Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 4. Nr. Oktober 1999

Writing the I/Eye: Women’s Narratives in Works
by Anna Mitgutsch, Elisabeth Reichart, and Renate Welsh*

Nancy C. Erickson (Bemidji, MN)

In the beginning was the word,
and the word had form and content
and was a pristine entity.

But then came the revolution-makers and linguists such as Ferdinand de Saussure who disassociated the word from intrinsic truth and meaning, coupling the use of words with cultural practice and design.(1) Saussure described words in terms of signifiers, that is the concept, and signifieds, that for which the signifiers stand, denying any necessary connection between the two, locating instead the responsibility for the fixing of meaning within the group using the language. (LSD 2) Saussure’s writings were in turn incorporated by Claude Levi-Strauss into the latter’s investigations of primitive cultures in which he concluded as had Saussure ". . .that there were no universal signifieds common to all humankind, only symbolic systems of signifiers, each dependant for its meaning on its position within a given system of reference." (LSD 3) Certainty with regard to the immutability of the meanings of words was wiped away.

Michael Foucault, French philosopher and historian, further expanded Saussure’s thinking that meaning is derived from the differences among and between signifiers, pointing out that agreement by members of a specific group served to build identity and solidarity. (LSD 4) There are always "insiders" and "outsiders," Foucault would argue, with regard to the use of language, creating "... [a] fundamental organising principle in the way [users of a language]... think, speak and define... [them]selves in relation to others." (LSD 4) This function of meaning building posited by Foucault is illustrated in Simon de Beauvoir’s discussion of "woman-as-other"/"master-slave." (LSD 5)

Concurrent with this radical shift in the understanding of the function and the formation of meaning taking place in the fields of linguistics, literary criticism, and philosophical thought was another revolution underway in the physical world of medicine, perpetrated by Sigmund Freud. Freud’s interpretations of human actions, based on a critical understanding of the influence of the unconscious upon conscious behavior, removed the belief that had heretofore existed that all which was observable could be "logically," that is, positivistically, explained. Freud’s belief that the foundations of human behavior were grounded in sources unseeable and unknowable, in the traditional sense, provided a vastly different interpretation of human behavior in "the brave new world." All human interaction, including the seeds for the development of language in the child and the child’s concomitant entry into the world beyond itself lay within this unseen sphere. It is from Freud and his explanation of human development within a heterosexual family setting that Jacques Lacan borrowed the triadic configuration of mother, child, and father to found his explanation of the child’s identity and its adaptation to the phallic, that is, dominant language. (LSD 44-48) Writing and publishing at approximately the same time as Lacan, French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, described how the signifying process itself lies beyond the strict control and intention of the author, arguing that meaning is both progressive and retroactive. (LSD 20) The nature of creating through writing, Derrida argued, necessitates the disruption of meaning, invoking connections that were unintended or revealing the very processes by which the text was constructed, even those often times hidden from the writer him/herself. (LSD 21) Critical to the process of unveiling those meanings was the reader, and with no guarantee of how a reader might interpret a text, the text was in constant danger of being "deconstructed" from within.

The linguistic and interpretative tradition of Saussure, Levi-Strauss, Foucault, and later Roland Barthes, who also described the unfixing of specific meaning within texts by focussing upon the viewer or the reader as processor of the data presented, Derrida, and Lacan is the intellectual backdrop against and within which the modern French feminist theorists and linguists, Luce Irigarary, Helene Cixous, and Bulgarian emigree Julia Kristeva built their arguments for an ecriture feminine. Armed with arguments founded in linguistics and psychology, Irigaray, Cixous, Kristeva, and similar thinkers began the arduous work of identifying the spaces from which women’s language and, indeed, women’s aesthetics would arise. Advocating the necessary difference between men’s and women’s writing, they experimented with language and writing, playing with the limitless mutability and arbitrary signification involved in meaning.

What I have described above is backgrounding for the swell of feminist interest and activity on the European continent during the past two and a half decades, a feminism which has found voice, popularity, and acclaim among feminists and other thinkers from across the globe, but which describes a very specific type of feminism founded on French intellectual thought. I have included this brief summary for comparative purposes. For parallel to the development of this pervasive line of thinking, most predominantly in France, a different style of feminism was resurrecting itself on the North American continent in the New World.

American feminism, growing out of the second wave of activism born of the 1960s, was rediscovering itself through an analysis of the mystique of womanhood. In response to the reactionary counter movement during the 1950s against equal rights and equal access which had by necessity prevailed during the Second World War, women and other activists took to the streets to reclaim what they perceived had been lost. Societal structures, including the traditionally-configured family and restrictive occupational opportunities were targeted as culprits. Freedom with regard to opportunity, expression, and sexual practice became the code word for the early years of the second wave of American feminism, and throughout the movement itself, there existed a practical, Yankee "can do" attitude which concretely demonstrated the activists’ belief in the mutability of social institutions and practices.

