George Ttoouli reviews Pierre Joris' The Agony of I.B. (Éditions Phi, 2016)Drama
Time taken to read: weeks and weeks and weeks
Time taken to review: 2hrs followed by a break of a couple of days, 5min,then another break of about a week, and a final (heavily interrupted) push of approximately 1hr30min. So 3hr30min total.
Where found: I wanted to get to the actual stage performance of this, but it was happening in another country at a time when I couldn’t travel to that country. An attendee to the play acquired a copy for me, so I’ve borrowed that.
Transparency: I encountered Pierre’s A Nomad Poetics a couple of years ago, through academic research. It struck me as the kind of book you have to hide from your supervisor and colleagues because it hovers on the (false) disciplinary boundaries between philosophical poetics and out-and-out poetry, and you don’t want a slap on the wrist.
And then last year, while digitising a stack of cassette recordings of poetry readings from the past 30 years (The Clive Bush Audio Poetry Archive), I listened to a launch of the first volume of Poems for the Millennium in London, as part of the Sub Voicive Poetry series and ended up writing to him (and co-editor Jerome Rothenberg) for permissions to publish the digitised recording.
Permission came after my temporary contract ended (and I don’t think the recording has appeared online because the (poor beleaguered) library team hasn’t the resources to keep up). Pierre and I had a brief exchange and he mentioned the play, or I’d heard about it already, and he told me he’d be there for the opening night in June this year and I said I would go if I could, yadayada.
I couldn’t go, and now it seems unlikely I’ll be able to catch Pierre and Jerome when they’re in the UK in October. I may have some disappointment and guilt I’m working out in writing this, but, well who cares? The main challenge is: it’s a play, wtf am I doing reviewing a play?!
Really, it would have been easier and a more pleasant experience for me if I’d read the whole thing aloud and jumped around the room into little marked footprints with labels indicating which character I was supposed to be. But no. Instead, I’ve been crawling through the 84 pages of this play like it was written in a foreign language and I’ve only a post-apocalyptic and partially burned dictionary at my side to help.
As one might expect of a multilingual (originally Luxembourgish, now US-based citizen of the world) translator and poet, much of the play is written in a foreign language, though English is the glue that binds. The opening line of the prologue welcomes the audience in English, French and German and the play proceeds to fling fragments of Italian, Spanish and Latin at you, ranging from snippets of the everyday to full blown extracts of poetry. There’s some Dante, a dose of Paul Celan and, of course, poetry by the eponymous I.B. in the title, Ingeborg Bachmann herself.
A brief aside: Éditions Phi, the publisher, have clearly gone about the publication a little too quickly (a bit like this review, perhaps). There are occasional missing words, several spelling mistakes and incorrect punctuation in places. This adds to the sense that the play itself was written with haste (the stage directions also seem to have been added somewhat slapdashedly for the premiere at the Luxembourgish theatre, TNL) and in turn gave me the feeling that there would be a lack of depth, or self-awareness to the play’s construction. So I was uphill struggling against typos.
The title’s 'Agony' caused me problems, all of my own making. I kept confusing what happened to Bachmann with what happened to Clarice Lispector: both women fell asleep with lit cigarettes, but Lispector survived. So, for much of the reading, I was expecting Bachmann to make it through and the play’s focus to be a kind of epiphanic, or mystical realisation about the direction her life has been taking so far, with hallucinatory conversations with past lovers and strange asides into what is fairly obviously a semi-autobiographical novel IB is writing, about a woman called Franza.
The minor difference with Lispector’s case, as that fountain of knowledge Da Internetz informs me, is that Bachmann died a month after being admitted to hospital for burns, possibly from complications caused by her addiction to barbiturates. And Franza – from The Book of Franza, an unfinished novel – recurs with the sense of those unfinished threads all lives leave behind.
