Friday, April 03, 2009

Noted: Ingeborg Bachmann

From the story "A Wildermuth", collected in The Thirtieth Year (translated from the German by Michael Bullock):
So far as I can remember, my father, who was responsible for the education of so many children, did not bother much with my sister and myself; but he was perfectly willing to stop reading the newspaper or correcting exercise books when one of us had something to tell or our mother tactfully informed him of some piece of naughtiness, a quarrel or something of that sort, and then he would inevitably ask us: 'Is that true?' He was the inventor of the word 'true' with all its possible combinations. 'Truthful', 'truthfulness', 'truth', 'the true', 'love of truth', 'truly'--these words came from him and he was the author of the wonder which these words aroused in me from an early age. Even before Icould understand these words they acquired for me an overpowering fascination. As other children at that age try laboriously to fit bricks together exactly to a pattern, so I made the greatest possible effort to reproduce the pattern of 'telling the truth', and I guessed that by this my father meant that I should relate 'exactly' what happened. Naturally I did not know the purpose of this, but so far as a little brain like mine could manage it, I soon made a practice of always telling the truth, less out of fear of my father than out of a sombre desire to do so. For this I was called 'an honest child'. But soon what satisfied my father was no longer enough for me--for example to say that I had loitered on my way home from school or was late for lunch because of a fight; I began to tell the even truer truth. For suddenly I understood--it may have been during my first or second year at school--what was being asked of me, and I realized that I was justified in what I was doing. My desire encountered another desire, a good desire distinguished from all other desires, which was directed towards me by adults. An easy, wonderful life stood in front of me. I was not only permitted, but obliged to tell the truth under all circumstances! So if my father asked why I had come home so late from school, I had to say that the teacher had kept us in for a quarter of an hour for talking and making a noise. I had to say that on top of this I had met Frau Simon on my way home and this had made me later still.


Then I tried to remember the exact wording of the sentence the teacher had spoken, and I repeated word for word precisely what Frau Simon had said, how she had taken hold of my sleeve as she talked, how she had suddenly been standing in front of me on the bridge. But after I had related everything in the minutest detail, I started all over again, because with great agitation I noticed that what I had said still wasn't completely accurate, and moreover everything I spoke of was linked up with a fact, a subject, that lay outside the subjects I had mentioned. It was so difficult to report everything in every particular, but the important thing was to want to, and I certainly wanted to, I went on trying to do so and was ardently keen on this task that was so much finer than the tasks set as school homework. I wanted the truth, and at the time this meant above all to tell the truth.


Not until much later did it occur to me that there were many things about which I was not asked, was never called to account--that I had not told the truth about everything.
Yes, what then is the truth about myself, about anyone? [...]

Or the truth about the world, since I cannot work out the sum of myself and since I alone am able to see, feel and understand so variously. For instance a desk, a single object like my writing-desk. Often, without recognizing it indifferently, I have sat down at it or touched it; I have felt my way past it in the dark; I have sketched it in a letter to a friend, then it amounted to a few pencil lines; I sometimes smell it--it smells of long hours of work; I look at it in amazement when the papers have all been cleared away and it stands in front of me free, a different desk--and what about all the other things this massive desk is? A quantity of firewood, a shape that bespeaks a particular style, it has a weight as freight, it had a price and will have another today or after my death. There is no end to the truth concerning this desk. A fly will see it differently from a budgerigar, and has Gerda ever seen it as I see it? I don't know, I'm only sure that she knows the spot where I burnt a hole in the top with a cigrette. To her it is my desk, the one with the burn; apart from this, she knows about its turned legs because they are 'dust catchers'. Only through her do I know it is a dust catcher, on the other hand I know what she does not know: what a feeling of wellbeing it gives you when you rest both elbows on it, and how your eyes get caught up in its grain as you sit and think, and what it is like to sleep on this desk, for I have several times fallen asleep over my work, letting my head drop forward onto the top of the desk.


Unknown said...

Do you happen to have the story the 13th year in one of your posts? I've been searching for the book & it is very very rare. I'd just like to read that particular story. Your blog is the first I've come across that actually has a story from the book. Id appreciate your response.

Richard said...

I don't, sorry.