“From deep down I know now, and I’m not lost.” The above are lines stem from Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem “Böhmen liegt am Meer (Bohemia Lies by the Sea).” Though the Bregenzerwald is far from the sea, these lines of verse are still apt for this region. After all, understanding deep down, and knowing where you stand (not being lost, as it were) are nevertheless two qualities inherent to the valley and its inhabitants. In my estimation, this expresses the very quality of being truly at home. It is free from euphoria and the grandiose, it is withdrawn, reserved. So far, so good. It’s snowing and I mean really snowing… big beautiful flakes are falling quietly yet regularly from the sky. Bit by bit, they join the already respectable amount of snow cover typical for this area in January. Snow falling on snow is, as the great conductor Claudio Abbado once said, the most beautiful music. Such moments very closely approach true peace, that peace which one reaches when the noise of the world falls silent. I find such peace here at my ‘Siebaner Hüsle’ refuge: an inner peace, fostered by the silence that reigns all around me when there are no tractors and especially no power saws or blowers – or the people operating them – making plenty of racket. Winter is an opportune time for great silences.
Much, and probably sometimes even too much, silence (the wrong kind of quiet) surrounded the poet who accompanies me to my refuge in the Bregenzerwald this time around: I’ve taken Ingeborg Bachmann (1926-1973, born in Klagenfurt, died in Rome) with me to read. Her short life, which was scarred by the experience of Nazism, war, illness, addiction and the disaster of love (as an existential catastrophe, not as romantic heartache), mostly unfolded in between spaces, between Vienna and Rome, Zurich and Munich, but also between languages, people, and many chairs… For almost her entire life, she fought a battle with language, or more precisely, fought for a language with which something could be done, with which the events of life (not least love, or the relationship of the sexes to and among each other) could be done justice. Many of her literary characters also fight this battle. “The Thirtieth Year,” is the title of the first volume of prose by Bachmann, whose star first rose as a poet (Salzburger Bachmann Edition. Suhrkamp Piper 2020).
There are seven stories of different themes: of a childhood and youth in Klagenfurt between war and false peace in which the perpetrators soon make careers for themselves again; of murderers and lunatics: men in the wine cellar, or a provincial court judge who is frustrated in his search for truth. There are also the stories of two women and the (im)possibility of escaping domination, or of a father and a failed relationship with his young son, whom he tries in vain to protect from the old, worn-out language and world. Seemingly, these themes are unconnected, and yet they all have one thing in common: the search for an “unspent truth,” i.e. that of literature. I admire Bachmann for her relentless searching. And it is precisely this unwavering, uncompromising searching and finding that explains my need for and love of the Bregenzerwald (in other words, it is that which I find in myself when searching in the Bregenzerwald). But even the seeker of truth should not be more Catholic than the Pope, if he does not want to end up with a truth “of which no one dreams, that no one wants,” as it says at the end of the story entitled “Ein Wildermuth.”
Certainly, the Bregenzerwald is a region known for the diversity of its dialects, which are are native to the lower and upper Bregenzerwald, and perhaps also for the tonal beauty of said dialects, as can be heard in the poems of Gebhard Wölfle (1848-1904). These works notwithstanding, it should be pointed out that the Bregenzerwald is neither a region of great demagogues nor of clever rhetorician or chatterers and babblers. One notes this without regret. For it is true that the people of the Bregenzerwald are rather silent, dare I say taciturn. After all, sometimes it’s best to wait for answers. Not because it would take longer for the question to arrive, but because its examination takes time.
The title story “The Thirtieth Year” is a monologue in which someone talks to himself. To the world, he may as well be mute. He’s turning thirty and can no longer call himself young anymore. Too many possibilities have already passed him by: 1000 out of 1001 perhaps. The time has come to seize the moment, to set out, to truly begin. Here is where the big question arises that preoccupies us as modern human beings: Who am I? “Who am I then, in golden September, when I divest myself of everything which people have made of me?” (Bachmann). Seen in this light, the people of the Bregenzerwald are not modern. I note this with satisfaction rather than regret and breathe a sigh of relief. Modern people (in this sense) are driven by circumstances; this is in contrast to the rooted person, the person who has become. Here in the Bregenzerwald as I see it, making, or rather doing, work, is still a genuine pursuit because craftsmanship plays an important role, unlike in industrial regions with their giant factories and large corporations.
I’m not talking about doers or busybodies here, but about people who care about their jobs and their environment. They do not “harness themselves to the future” (Bachmann). Instead, they live in the here and now. They are at peace with themselves and their homes (the wonderful Bregenzerwald farmhouses). This is something so very different from the restless, aimless progression of the vainglorious. My Bregenzerwald is a region onto itself that does not shy from its goals: “Begone death, and stand still time.Use no spell, no tears, no clasping of hands, no oaths, or supplications.
Nothing of the kind.The imperative is: to trust that eyes are enough for eyes, that green is enough, that the lightest is sufficient. Thus obey the law and not emotion. Thus submit to loneliness.” (Bachmann) When I see them, the craftsmen, the rooted people, the farmers of this region, I see people before me who know that now it is “their turn to live” (Bachmann), that others came before them and that others will come after them. But they are the now. In the end, I do not know where they get this peace from. But you can tell they have it. And that is enough.
Author: Peter Natter
Issue: Winter 2021-22 Travel Magazine