Bachmann’s encounters with her former lovers and collaborators – Adolf Opel, Max Frisch, Hans Werner Henze (gay, and a collaborator, though there is much spiritual love there) and Paul Celan – are mostly with hallucinations of these individuals while she is hooked up to life support in Acts II and III. There’s a sense of reckoning, of accountability; the weight of relationships against the weight of her work, her labour. Altogether, the play might be crudely summarised as about legacy. But that’s exactly the kind of reviewing I don’t like doing.
The hardest part to experience in written drama, as with page poetry, is how the language is performed. Much of the dialogue in this play arrives as blocks of text, brief prose poems, or paragraph poems, soliloquies in which each character talks about themselves. Worst of all (and highly deliberate, expertly manipulative), Joris appears to have constructed all the male characters’ personalities through how they impose their needs, ideas and demands on Bachmann – her body and her body of work.
In the opening Prologue, Opel and Maria Teofili debate IB’s life. Opel repeatedly opines how she should have stayed in the desert with him, for that was where she was happiest. Henze, in Act II (the ‘real’ not the hallucinated version of him, in Scene 4), corrects her ideas, her imagination, urging conformity (perhaps with patriarchy, as much as with story tropes). His role seems to be that of editor, but also as a provider of disappointments, a pragmatic, negative force.
When Celan arrives in Act III, Bachmann does try and reach the desert, despite him coaxing her back, away from where she claims she wants to go. On the one hand, he supports her, keeps her moving, to keep her lively; on the other, he seems to steer her around the stage and, without being able to see the tenderness the actors might bring to the performance, I felt there was more than a little deliberate puppeteering at work.
As Celan walks the ghostly presence of IB around the stage in the final act, trying to bring her back to the hospital bed and her ‘real’ body, she resists, trying to take sustenance and independence from reaching the imaginary desert of her imagination. The metaphor, played out spatially and with stage-directed slides of desert imagery, must have been quite striking, but also hard to convey in physical terms as an act of power/control, while also delivering a much more obvious symbolism about the hot and cold natures of the cast’s personalities.
That’s not the point I’m really trying to make. I guess it’s about the controlling elements: Bachmann is a contrarian, seeking independence apparently to the detriment of her own health. She tries to will her independence against ranks of men, no matter how well-meaning they might be, and that, more than the physical pain of being burned, is the real Agony Bachmann undergoes, a lifelong battle.
One of the two other women in the play, Maria Teofili (described as IB’s ex-housekeeper and confidant in the cast list) delivers the message in the prologue, in fact, replying to Adolf Opel:
Oh, shut up, you buffoon. What do you know? Niente, niente! This is the drama of a life lived without love – not without lovers, but without an abiding love to share her dailyness with [anyone] except for her love of writing … you man-writers with your cojones do not know the hole a woman has to fill to feel whole – and words along can’t do it,but words are what she made,every day, words, words,words – they were her babies … A woman without a man is difficult, a woman without children is terrible. (14)
OK. If by the end of that little speech you also found yourself cringing, then we’re on the same page. Teofili isn’t the benevolent voice of female empowerment you might expect: another kind of conformity enters into her language. I’d take this as deliberate, as the play’s attempt to override an easy reading of gender roles, power roles and the tragedy of constraints within which Bachmann tries to find freedom. You could easily take her as crippled by her own behaviour, as a smoker, a drug addict, also, controlled by her own limitations.
And so I’m not sure quite what to think of IB, which may be the point: quit reaching irritably after easy facts and meanings. There’s a Prologue at the start of each Act featuring Teofili and Opel, and in each they debate IB’s life and character. By Act III Teofili’s role is much curtailed, she breaks down (emotionally unable to reason with Opel) and is led off stage by Opel in a way I found short on compassion, leaning more toward condescension. I found the progression to Teofili’s final departure from the stage unsatisfying, given the first Prologue indicating she’d be an important counterweight to the men and even to Bachmann herself. And that’s good enough evidence of Joris working against easy meanings, trends. This ain’t Brecht, Dorothy.