The developments within American feminist literary and cultural criticism were based, not surprisingly, on a similar belief in the possibility for sweeping social change. The problems of women’s lack of access to the forum of writing and discussing literary works was not, as one of the leading American feminist theoreticians, Elaine Showalter explained in a seminal article published in 1981, entitled "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness," ". . . that language is insufficient to express woman’s consciousness but that women have been denied the full resources of language and have been forced into silence, euphemism, or circumlocution."(2) Questions of class, race, nationality, and history were thought to create great differences among women writers and critics, and that the singular attention paid within other brands of feminism to issues of gender and the formation of the female psyche were misplaced. (FCW 260) Essentialism, if it existed in any form within American feminism, was to be found in the relationship of women to nature, in the spaces and landscapes uninhabited by men.(FCW 263) (3) But the mainstay of American feminism was to remain culturally-based, culturally-oriented. So strong has been that particular strain in American feminism that even the development of psychoanalytic theory with regard to the concept of gender identification in boys and girls, mostly notably, through the writings of Nancy Chodorow, has placed the focus on the role of "mothering" rather as in Freud’s teachings, on the role of the Oedipal stage. Chodorow herself explains this very specific socializing role in an extract to her work entitled The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Society of Gender, published in 1978: "...I argue that the contemporary reproduction of mothering occurs through social structurally induced psychological processes. It is neither a product of biology nor of intentional role-training." (emphasis mine) (4) Gender-related issues, Chodorow believes, "... may be influenced during the period of the Oedipus complex... ," but they are more a result of the "... asymmetrical organization of parenting, with the mother’s role as primary parent and the father’s typically greater remoteness and his investment in socialization especially in areas concerned with gender-typing." Nowhere does Chodorow mention necessity of present practices with regard to gender identification.

The reason for dedicating the first section of this discussion to these lengthy, if somewhat simplified summarizing descriptions of French feminist theory, on the one hand, and American theory on the other, is to provide a context for the literary works that I have chosen to discuss. For the writing that is found in the works of Anna Mitgutsch, Elisabeth Reichart, and Renate Welsh provides a bridge between the two extreme branches of feminist thought presented above. The writings of these women stand as examples of extant answers to the nagging complaints of exclusion from gender-appropriate discourse and of continued maintenance in official settings of the cultural status quo. Through trial and error, their writings provide glimpses into the inroads made toward mutual understanding of varying points of view.

While each of the texts, Mitgutsch’s Die Züchtigung, Reichart’s Februarschatten, Fotze, as well as Welsh’s Das Lufthaus, is gynocentric,(5) that is, it takes as its subject women’s stories, none is an example of ecriture feminine as it has come to be known; each is rather a culturally-based, traditionally-founded form of writing that I have named österreiches/weibliches Schreiben.

I chose the texts for this discussion, first novels in the cases of Die Züchtigung, Februarschatten, and Das Lufthaus,(6) on the basis of:

  1. the author’s particular use of and experimentation with language;
  2. the narrative’s portrayal of the psychological states of its main characters;
  3. the author’s portrayal and understanding of the process of writing; and
  4. the narrative’s form.

These criteria overlap and complement one another because language cannot be separated ultimately from form.

What follows is a discussion of the works in question in accordance with the specific rubrics listed above to reveal the unique contribution each makes to an understanding of the creation of literature, that is, insight into the process of writing, as well as illuminating how texts "mean."

Anna Mitgutsch’s first novel, Die Züchtigung, appeared in 1985 and quickly received wide acclaim. The success of the novel, explained in part by the sensational nature of the topic, but perhaps also by the possibility of self-identification on the part of women readers,(7) tells the story of three generations of mothers and daughters, Maria, Vera, and Vera’s daughter, bound together inexorably by blood and by a horrific family history. The impetus for the storytelling, that is the reconstruction of the familial past, is a question from Vera’s daughter. She asks her mother, "War deine Mutter wie du?" The crisis that this question precipitates in Vera sends her backward in time to uncover the past and leads her to recognize how the "facts" of a life can be remembered differently based on perspective and position.

Die Züchtigung is the story of a childhood spent on the heels of World War II, in the company of a soldier/father, Friedl, returned from battle to marry Marie, the woman resigned to her fate as his wife. The relationship between Friedl and Marie, fostered through letters and written promises, results in the birth of a girl, much to the disappointment of the mother Marie.(8) Despite her disappointment, Marie is determined to take up the familiar script of bourgeois familial harmony, but her own troubled and troubling childhood becomes the blueprint for the hell that ensues.

As storyteller, Vera moves back across time to assemble the narrative of her mother’s childhood and into their shared past, in an attempt to come to terms with her identity as adult woman and mother. Vera is motivated, too, by her own daughter’s idealization of Vera’s childhood, that is, growing up in an "intact family," with mother and father both. Vera contemplates:

Aber sie [die Tochter/Maries Enkelin] träumt davon, von der heilen Familie in einer heilen Welt, und sie [die Tochter] gibt mir Schuld. Wie sollte sie verstehen, daß die heile Welt die Folterkammer ist, aus der ich mit dem Mut der Verdammten gebrochen bin, immer wieder auszubrechen bereit bin, um sie und mich zu retten. (Z 128)

The model of family relationships that Vera’s daughter has internalized with regard to her grandmother, Marie, is presented in opposition to that which the reader knows about Vera’s childhood and about that of the grandmother as well. In the gap that develops between these two "known" versions of "reality" is situated the locus of uncovered truth.

The "Folterkammer" to which Vera refers in the text is not hyperbole, but an accurate description of a childhood spent under the blows of the rug beater, beatings that left burst blood veins on Vera’s legs and buttocks, blows so vicious and so forceful that they left Marie, the mother, exhausted, gasping for air. The narrator writes of the badly beaten child’s concerns not for her own, but rather for her spent mother’s well-being, exemplifying the paradoxical nature of the daughter’s connectedness to her ultimate source of comfort as well as unthinkable torture, her mother. Vera’s concern for her mother at these times centers on Vera’s fear that her mother will expire from exhaustion or heart failure, due to the exertion that she has expended showing how much she "loves" her child. For the familiar, "Wer sein Kind liebt, züchtigt es" (Z 19), overshadows Marie’s own childhood and haunts the narrative, becoming Marie’s mantra of her personal sacrifice for the daughter’s sake.

