Bachmann was born in Klagenfurt, in the Austrian state of Carinthia, the daughter of a headmaster. She studied philosophy, psychology, German philology, and law at the universities of Innsbruck, Graz, and Vienna. In 1949, she received her Doctor of Philosophy from the University of Vienna with her dissertation titled “The Critical Reception of the Existential Philosophy of Martin Heidegger,” her thesis adviser was Victor Kraft.
Simultan (1972), a collection of five short stories, was the last work to be published during Bachmann’s lifetime. Bachmann regarded her work on the short stories, all of which have women as the central protagonists, as light relief to her work on the Todesarten-Projekt. Her working title for the collection was Wienerinnen, a hommage to the women of her homeland. Following great novelists before her, Bachmann wished to describe the mores of her time through her depiction of women. She stressed, however, that the work was not written for women or for men, but for human beings.
All of the protagonists are women who have (with the exception of Beatrix in ‘Probleme, Probleme’) embraced to various degrees the career and travel opportunities that became open to women in Western Europe in the post-war era. Bachmann’s narratives nevertheless portray this transition as an uneasy one, with her protagonists marked by a profound sense of isolation and estrangement (from their roots, their native language, their own social milieu and from others) that is characteristic of modernity.
The title story of the collection, ‘Simultan’, focuses on several days in the life of Nadja, a simultaneous interpreter who is fluent in four languages, yet cannot adequately articulate her feelings in any one. This Sprachkrise (language crisis) is indicative of Nadja’s existential homelessness, she is neither able to find a language or a place in the world to call her own. Nadja’s adaptability to diverse cultural and linguistic environments, which has made her outwardly successful in the modern globalised world, has left her spiritually empty.
The second story entitled ‘Probleme, Probleme’ focuses on one day in the life of the twenty-year-old Beatrix who is plagued by a world-weariness before her life has really started; her favorite activities are sleeping and going to the beauty salon once a week. She is unable to find a way out of her ennui, unable to adapt to a society whose values she does not share, while her numerous neuroses are symptomatic of a wider social malaise.
The third story ‘Ihr glücklichen Augen’ centres on a woman who is short-sighted but who refuses to wear glasses because she claims to be unable to cope with the full extent of reality and would prefer to be able to control her perception of it. The story ends with Miranda crashing into the door of a café (having not seen it) following a chance encounter with her former lover and his new girlfriend. Influenced by Bachmann’s reception of the work of the psychologist Georg Groddeck, the short story illustrates the psychosomatic connection between Miranda’s short-sightedness and the society around her. As such the story offers a critique of a pluralistic globalised world, which necessitates a degree of short-sightedness from the central protagonist in order to even feel remotely in control of her life and surroundings, a strategy that is, however, no solution as the ending of the story illustrates.
The fourth short story, ‘Das Gebell’, focuses on Frau Jordan, an eighty-five-year-old woman and mother of the psychiatry professor Leo Jordan who, along with his wife Franziska, is also a protagonist in Bachmann’s unfinished novel Das Buch Franza. In Frau Jordan’s conversations with her daughter-in-law, Franziska, it emerges that her famous son is a cruel despot, whom his ageing mother nevertheless adores. The elderly woman is, however, plagued by a constant barking of dogs that she imagines hearing in her apartment, which is revealed to be symptomatic of her continual ill-treatment at the hands of her son (Frau Jordan used to own a much-loved dog that her son made her give up).
The final story in the collection, ‘Drei Wege zum See’; ‘Three Paths to the Lake’, is by far the longest and also the most interesting in terms of its stylistic and thematic composition, the self-reflexive authorial location of the text in the Austrian literary tradition, and auto-biographical references. ‘Drei Wege zum See’’s central protagonist is a successful, forty-nine year-old international photo-journalist, Elisabeth Matrei, who returns to her native Klagenfurt in Carinthia for her annual visit to the home of her ageing father. During a week-long stay at her father’s house, Elisabeth Matrei attempts to reach the lake near her home using various paths marked out on a hiking map for the region, whereupon the frustrations of being unable to reach her destination lead Elisabeth to explore those of her personal life.
Memory, place and identity are presented as inextricably connected in ‘Drei Wege zum See’. The inclusion of figures from Joseph Roth’s Radetzkymarsch (1932) and Die Kapuzinergruft; The Emperor’s Tomb (1938) in the narrative reinscribes Roth’s reflections on the loss of old certainties, following the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy, from a post-Holocaust perspective. Further, intertextuality with Jean Améry, the essayist and philosopher (there is an explicit reference to Améry’s essay ‘Die Tortur’), illustrates why a straight-forward identification and naïve faith in one’s homeland in a post-Holocaust age is no longer possible. While Elisabeth begins her stay in Carinthia harbouring nostalgic illusions about her Austrian homeland, and in particular its Habsburg heritage, her reminiscences of former lovers Trotta and Manes (both characters from Roth’s novels), prompted by her walks around the lake, ultimately lead her to a more nuanced and unfalsified view of Austrian identity. Like the disillusioned Trotta, Elisabeth comes to accept that life in the post-war era constitutes a state of permanent homelessness and that a homeland is something that can only exist in a spiritual rather than a territorial or physical sense (as symbolised by Elisabeth’s inability to reach the lake).