At the level of the line, the play is extremely satisfying. Firstly, the multilingual delivery: I enjoyed this, though I’m about as fluent in German and Italian as I am in rodent idiolects. Alienation isn’t the point, and often characters provide cribs for themselves or for others. Rather than deploying languages from a foundation of privilege, intellect and the setting up of barriers (in the way of high Modernist multilingualism), Joris uses fluidity and linguistic acrobatics as a kind of play and spectacle.
As Henze says in Act II:
Liebste Inge, carissima Inge, meine liebe arme kleine Allergrosste, liebe Pupetta, my darling wagtail, Inge, Ingeborg come aboard, Inge, cara, cara, carissima... (39)The meaning isn’t the point: those moments where characters quote poetry at each other, their own or that of others’, grounds the intimacy between them. It occurs as much in these ridiculous lists of pet names as anywhere else. In the same scene Henze also calls her “sisterlein, Schwesterlein” (40) and more follow. The language is very much his, but feels entirely personal to his relationship with Bachmann. Each relationship conjured from her hallucinatory, unconscious body carries a unique syntax. By the time Celan and Bachmann are in full flow, the language may as well be operatic:
Ingeborg Bachmann:There’s an almost-regularity to the clauses, the length of lines, the rhythm. Moments of syntactical parallelism and, frankly, the sheer melodrama of how they talk to each other, had me imagining an opera rather than a straightforward stage play. These lines seemed to want to be sung at the audience rather than to the other characters within the four-walled prison of the drama.
Paul, is that you? I thought you had drowned in the transport on the river. I tried to call you back. My voice wasn’t good enough. You never answered. You have been gone too long. But you always come and go as you wish or as you are pushed to do by I know not what. Now you answer because I am calling you with my starvoice, my sidereal voice, a voice no one has ever had. I create your name, I create you with that voice.
You are here with me, oh, Inge. You are waking up, you hear me, Ingeborg! We are all leaving, we are all travelling, but stay with me, we can do this together, finally, maybe, all the travelling, at least the last however many steps, through fire through water, my water extinguishes your fire, your fire dries out my water, these line brought you some fire... (65))
And this is entirely unique to the relationship they have. It’s as if Bachmann’s contradictions (the deserts of Egypt, the mountains of Austria) stem from having been many people, but only one person at a time for one lover, in one place. And perhaps that’s the ‘agony’: the multitudes she contains breaking out of her body at the end of her life. But again, that’s too easy.
My last point, which is understandable if you’ve read Joris’ recent interview at Asymptote, or are familiar with his translations: Celan is a scene stealer, once he arrives. His language, the way he leads the action, particularly in the penultimate scene, made me feel like there was a second play hiding behind this one, one that Joris really should attend to. Bachmann seems a means to an end for a brief moment, rather than the protagonist. There’s an emotional attachment and a kind of roundedness – something I found hard to pin down – which I struggled to read into Bachmann’s character. If anything, I found IB agonisingly self-involved at times (there, another agony for you), while Celan seems to stop her wallowing in whatever worlds she was locked into.
Celan is a key figure for Joris’ development and a major influence, by his own accounts. But these irrational moments sometimes dredge up some of the most exciting facets of human relations. Leaving aside the gender politics for a moment: isn’t it great to have someone in your life who can get you out of your own head, occasionally, tell you to cut down on the smoking and drinking, lower your pill-popping habits, go for a walk, get some fresh air, come back to the desk rejuvenated?
But OK, bring back the gender politics and maybe there’s something downright wrong: women have the right to self-destruct as much as men; and to reverse those roles, well: we all need mothers. Perhaps seeing the play onstage would have given me a better sense of how the dynamic played out for Joris, or at least the director (who I haven’t looked up, but I assume Joris had some creative input). That there’s ambiguity on the page is a good sign of the control of the writing, and the play's potential durability. Which is a terrible place to end a review, so I'll add this sentence.
Hmm. Going over this one last time, I can see I struggled a lot with the drama - stick to reviewing the shows! But there's also something satisfying in trying to stretch myself and having to struggle a bit. I'm not going to be selective for this series, or give myself an easy ride with the things I review, even if it may make for some choppy writing. But it's still early days...