Marie herself was tormented and abused by her vain, selfish father, who beat her into unconsciousness with his fists or whatever farming implement he had at the ready. Marie’s nose, ribs, her body in general became the objects upon which the hard lessons of childhood were forged. Marie, clever, talented, second child of an ill and uncaring mother, became the "hired hand" in the family’s marginal existence, working harder and longer than her older sister or her younger siblings. Continually degraded and mistreated because of her intelligence and her ambition, Marie is beaten into the fomentingly angry young woman who married the returning Friedl and bore the persecuted Vera.

The narrative itself brings into question the role and accuracy of memory in reconstructing the past, as Vera learns while gathering family stories. The family’s public face, she determines, was one of respectability, albeit lower middle class. And even Marie’s older sister, Fanni, when asked about the childhood she shared with Marie, contests Marie’s versions of what happened, enjoining:

Viel Gaudi - haben wir gehabt in unserer Jugend, kannst dir ja vorstellen, ... Kann schon sein, daß der Vater sie manchmal geschlagen hat, er hat uns alle manchmal hergenommen, aber die Marie war stark, der hat nichts ankönnen, die war immer obenauf und voll Spaß. Eine freudlose Jugend? Aber woher, wie kommst denn darauf, schön war’s, und immer was los, und wenn was angestellt worden ist, dann war immer die Marie dabei, die ließ keinen Unfug. (Z 33)

Subsequent discussions that reveal discrepancies among the various versions of "the truth" cause Vera to question her mother’s accounts of various incidents. Vera wonders:

Hatte es sich genauso zugetragen? So hatte es sich in ihrer [der Mutter] Erinnerung zugetragen, die sie quälte bis zu ihrem Tod, was zählte da die Wirklichkeit. (Z 68)

The inconsistencies are all the more troublesome to Vera, because these tales she has stitched together as explanation for her mother’s horrible actions toward her. Through her collecting of stories, the certainty that the explanation has provided over time begins to slip away, leaving only more doubts and questions. The reader joins the narrator in questioning the accumulated stories, grappling with the problem of where the truth might lie, pondering this process of remembering.

Mitgutsch’s insights into the potentially symbiotic but, here, destructive relationship between mothers and daughters has caused the author much anguish. Mitgutsch’s precision of language, her lack of the use of metaphor,(9) expected in a work of fiction, has brought criticism of her writing from some as autobiography and a naive attempt at self-understanding at the expense of the reading public because the author appears to be "too present" in the text.(10) Mitgutsch herself has railed against these pronouncements, placing the blame for the misreadings on the critical public. In an article published in Cosmopolitan, April 1987, Mitgutsch states, "... [D]ie Leute nahmen das alles für Fakten. Daß Literatur daraus besteht, mit Fakten schöpferisch umzugehen, verstehen die ja nicht."(11) The truth is that Mitgutsch’s language, undecorated, plain, and "realistic" reads like "Protokolliteratur" instead of the fictional representation of the frequently destructive relationship that exists between the socially and emotionally thwarted mother and her child. Her prose exerts a powerful drawing force, pulling the reader into the midst of the narrative,(12) pressing in on her/his sensibilities, creating an anticipation of violent, forceful words, but finding instead steadily paced, well-tempered narration.(13) This measured use of language to describe the most horrific of occurrences works to heighten the repressive nature of the narrative line and to elevate the experience of the incongruity between the mother’s behavior vis-a-vis her own flesh and blood and what the reader would normally expect. In the case of Die Züchtigung less is more with regard to the use of language, and in Mitgutsch’s economy of usage stands a key to expression and, consequently, to her meaning. Maternal discourse against which the narrative is read is assigned a conflicted interpretation, leaving the text destablized from within.

Central to Elisabeth Reichart’s Februarschatten is similarly a mother-daughter relationship haunted by a repressed past. But in Reichart’s book, with the familial past connected undeniably to a horrific public event, the focus is refracted away from the general quest for common, reconstructed experience to the specific reassembling of the mother’s role, at the time herself a child, in the historical events surrounding the infamous "Mühlvierter Hasenjagd." The difficult adult relationship between mother and daughter becomes magnified and illuminated under the beams from the recollected search lights of the night of February 2, 1945. For the mother Hilde, that night, with its devastating consquences, becomes the seminal childhood experience, an experience which shapes and transforms all that is to follow. On that fateful night, the author recounts:

...brachen ca. 500 der 570 häftlinge aus der sonderbaracke 20 des KL MAUTHAUSEN aus. in der baracke waren vor allem sowjetische offiziere. bis heute wurden 17 überlebende eruiert. alle anderen wurden von den nationalsozialisten und von bis dahin ‘unpolitischen’ mühlviertlern ermordert. wenige mühlviertler wagten zu helfen.(14)

It is a night that the child who becomes the mother has attempted to drive from her memory. For Hilde, forgetting is the only solution to the problem of continuing to live, grappling with the loss of her beloved brother Hannes, and living in a self-imposed emotional isolation in order to escape the subsequent hatred and scorn of her parents and her family. Now Erika, Hilde’s own daughter, a writer and a member of the self-righteous "Nachkriegsgeneration," returns to her mother’s home to begin the arduous process of unlocking the sealed doors to her mother’s memory in an attempt to uncover her mother’s, and, by extension, her own culpability in the mass murder euphemistically referred to as World War II.

In the afterword to the 1984 novel, Christa Wolf characterizes her own reaction as reader to Reichart’s storytelling: "Ich hatte das Gefühl an einer Ausgrabung mitzuarbeiten, vor deren Ergebnis mir graute." (Feb 106) The excavation is a plumbing of the depths of Hilde’s repressed memories as well as a reconstruction of the publically historical events that ended in the hanging death of Hilde’s brother Hannes.

