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Walking Through History

Topography and Identity in the Works of Ingeborg Bachmann and Thomas Bernhard

Katya Krylova

This book was the winner of the 2011 Peter Lang Young Scholars Competition in German Studies.
The post-war landscape of Europe is unthinkable without the voices of the Austrian writers Ingeborg Bachmann (1926–1973) and Thomas Bernhard (1931–1989). Their work, coming after the devastation wrought by the Second World War and the Holocaust, is rooted in a specifically Austrian context of repression of this traumatic historical legacy. In post-war Austria, discourse on the recent past may have been dominated by silence, but the legacy of this past was all too apparent in the country’s ruined and speedily reconstructed cityscapes.
This book investigates Bachmann’s and Bernhard’s treatment of two fundamental aspects of the Austrian historical legacy: the trauma of the war and the desire to return to an ideal homeland, known as ‘Haus Österreich’. Following a methodology based on Freud and Benjamin, this comparative study demonstrates that the confrontation with Austria’s troubled history occurs through the protagonists’ ambivalent encounter with the landscape or cityscape that they inhabit, travel or return to. The book demonstrates the centrality of topography on both thematic and structural levels in the authors’ prose works, as a mode of confronting the past and making sense of the present.


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Chapter 6 Eradication of place: Bernhard’s Auslöschung


Auslöschung [Extinction], published in August 1986, was the last prose work to appear during Bernhard’s lifetime, and one that since his concep- tion of the project in 1971 he always understood as his opus magnum.1 The fifteen years between conception and final publication of the novel saw its working title change from ‘Unruhe’ [Agitation], ‘Gegenruhe’ [Anti- quiet], once again to ‘Unruhe’, then ‘Nachruf ’ [Obituary], ‘Der Sohn’ [The Son] and finally, from 1983, Auslöschung [Extinction]. The work, which was by all accounts completed in 1981–2, was only given to Siegfried Unseld, Bernhard’s publisher, four years after its completion, largely, as Hans Höller convincingly argues, because Bernhard was conscious of his work as fitting into a grand structure and wanted his biographical pro- ject and smaller prose texts to pave the way for his ‘großen Roman’ [great novel].2 Coincidentally or not, Bernhard also chose to finally hand over his manuscript to Unseld during a meeting in April 1986, a month after the beginning of the Waldheim af fair.3 Inevitably therefore, given the novel’s treatment of Austria’s lack of Vergangenheitsbewältigung [coming to terms with the past], Auslöschung has been read as Bernhard’s ‘Beitrag zur Waldheim-Af färe’ [contribution to the Waldheim af fair],4 or his 1 See Hans Höller’s commentary to the critical edition of Auslöschung, TB 9, 511–73. 2 Ibid., 525. 3 See Thomas Bernhard and Siegfried Unseld, Der Briefwechsel, ed. Raimund Fellinger, Martin Huber and Julia Ketterer (Frankfurt...

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