Ilse Aichinger Essay - Critical Essays


The most common critical reaction to Aichinger’s fiction is to call attention to her similarity to Franz Kafka, for her stories seem dreamlike, hallucinatory, and subtly allegorical. As a number of critics have pointed out, Aichinger, like Kafka, creates a fictional world that is both real and visionary at once—what one critic has called a sort of “waking dream.” Fellow author Wolfgang Hildsheimer has noted that Aichinger and Kafka are both absurdists but that they differ in that, whereas Kafka’s narrators question the world of the absurd, Aichinger’s narrators adapt to the reality of it.

Although Aichinger has also been compared to Samuel Beckett and James Joyce, with the exception of her two most famous stories, “Spiegelgeschichte” (“Story in a Mirror”) and “Der Gefesselte” (“The Bound Man”), her work is not well known in America. Part of the reason for this neglect has been attributed to the European orientation of the absurdist vision and to the demands that Aichinger places on her readers. Described as a skeptic of well-defined terms in particular and language in general, Aichinger is said to be against “easy consumption” and to expect her readers to engage fully with her texts.

“Story in a Mirror”

One of Aichinger’s most admired short fictions, this story, also translated as “Life Story in Retrospect,” has been frequently commented on, with one critic calling it “one of the most powerful masterpieces of our time.” Basically, the story is a narrative trick in which time is reversed much like a film being run backward. The story focuses on the life of a young woman, told by her in second person from the moment of her death back to her birth, at which point she dies in actuality.

The retracing of the girl’s life provides no significant cause of her death. Her experience—meeting a young man, falling in love, getting pregnant, having an abortion, contracting a fever, and dying—is too summarized and generalized to provide insight into her character. However, as a narrative experiment, the technique of the story often creates interesting effects, for the girl who tells the story seems quite aware of the reversal taking place. Thus, when she tells of hearing a voice saying “the death struggle is beginning,” she can react by saying, “Don’t listen to them! What do they know about it?”

The reversal makes possible several ironic implications; for example, when the girl screams to the old woman who has performed the abortion to bring the fetus back to life, her desire is fulfilled by enabling her to walk back away from the abortion appointment in reverse time. When she recounts her relationship with the...

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