The psychological "Ausgrabung" that Februarschatten represents is presented by the author in short, cropped sentences, sometimes granting Hilde the voice of the narrator, other times relegating her to third person status. The narrative mirrors the mother’s internal dialogue, a reflection of the artificial world that Hilde has created to put distance between guilt and her actions -- Hilde, the invisible child, the child always overlooked and underconsidered, Hilde, who searches for some modicum of comfort, and finds her refuge in the attention her older brother shows her. But the persuasive influence of eloquent speeches and the feeling of being included causes the pre-teenaged Hilde to choose Germany over her intuitions, and she reveals the hiding place of one of the escaped Russian officiers. Hannes, who made the dangerous ethical decision to hide the escaped concentration camp inmate in the face of grave personal danger, is arrested and summarily hanged. The night and the events that surround the inmates’ escape teach Hilde the word -- "Vergiß." Forgetting and repressing become her solutions to the way she lives her life.

Hilde’s attempt to keep the memories repressed results in the staccato, nervous observations through which the reader monitors the ultimate cost upon her psyche and which taken together build an oppressive tension within the narrative. Only through the persistence of Erika, her author-daughter, do the events of that fateful night come spilling out. And the consequences of those revelations are deadly for both Erika and her mother.

At Erika’s insistence, mother and daughter return to the village where the events of February 2, 1945, have been carefully hidden under the blanket of time. Through overheard snatches of conversation referring to her, her family, and their collective roles in the "Hasenjagd," Hilde is driven to retreat into the recesses of what have been buried memories. In the final fiften pages of the novel, her conflicted recollection of the pride that she had felt when she heard the words "... Deutschland [brauchte] sie in dieser Nacht" (Feb 91) and the horror at the role she played in her brother’s death return to her in a tormenting, accusing wave of memories.

The narrative in Februarschatten slips and skips, containing no linearly-developed storyline. It proceeds in stops and starts as Hilde resists Erika’s drive to know. The "broken and searching chronology" that characterizes the novel’s shape points to the toll in psychological terms of dark secrets and repressed memories, "... [as it] burdens ... [the reader] with the question of personal responsibility."(15) The following, included in the introduction to the novel, underscores the author’s concern with the problem of repressed, unresolved guilt in the life of the individual and outlines clearly authorial intent: "Elisabeth Reichart hat ein quälend-eindrucksvolles Buch das Problem der Schuld und die psychischen Verherrungen geschrieben, die das kollektive Vergessen anrichtet. (Feb 2)."

Elisabeth Reichart, in an interview with Christina Schweighofer, described her motivation for writing about the past: "Für mich geht es um heute. Um das, was nachwirkt, um das geht es mir."(16) What results from the reading is the recognition of the devastating influence of these conflicted memories reproduced so carefully in the narrative. The reader experiences the narrative as a torturous descent into the recesses of infested, infesting memory. Mother and daughter talk past one another in a non-relationship which underscores the subtext that repression breeds destruction.

The final horror is the reader’s realization that Hilde’s will must ultimately win out. As mother and daughter prepare to leave the village, Hilde slides behind the wheel:

Hilde fuhr langsam aus dem Dorf hinaus. Beschleunigte auf der Landstraße. Erdbrocken lagen herum. Die Traktorreifen verloren sie. "Fahr’ nicht so schnell. Es ist rutschig." Hilde warf einen spöttischen Blick auf die ängstliche Tochter. Die noch immer alles besser wußte. Sie trat stärker auf das Gaspedal. (Feb 114)

Hilde had been right all along. The only way to live was to forget all that had happened. Prevented from repressing the terror and the guilt of that night any longer, Hilde chooses the alternative and drives her and her daughter to their deaths.(17)

Elisabeth Reichart’s commitment to experimentation with language and form, evident in Februarschatten, reaches a heightened level of importance in her fourth book, Fotze, published in 1993. As in Die Züchtigung and Februarschatten, the narrative line of Fotze revolves around a return to the past, the connection of the recollections collected to the present, and the struggle by the female protagonist to make sense of the juxtaposition of the two as past flows into and influences the present. All this is achieved through Reichart’s shockingly blunt use of vocabulary and her impressively innovative development of narrative structure.

Fotze, the novel’s title, is the central word around which the narrative turns. Shocking in its ubiquitous presence, the word stands as object and as metaphor for the main character. Reichart’s word choice, certainly chosen with the intent of causing a specific reaction, forces the reader’s attention to the words before him or her on the page. Fotze, Fut, Ficken, Schwanz - used and repeated, tabu words existing between the covers of "schöne Literatur"- certain to shock, titillate, and engage.(18)

The novel itself involves the attempts by the main character to gain a sense of self, using the only forms of language that she has available to her, the language of pornography, violence, and war. Her initial self-identity stems from an incident as a child during the war, when after taking refuge in a bunker, she finds the word "FOTZE" smeared across the wall and even at this point has an inkling of the word’s potential importance for her life. The word Fotze stands as metaphor for the language that she must assume. It is the word that identifies her sexuality as it is presently constituted and without its harsh reality, there can be no words to describe in any way who she is and what she experiences. The word Fotze reduces her to a reference point from which she cannot vary or stray because it becomes one with her being:

... ich war zu einer Landkarte verkommen, einzig die Landkarte war noch bedeutend, nicht ich, im Glauben an das Bunkerwort, im Drang, mir seine Worte einzuverleiben, war ich entleibt worden, unbemerkt/ Wortland/kein Land in Sicht, nur diese Landkarte, auf der ein einziger Ort markiert ist, Fotze las ich, siegesgewiß stand das Wort da, ein einziges Wort, wortloses Sein, alle anderen Insignien waren ausgelöscht, verschmiert, unleserliche Zeichen, von niemandem gerettet. (FO 38)

Her first lover, named "der Wiener" in the novel, uses the word to describe her genitalia while they are making love, and it becomes short hand for the sexual arousal when the two later engage in "Telefonsex." Her lover’s use of the word ties her present existence to her childhood experiences, and the bridge between the two is crossed. The language to which the word "Fotze" belongs has a pernicous power over her. She describes its general effect:

Seine [ihr Liebhaber] Worte umschließen meine Nacktheit, es ist, als trüge ich Kleider, bekleidet mit seinen Worten, laufe ich durch die Straßen und höre nur sie, höre sie von außen auf mich zukommen, aus mir herausquellen, FOTZE dröhnt es in den Straßen, dröhnt es in mir, FOTZE und SCHWANZ und FICKEN, nur diese drei Worte, die Spache zusammengeschmolzen zu drei Worten, ... (19)

The words have the power to shape her reality, because beyond the sexual denotation of her person and its concommitant aspects of violence and war, she does not exist. As she/the narrator states, " ... [ich] hörte [...] deine Stimme, während ich zusah, wie ich für Männer nur aus Brust und Geschlecht bestand." (FO 90) The narrator struggles with her identity and that which identifies her, attempting to find a way out the morass of dominant language usage, but her struggle in the quicksand of its power leads to no ultimate victory. Mitgutsch, writing about the novel, states that Reichart has attempted to establish "... eine weibliche Befindlichkeit zwischen der Abhängigkeit von den Männern und ihrer Sprache, ihrem Blick und ihren Taten und einer trotzigen Selbstbehauptung."(20) Her attempts to become the subject of her existence are to no avail. Again, Mitgutsch describes the protagonist’s peril:

Sie will Subjekt werden und kann es nur, wenn sie das Erbe des Vaters antritt, in seinen Häusern wohnt, sie instand behält, sich männlich Brutalität aneignet, mit der sie die Schwestern quält. Und in der Männersprache sucht sie das weibliche Subjekt, das der Schwester fehlt ...

There is no "Frauensprache" because the mothers have been made dumb and silenced and they cannot teach what is to be done; they have no words. The narrator in Fotze explains:

... die Mörder steigen darüber mit gleichgültigem Schritt, während die Mutterwörter verloren gehen, sie hatte sich ihre Sprache angesichts der wechselnden Häuser erschaffen/kein Mutterhaus, Worte genauso verloren wie die Vaterhäuser in der Landschaft, Worte, wuchert vom Gerede, seit Jahren diese einzelnen Worte, die sie auspuckt und vor denen sie sich wegdreht. ... (FO 57-58)

Reichart’s narrative reads like a grid to the internet of the brain. Recollections, laid out in a seemingly random/abstract manner, connecting for the reader what appear to be entirely unrelated topics, times, and issues, provide the structural stream-of-consciousness for the narrator. While the style of prose becomes difficult at times for the reader, the result is a recognition of a kind of mental mapping that follows the manner in which experiences and events are very likely stored in the memory regions of the brain. That map, foreign and outside the ken of the reader, appears entirely natural for the shape that the story takes through the eyes of the narrator who struggles with and bumps up against the boundaries of her reality carefully contained in a language that is not her own. Through this psychological tracing of the path of memory, the novel pushes against the borders of the possible, showing the reader the edges and the centers of reality.

Testing societal boundaries is, indeed, one of Reichart’s reasons for writing. Through the assumed stance of what she calls "Ohnmacht," the opposite reaction to resignation, Reichart believes those boundaries are most easily reached and tested.(21) Her novel is a valiant display of the perils of those who struggle to release themselves from the prescribed boundaries of their existence. But the struggle is incomplete, the protagonist fails, and as she falls back into the "Schlamm" from whence she arose, she laments:

Die Worte verschwinden zuerst. Fotze und Fut und Schwanz und Penis und Krieg und Gewalt versinken in ihm. . . . Er hebt die Trennungen auf [zwischen Kopf und Körper], entläßt mich aus ihrer Umklammerung. Bald, sehr bald werde ich ihnen nicht mehr begegnen müssen. Ich weiß nicht, was er mit den Worten macht, ich werde es bald nicht mehr wissen wollen. Im Schlamm ist es ganz still. . . .Die Oberfläche des Schlamms hat manchmal Krusten und schließt Steine ein. Doch dann ist die Umarmung vollkommen. In dieser Vollkommenheit will ich zugrunde gehn. Ihr angehörend, gehöre ich wieder zu euch, nichts vermissend in meinem wortlosen Sein. (FO 124)

Reichart’s attempt to go outside the dominant language and to create something akin to ecriture feminine cannot succeed, because the structures that form the prevalent public discourse have not been removed. What Reichart can do and, with the novel Fotze, has done ". . . is use - and abuse - these very structures in order to provoke awareness of their existence."(22)

Where Reichart tested the boundaries of language and storyline, Renate Welsh has dedicated her writing in Das Lufthaus to pushing the limits of the traditional biographical form. Das Lufthaus, the story of Pauline, is cobbled together from family letters, assembled and stored for over a century, treasured and guarded on transcontinental travels and two separate voyages from Europe to America and back again, a fact that causes the author to wonder at the care with which the letters were saved. Reassembling Pauline’s story is uniquely problematized in the text, for the voice in the narrative is not directly that of the woman whose story is being told, nor is the "objective" point of view of an outside writer of historical biography. The voice that meets the reader is, rather, that of the author, a distant relative to Pauline, generations removed, who finds herself drawn into an emotionally unsettling "relationship" with a woman born during the first quarter of the past century.

