Ilse Aichinger’s Bad Words

“It’s a sad poem,” Bettina said as we walked down the glistening wet ribbon of a Vienna street one rainy evening. “I don’t read it every day.” Bettina, a Viennese psychoanalyst, was describing the daily walk from her home in Leopoldstadt, in the Second District, to her office in the inner city, the First District. The journey takes her across a bridge over the Danube canal which bears a poem by Ilse Aichinger inscribed in cast iron along the span. The poem reads, in part: The world is made of stuff that wants watching, no eyes left to see the white fields,no ears to hear birds whirring in the branches.Grandma, where are the lips you need to taste the grasses, and who will sniff the sky till it’s done? When the German language billowed with Nazi contaminations, said George Steiner, it got “the habit of hell into its syntax.” Those who repaired that syntax and got it whirring again, those who after the Shoah expressed estrangement from the German language in German, were by and large “non-German Germans”: Paul Celan in Paris, Nelly Sachs in Stockholm, Elias Canetti and Erich Fried in London, and Ilse Aichinger in Vienna.  Unlike German writers who found in the German language an inalienable form of belonging, each of these writers grappled with a language that had become foreign, hostile, a sign of non-belonging. Each of these adversaries of postwar forgetting wrestled with a language, as Celan put it, that “gave back no words for that which happened.” Of these figures, Ilse Aichinger, with whom the story of postwar Austrian literature begins, has been until recently the most overlooked and undertranslated. Since her death in 2016, a spate of new English translations affords us an opportunity to correct this literary injustice, to take some soundings

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