Inspiring Austrian Women: Ilse Aichinger

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the ACF London in partnership with Copy Press presents a special evening of literature and performance celebrating the recent re-publication of The Bound Man, and Other Stories, by Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger. Today, Heide Kunzelmann, who is featured at our event translation. friendship – A celebration of the writing of Ilse Aichinger, writes about the author’s life and work.

Ilse Aichinger
1953, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek München/Timpe

When in May 1952, the 31-year old Ilse Aichinger climbed the podium at a meeting of the notorious German post-war writers ‘Group 47’ – Gruppe 47 – in Niendorf, a small town at the shores of the Baltic Sea, to read from her story Spiegelgeschichte (Story in a Mirror), the predominantly male audience fell silent. Writers that would later be called the vanguard of Kahlschlag literature (tabula rasa literature) were transfixed, not only by the unusual narrative configuration of the story but also by the young woman’s appearance and voice. In his memoir-like anthology of writers’ portraits, entitled “Im Etablissement der Schmetterlinge” (The establishment of butterflies), Hans Werner Richter, central figure of the Gruppe 47 describes the effect Ilse Aichinger had on the audience as follows:

“She was able to put everyone under her spell, when she started to read, and it was not only the quality of her texts, it was her voice that fascinated everybody. Of course, the declared realist writers of our group tried to resist, they profoundly disapproved even of the word ‘enchantment’, yet they could not escape [Ilse’s] charisma.”

That day, Ilse Aichinger would win the Award of the Gruppe 47 for her story about a young woman whose life runs in reverse, from the moment of her premature death caused by a botched abortion-attempt to the moment of her birth, which becomes the moment she dies. She won because it was apparent to everybody present that her’s was an immense talent to poetically elevate the laconic, and the unsayable in the human condition, and to charge every word with symbolic luminance. The surreal element in her writing, often presented in the form of parables, led to comparisons with Franz Kafka’s work, but Ilse Aichinger’s texts surpass Kafka’s in their emphasis on the emotional quality of human suffering. They ultimately also employ quite different narrative strategies.

Aichinger’s writings reflect her preoccupation with the Nazi persecution of the Jews during World War II. As the daughter of a Jewish mother, she and her family were subjected to increasing Nazi terror in Vienna and Ilse was separated from her twin-sister, Helga, who traveled to England on a ‘Kindertransport’ in 1939. Ilse Aichinger subsequently lost many members of her family in the Holocaust, but managed to survive the war with her mother. Of course this experience of War and nationalsocialist horror impacted her greatly, and when she was allowed to continue her education again after 1945, she gave up the possibility of a career as a medical doctor for the sake of writing.


Ilse Aichinger Extract
Copy Press


Her only novel, Die grössere Hoffnung (“The Greater Hope”; Eng. trans., Herod’s Children), came out in 1948. In 1953, a year after her great success at the meeting of the Gruppe 47 she married the German poet Günther Eich, whom she had met there. Aichinger’s other works include Rede unter dem Galgen (1951; “Speech Under the Gallows”; Eng. trans., The Bound Man and Other Stories); Knöpfe (1953; “Buttons”), a radio play about the metamorphosis of workers in a button factory into their products; Plätze und Strassen (1954;“Squares and Streets”), Zu keiner Stunde (1957; “Never at Any Time”), an anthology of surreal dialogues; and the short-story collection Schlechte Wörter (1976; “Inferior Words”), with texts that are reminiscent of Wittgenstein’s philosophical thoughts on the limits of language and communication.

Ilse Aichinger, who celebrated her 94th birthday in 2015, lives in Vienna and continues to enrich the Austrian literary sphere by her short prose and radio plays. In November 2015, her radio play Auckland formed the basis for a performative building of a “House for Literature” through sounds, words and light – the foundation to a “Literaturhaus without walls”, where Aichinger’s spell lives on and thrives.

Heide Kunzelmann is Director of Taught Programmes in German, School of European Cultures & Languages, University of Kent. She is also Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Centre for Austrian Literature at the Institute of Modern Languages Research at the University of London. Her research focuses on post-war Austrian literature and culture, especially the Austrian avant-garde and the Wiener-Gruppe. She is author of ‘ich bin ja der Proteus’: H.C. Artmanns Poetik der Wandelbarkeit (Vienna: Sonderzahl, 2013).

Ilse Aichinger The Bound Man
Copy Press


On the occasion of International Women’s Day, the ACF London in partnership with Copy Press presents a special evening of literature and performance celebrating the recent re-publication of The Bound Man, and Other Stories, by Austrian writer Ilse Aichinger.
Invited participants include artist Amelie Mourgue d’Algue, poet and translator Uljana Wolf, author, poet and performer Olumide Popoola, Director of the Ingeborg Bachmann Institute London Heide Kunzelmann, Naoko TakaHashi, Rebecca May Johnson, Jayne Parker, Kristen Kreider, Erica Jarnes, Emily Gray and translator and political philosopher Arianna Bove. The performances, as the book itself, will explore the limits of language.
Click here for the event.



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