Gwendoline Choi interviews Dr Andrea Capovilla, Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture (IBC) at the School of Advanced Study, University of London. The Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature and Culture (IBC) is one of six research centres at the Institute of Languages, Cultures and Societies (ILCS) at the University of London. Founded in 2002, the IBC provides an interdisciplinary forum for scholarship and debate on Austrian literature and culture with generous support from the Austrian Cultural Forum.
Gwendoline Choi: Can you tell me more about what the IBC does?
Dr Andrea Capovilla: The Centre is a hub for scholars of Austrian literature and holds conferences on all aspects and periods of Austrian literature and culture. At the IBC, the term “Austrian” itself is frequently the focus of historical, transnational and poetological interrogation. As ever, literature is not confined by borders or one language, and is once again informed by multiple streams of migration.
The Centre also hosts bilingual readings by authors and translators. In recent years we have invited authors who have been published in English, for example Robert Seethaler (translated by Charlotte Collins), Arno Geiger (translated by Stefan Tobler) or Julya Rabinowich (translated by Tess Lewis). The Bachmann Centre also commissions translations of excerpts to make bilingual readings of as yet untranslated work possible, most recently Daniel Wisser with translator Ruth Martin, Laura Freudenthaler with translator Tess Lewis and Marie Gamillscheg with translator Anne Stokes. Collaborations with this wonderful community of translators form an important part in cultural transmission. Anyone interested can attend our events!
Can you explain the choice of IBC’s namesake, Ingeborg Bachmann?
Ingeborg Bachmann was chosen as IBC’s figurehead because her work connects incisively with the Austrian literary tradition cut off by the fascist period. At the same time, her work challenges the post-war status quo radically and continues to inspire readers and artists in a variety of genres. Bachmann frequently references major Austrian writers in her texts, especially Robert Musil, Joseph Roth, Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
However, the intertextual quality of her writing extends far beyond Austrian literature. She gained a doctorate in philosophy, translated from the English and Italian, wrote opera libretti and lectured on poetics. As a cosmopolitan, transnational, and rebellious writer and thinker, Bachmann was ahead of her time and the intellectual reach and urgency of her work has often come to be fully appreciated only after a considerable delay.
The IBC is going to be hosting a conference on Bachmann in May at the University of London Senate House and the Austrian Cultural Forum. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
Bachmann’s work, its reception and influence continue to be focuses of the Centre’s work. To mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bachmann’s death, the international conference Reading Bachmann Now will take place on 17th-19th May 2023, convened by Bachmann scholars from the UK and Austria. Peter Filkins, who has translated Bachmann’s poems and the fragmentary novel cycle Todesarten (Ways of Dying), will discuss the first English biography of the author, on which he is currently working. There will also be poetry readings with Maja Haderlap and translator Tess Lewis.
To pick up on this idea of ‘Reading Bachmann Now’,how has her reception changed in recent years?
Of all Bachmann’s works, Malina has now gained almost cult status in the US. Malina was published as a Penguin Modern Classic and was featured in the New Yorker, for example. However, this is not to say that Bachmann was undiscovered during her lifetime. She was a star on the poetry scene in the 1950s and had a Spiegel cover; it was her prose work that was taken as trivial at the time. For example, Malina was much maligned at the time, and this novel in particular was misunderstood and attacked by critics. One asks how much this might have been due to chauvinist approaches to literature.
Furthermore, although her poetry certainly has become canonical at Austrian universities, Bachmann’s philosophical work was not given the attention it deserved by her contemporaries, and even now. She was seen at the time as a lightweight in the theoretical field, but I find her philosophy to be radical and perceptive. She was a foremost intellectual, including in the field of music.
Can you speak, then, on some of the new perspectives that are informing research on her writing?
There have been a few waves of criticism that have informed her work. The lens of multilingualism has always pervaded studies on Bachmann, due to her being born in a Slovene- and German-speaking area of Austria, Carinthia. One can almost suggest that she painted a quasi-utopic vision of a country united by literature. There has also been a strong feminist reception of Bachmann’s works, including a focus on how her themes chime with current concerns. Trauma is one of them. Additionally, there has been a recent move towards the ecocritical, which perhaps reflects a general interest in ecocriticism in the field of literary studies as a whole.
How has your relationship with Bachmann’s work in particular changed over the years? Do you have particular favourites, and are there special moments you associate with her work?
My relationship with Bachmann’s work is always changing, just as the reception of her work is always changing. I think she has always been an intriguing figure, perhaps to the point where she has been mythologised – increasingly so, even. This perception of Bachmann as a person does inflect the reading process, and we are beginning to learn even more. For example, her letters to and from Max Frisch were published by Suhrkamp, reflecting and fostering this interest. What is so exciting and generative about Malina is that it is fragmentary, and part of a larger cycle. That open-endedness allows for a continuing relationship with the text, long after you put it down!
Can you tell me a little bit more about your own work?
I work on the interwar period, with a particular focus on women writers who have been forgotten. I also have an interest in Jewish women writers in exile. Since becoming the director of the IBC, I also work on living writers as the transmission of contemporary Austrian authors to a UK audience is a big part of the job. This has been an interesting challenge for me, as I am used to working with authors with a finished body of work!
Another of my personal interests is the work of writers who went into exile in the UK under fascism and frequently made it their home. In 2019 I contributed to one of Steven Fowler’s Illuminations, in which over a number of years artists and scholars from the UK and Austria have presented work on major Austrian writers. In this instance the focus was on lesser known but fascinating Anglo-Austrian writers such as Mela Hartwig. Mela Hartwig came to prominence in the late 1920 with her short story collection Ekstasen (Ecstasies), but, being Jewish, she was soon not able to publish any longer. With the help of Virginia Woolf, she and her husband were able to come to London, where they remained, residing in Brixton until her death in 1967. Hartwig’s short story Das Verbrechen (The Crime) is one of many texts woven into Bachmann’s novel Malina.
The IBC has recently spotlighted the work of Marlen Haushofer, a key post-war Austrian writer from Bachmann’s generation. Are there any Austrian writers which you think deserve more recognition in the Anglosphere?
I think Ilse Aichinger, with her important reflections on the fascist period, deserves more recognition, as does Friederike Mayröcker. However, like Celan, her poetry is very hard to grasp.
Are there any books you are looking forward to reading in 2023?
Yes! I am looking forward to the new releases by Arno Geiger, Raphaela Edelbauer, and Clemens J. Setz. I particularly enjoyed Setz’s fantastic book Die Bienen und das Unsichtbare (2020), which I found truly great. I also love reading authors I’ve read before, like Robert Musil, Ludwig Wittgenstein, and of course, Ingeborg Bachmann.
Thank you very much for the interview, Andrea! It has been a pleasure. Looking forward to seeing you at an IBC event soon!