The historical context for Pauline’s life is the revolutionary period throughout Europe in the middle of the last century. Pauline’s bright, ambitious, but totally self-absorbed young husband is an idealistic Marxist who ultimately cares more for the revolution and his political ideals than he does about his confused and emotionally-abandoned young wife. The husband, Max, uproots her from her family, transporting her across Europe to the New World in pursuit of his political and material goals. Pauline’s father-in-law, a delegate to the assembly in the Pauluskirche in Frankfurt during the failed attempt in 1848-49 to democratize Germany and Austria, plays a pivotal role in the couple’s young lives, luring them away from Europe’s familiar soil when it becomes evident that the revolution will fail. Transplanted to a foreign setting, wrenched away from the familiarity of culture, language, and family, Pauline lives a lonely, isolated life, waiting at home with the two boys that she bears for Max’s return from this or that great adventure or temporary work situation in their newly-adopted land. The story chronicles the hope and the despair that follow the young couple’s fortunes, and finally describes with compelling care and compassion Pauline’s descent into madness.

Using the preserved family letters as her starting point, Welsh stitches together Pauline’s story, incorporating copies of documented newspaper articles written by father and son, researching archival files of the period, creating fictionalized experiences and conversations which Welsh believes the misfortunate, historical young woman could have had. Welsh projects onto the pages what might have been Pauline’s reaction to and thoughts about the turmoil that surrounded her life, creating thereby a narrative situated between fact and fantasy.(23) Welsh’s reaction to the task of reconstructing her ancestor’s life is recorded in personal correspondence from last year:

Es scheint mir immer noch wie ein Wunder, daß diese Briefe nach 150 Jahren und Irrwegen durch die halbe Welt auf meinem Schreibtisch gelandet sind. Das wurde mehr zu einem ‘Auftrag’, und Pauline hat mich auch nicht verlassen, als das Buch fertig war. Ich habe nur wieder größere Hemmungen, die Briefe zu lesen, sie sind wieder ‘privat’ geworden.(24)

Welsh as biographer and author was first drawn into and then repelled by the very material that forms the center of Pauline’s biography, creating a unique tension between the author’s role as insider and, then conversely, outsider.

The emptiness that Welsh projects into Pauline’s life, for Pauline herself is "das Lufthaus", appears early and is recorded throughout the narrative. Shortly after the couple is married, Welsh places the following into Pauline’s thoughts:

Ich [Pauline] liebe ihn [Max] doch, ich liebe ihn. ich liebe den Geruch seiner Haut, ..., ich liebe seine Hände, ... Ich liebe es, wie er sein Gesicht in meine Haare taucht, ... Ich liebe seine Wärme, seinen Atem auf meiner Haut. ‘Du bist mein Haus,’ hat er gestern gesagt, ‘mein Zuhause und meine Heimat.’ [...] Doch, ich liebe ihn. Ich liebe ihn. Er ist mein Mann, und ich bin seine Frau.
Warum ist dann diese Leere in mir?

Pauline, who has placed her goals, ambitions, her hopes, and her life on Max, feels a profound sense of loss and abandonment as she experiences the waiting and the "Nichtstun" that is to characterize the rest of her life. Cut off from family, home, and the grounding force of her parents’ Jewish faith, Pauline experiences a psychological crisis on the day that her father, separated from her by the vast Atlantic Ocean, fatally injures himself. Her descent into the world of schizophrenia is documented from her deteriorization under doctor’s care. This abrupt decline she seems to have anticipated early in the narrative, for as she vainly attempts to sing the lullabies to her infant son, the songs that her mother had sung to her, Pauline sorrowfully concludes: "Ist das die Strafe? ... Ich bin eine Abtrünnige. Atrünnige werden wahnsinnig; der Wahn wächst in ihnen, bis seine Stunde gekommen ist." (LUFT 137)

Like the female voice in Bachmann’s Malina, Pauline has no real existence in Max’s world, dominated by the ‘greater’ forces of historical empowerment. Pauline slips from his world into her own, separated by grief, loneliness, and abandonment.

Moments of clarity, however, continue to spring forth in Pauline’s troubled mind, and she at times appears in her suspended state of madness to be more observant of the world than Max. In a scene recorded at the end of the novel, Welsh allows Pauline to speak as the "wise fool." It is a scene of tender domesticity as Max tends to Pauline who is unable to take care of her own most basic needs:

Er wusch sie, er kleidete sie an, er fütterte sie, er zog sie aus.
‘Bist du meine Mutter?’ fragt sie ihn.
‘Ich bin dein Mann,’ sagte er. [...]
Er wusch sie gründich, aber schnell, ohne irgendwo zu verweilen, wie man ein Kind wäscht.
‘Es kommt davon, daß wir keine Wörter haben’, sagte sie.
Er verstand wieder einmal nicht. Merkwürdig, daß ein so kluger Mann so wenig verstand.
(LUFT 369-370)

These moments of clarity that Welsh ascribes to Pauline makes the medical diagnosis that led to Pauline’s institutionalization all the more suspect, and the reader begins to question where the truth might lie. On pages 303 and 309 in the text, Welsh draws her own conclusions as to the impulse and the depth of Pauline’s madness. Without a sense of belonging in Max’s world and without the continued protection of her father’s house/religion, Welsh appears to believe Pauline simply lost her grounding: "Ich bin ein leeres Haus," sagte Pauline. "Ein Lufthaus." (LUFT 370)

The troubled relationship that exists between the author and subject echos in Welsh’s final paragraph in the novel:

Du, Pauline, bist schon vor dem Tod deines Schwiegervaters aus den Aufzeichnungen verschwunden. Ich weiß nicht einmal, wie lange du noch gelebt hast. Hat es für dich Momente gegeben, wo du dich wirklich freuen konntest, nicht nur heiter erscheinen, wo der Riß in deinem Leben wenigstens für kurze Zeit nicht weh tat? Ich möchte es glauben, möchte dich und Max auf einer Bank sitzen lassen, es muß ja nicht eine weiße sein, an deren Rückwand eine Sprosse fehlt. (LUFT 384)

Welsh plays the role of historian, biographer, author, and even autobiographer in constructing Pauline’s story,(26) filling the gaps that exist in the historical information with her imagination and her skill as an author. It is the very process by which Welsh crosses into those blank spaces that causes her to struggle with what she has set out to do:

Ein Teil von mir möchte die Löcher in deiner Geschichte ausfüllen, dir eine runde Biographie geben, als wäre damit irgend etwas gutgemacht. Aber ich denke, das wäre fast so, als wollte ich die Lücken in einer Spitze säuberlich stopfen oder ein Spinnennetz zu einem festen Gewebe machen. Gerade dort, wo etwas fehlt, meine ich dich zu spüren. (LUFT 334)

In the spaces and gaps exists Pauline’s truth.

