in my review of Heinrich Böll's Billard um halbzehn (Billiards at Half-Past Nine), in the years following the end of World War II the Germans (and Austrians) had little interest in facing what they had done during the Nazi era. With the exception of a small handful of authors like Böll, most of the heavy lifting was done by the few German and Austrian Jews who had survived the Nazi madness. I have discussed elsewhere Nelly Sachs' moving first book of poetry, In den Wohnungen des Todes (In the Habitations of Death, 1946), in which she directly addresses the Holocaust. Sachs was Jewish on both sides of her family. But Ilse Aichinger (b. 1921) was Jewish only on her mother's side.


Though Aichinger's mother was a very successful physician, after the Anschluss of Austria into the German Reich in March of 1938 she had to give up her practice and lost her professional positions. Her father divorced her mother to save his own career. Somehow, Aichinger and her mother survived the war (her twin sister managed to escape to England), but her grandmother and all of her maternal aunts and uncles were murdered in concentration camps. After an experience like that one can well understand that Aichinger had no patience with the emerging postwar society in which everyone got back to what is important: making money and spending it in very public ways. Instead of fleeing into the ideology of "success" as most of her compatriots were doing, she maintained that only through a consciousness of threat, annihilation and farewell could an authentic life continue after that war.


Aichinger wrote one novel and some poetry, but her strength was to be found in her short stories and radio dramas (Hörspiele), the latter a genre whose moment has come and gone. The volume Der Gefesselte (The Bound Man) collects Aichinger's short stories from the years 1948-1952 and includes the story that made her career, Spiegelgeschichte (Story In a Mirror),(*) when she won the Prize of the Gruppe 47, the extremely influential group of writers who made and broke reputations at their meetings, where up-and-coming authors read from their works in the hopes of receiving a blessing.(**)


Aichinger changed her style in later years to become occupied with language and its inadequacies and to grow increasingly laconic, but many of these early stories remind me of Franz Kafka's work in that they are allegories in which meanings are suggested but multiple and changing. And, like Kafka, strange circumstances are related in a seemingly realistic, somewhat obsessive manner in which the strangeness is briefly noted but either suppressed or quickly adapted to. Which of these two possibilities actually is occurring is part of the ambiguity intrinsic to these texts. 


Typical of Aichinger's early style is that when the Second World War and the Nazis' treatment of the Jews is the focus, she removes specific time and place references (even in her novel Die größere Hoffnung - translated under the title Herod's Children - which is based upon her wartime experiences in Vienna), perhaps to open the text to a more general breadth of relevance, but perhaps also to sublimate and transform her pain (quite different from suppression or denial).


Though there are some undeniably weak efforts in this collection, there are also some striking results. One of these is certainly Spiegelgeschichte, which opens with a burial; the coffin is in the grave and the pastor is saying the last words prior to the final symbolic act of casting the handful of dirt. But then, as a mirror (Spiegel) turns right into left and vice versa (but not up into down), the story runs backwards, not with everything merely backing up through time like a reversed film, but forwards, back through time. The narrator addresses the deceased and interprets for her this forward/backward motion with short, matter of fact sentences, slowly revealing what led to that grave. The effect is remarkable as, in a passage of sudden rhetorical intensity, the spool accelerates its rewind all the way back to her birth. And then one is reminded of Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge." 



(*) The stories in this volume have been translated into English and collected in The Bound Man, and Other Stories. By the way, it was apparently at this reading that Aichinger met her future husband, the poet and dramatist Günter Eich.


(**) The Gruppe 47 was far from perfect in its judgments. I mention, in particular, the fact that they were not ready for Albert Vigoleis Thelen when he read from his magnificent and baroque Die Insel des zweiten Gesichts (The Island of Second Sight), whereas they were ready a few years later when Günter Grass read from his magnificent and baroque Die Blechtrommel (The Tin Drum). Grass was besprinkled with their holy water and became famous while Thelen was not and did not, though Die Insel is at least as good as Die Blechtrommel.