What Welsh has created with Pauline’s story is a new biography that embraces the very uncertainty that most recorders of life stories strive to avoid. In the pages that result, the reader is drawn close to an historically real young woman whose life becomes the fictional work of her biographer. The uncertainty of the speculative act of retrieving "facts" adds a dimension of humanity to the person being chronicled, and lends the reader a closer look into the person and being of the author creating the work. The work becomes a dual biography, one part portraying the historical Pauline, the other the author, Renate Welsh.

If as the post-structuralists claim, language is the medium through which experience is organized, then the books here under consideration should give the reader reason to hope that experience may in the future be configured in a variety of ways. (LSD 132). No longer will the characters whose lives are recorded be forced to say along with Vera in Die Züchtigung:

Was nutze das Sprechen, wenn meine Worte nie meine Wirklichkeit berührten, nicht einmal die Richtung beibehielten zu den gedankenzerschmetternden Dingen, die ich erfuhr? (Z 226)

Pushing the boundaries of language as Reichart does in Fotze or allowing the words and sentences to rub up against one another and slip back away as she does in Februarschatten may indeed yield the expression that she, for example, seeks in her attempts to find "... eine Sprache ..., die alle Spuren einer unsäglichen Vergangenheit enthält und vorzeigt, sich aber auch nichts zum Gegenstand macht, sondern die Sprechenden freiläßt."(27)

Language thus newly configured becomes the vehicle for a new discourse, a kind of "Protokoll-Literatur" that combines elements of fiction, fact, and fantasy in such a way that the previously dominant discourses, the maternal, the patriarchal, the gendered, the rational, and the historical are destabilized. The cultural myths contained in those discourses are de-mystified, creating space for new interpretations of experience.

Mitgutsch, Reichart, and Welsh belong to the cadre of Austrian writers who have positioned themselves to speak against the "tide," part of what Maria-Regina Kecht calls "... eine stattliche Anzahl von Schriftstellerinnen [...], [die] den Status quo verändern wollen und sich daher mit spezifisch weiblicher Lebenserfahrung sowie Wirlichkeitsgestaltung auseinandergesezt haben."(28) These Austrian women writers, continuing in a rich tradition with a keen interest in grappling with language, its construction, and its use, examine how language excludes and enfolds, suppresses and creates.

In an earlier time, before the coming of post-structuralism, the narrative forms that these writers employ would have been characterized as biography or autobiography. But stuck as the authors are in the midst of the post-modern age with its concommitant dissolution of the subject as identifiable entity, they write personal narratives based on subjectively selected artifacts of lives situated in the midst of various historical discourses. These personal narratives or "personal histories" also function as counterfictions, because they resist the dominant narrative of official memory and attempt to plot new conceptual spaces."(29) Within these new conceptual spaces, there exists the possibility of restructuring what has been resisted and of shifting the ostensibly immutable truths for the good of all.

My contention that the works of Anna Mitgutsch, Elisabeth Reichart, and Renate Welsh point to a new literary/critical horizon positioned between linguistic theory and cultural revisionism gives me reason to hope for the day proclaimed by Bachmann: "... ein Tag wird kommen ..."


* Reprinted with permission granted by Donald G. Daviau, editor, Modern Austrian Literature, vol. 23, no. 1, 1999, pp. 90-110.

© Nancy C. Erickson (Bemidji, MN)

home.gif (2030 Byte)buinst.gif (1751 Byte)        Inhalt: Nr. 4


(1) I am indebted to Susan Sellers who has provided a splendid summary of each of the innovators whom I mention in this opening section. Her discussion of feminist writing in France appears in a work entitled Language and Sexual Difference: Feminist Writing in France (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1991), p. 2. Further references to this work will be indicated by LSD plus page number within the text.

(2) Elaine Showalter, "Feminist Criticism in the Wilderness", The New Feminist Criticism: Essay on Women, Literature, and Theory (New York: Pantheon Books), p. 255. Further references to this work will be indicated by FCW plus page number within the text.

(3) Showalter mentions two radical feminists in this context: Mary Daly (Gyn/Ecology) and the Canadian writer Margaret Atwood (Surfacing). To this list I would add Annette Kolodny and Susan Griffin. Within the same discussion, Showalter characterizes: English feminism criticism as essentially Marxist based, concerned with the oppression of women; French feminist criticism as psychoanalytic, focussed on the repression of women; and American feminist criticism as primarily textual in focus, tied to issues of expression by women. (FCW 249)

(4) Nancy Chodorow, The Reproduction of Mothering: Psychoanalysis and the Sociology of Gender (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press). Other references to this work will appear as RM plus page number in the text.

(5) I am using the term "gynocentric" to describe texts that take as their primary subjects women and women's lives. Elaine Showalter uses as related term, "gynocritics", to indicate the mode of feminist criticism that studies "... women as writers ...", its subjects being "... the history, styles, themes, genres, and structures of writing by women; the psychodynamics of female creativity; the trajectory of the individual or collective female career; and the evaluation and laws of a female literary tradition." (FCW 248) The opposite of "gynocentric" is "phallocentric".

(6) Renate Welsh is a prolific writer of what is termed "Jugendliteratur". Das Lufthaus is Welsh's first novel outside that domain.

(7) Maria-Regina Kecht, in an article entitled "‘In the Name of Obedience, Reason, and Fear’: Mother-Daughter Relations in W. A. Mitgutsch and E. Jelinek," reports that she "... [has] come to realize that these novels provoke incredibly varied, profoundly gendered responses ... Most male responses -- including those of journalistic reviewers -- seem to be affected by the horror and the tragedy marking these books; . . . . Any claim of representative value seems to be denied, rendering superfluous any further serious reflection on this painful subject." The article appears in The German Quarterly, Summer 62.3 (1989), 357-372. The quote is from p. 369.

(8) Anna Mitgutsch, Die Züchtigung (München: Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 1991), pp. 75-76. All further references to this work will appear in the text as Z plus page number.

(9) Leonore Schwarz, in an article printed in Der Tagesspiegel, Nr. 12060, 26. 5. 1985, p. 55, also notes the lack of metaphor in Züchtigung.

(10) A variety of critical articles have pointed to what the reviewers believe are Mitgusch=s tendencies to write autobiographically. What follows is bibliographical information to provide a sampling of this point of view: Tanja Paar, "Spurensuche in Jerusalem",  Falter, Nr. 17, 28. 4- 4.5.1995; Reinhold Tauber, "Kraft der Meeresbrandung", Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, 5. XI. 86; Reinhold Tauber, "Schrei in der Hungersnot", Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, 12. 7. 85.

(11) Anna Mitgutsch, "Nicht nur vom Erfolg verfolgt," Cosmopolitan, April, 1987, p. 236.

(12) In an article entitled "Das Dunkle in die Haut," Karl-Markus Gauß uses similar words to describe Mitgutsch's prose in Abschied von Jerusalem. The article appeared in Die Presse, 25./26. 3. 1995.

(13) Pia Reinacher, in "Der Sänger als Fluchthelfer,"describes Mitigutsch's prose in In fremden Städten with the following words: "Nur kommt ihr Roman so erschreckend wohltemperiert daher. Wo Wut zu erwarten wäre und zorniges Aufblitzen, ist nichts als wohlerzogene Reflexion ... " Reinacher's article was published September 11, 1992 in the Baseler Zeitung..

(14) Elisabeth Reichart, Februarschatten (Frankfurt am Main: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1989), 105. Further references to this work will appear in the text as Feb plus page number.

(15) Linda C. DeMeritt, "In Search of a Personal Voice," Austria Kultur, Vol. 5, 1995, p. 12.

(16) Elisabeth Reichart in an interview with Christina Schweighofer, " Wir haben uns selber betrogen. Steyregg, Wien, Tokio und retour: Annährung an die Dichterin Elisabeth Reichart,"  Die Presse 16/17 VI, 1990.

(17) I disagree with the conclusions to which Juliet Wigmore comes in her article "‘Vergangenheitsbewältigung’ in Austria: The Personsal and the Political in Erika Mitterer's Alle Unsere Spiele and Elisabeth Reichart's Februarsschatten," German Life and Letters 44:5, October, 1991. True, the impetus for the story is the incident that occurs during the winter of 1945, but I believe the importance of Februarschatten goes beyond the grappling with the specific public past. Its importance for understanding the present is equally, if not more, important for the reader to grasp. Similarly, I do not believe Hilde resolves her personal issues with the past in order to move forward in a positive way. I believe that Hilde sees no way out ("huis clos") of forever remembering what she had hoped was buried and chooses to draw the dark curtain of death across the terrorizing memory.

(18) "Fotze" also means a blow to the head, all of which heightens the effect of the word in the text.

(19) Elisabeth Reichart, Fotze (Salzburg/Wien: Otto Müller Verlag, 1993), p.8. All further references to this work will appear as FO plus page number in the text.

(20) Waltraut Anna Mitgutsch, "Benennen bedeutet Anerkennen," Standard 29. 10. 1993.

(21) Reichart's statement is recorded in an interview with Achim Roscher in "Elisabeth Reichart im Gespräch," Neue deutsche Literatur 35: 1987, pp. 129.

(22) Linda De Meritt, "The Possibilities and Limitations of Language: Elisabeth Reichart's Fotze (University of California/Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1997), p. 138.

(23) The familial papers that were Renate Welsh's impetus for writing Pauline's story came to her by way of her father. Welsh's father, a successful medical doctor, received three rings during one year from especially grateful patients. Having four daughters and only three rings caused Welsh's father a dilemna, until he placed the box of family letters into contention. Renate Welsh chose the papers over the rings and began what she has called the troubling task of reconstructing her ancestor's life.

(24) Renate Welsh, personal correspondence.

(25) Renate Welsh, Das Lufthaus (Graz Wien Klag Styria, 1994), pp. 97-98. All further references to his work will not noted in the text by LUFT plus page number.

(26) Beth Bjorkland, "History from a Woman's Perspective: Renate Welsh's Lufthaus" (University of California/Riverside: Ariadne Press, 1997), p. 88.

(27)  Marie-Therese Kerschbaumer, "Frag mich nicht, befrage die Worte," Der Standard. 4. 8. 1995.

(28) Maria-Regina Kecht, "Auflehnung gegen die Ordnung von Sprache und Vernunft: Die weibliche Wirklichkeitsgestaltung bei Waltraud Anna Mitgutsch," Women in German Yearbook 8, ed. by Jeannette Clausen and Sara Friedrichsmeyer (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1993), p. 113.

(29) Barbara Kosta, Recasting Autobiography (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1994), p. ix.

Webmeisterin: Angelika Czipin
last change 19.11.1999