An Interview With Professor of German Studies Joe McVeigh

Olivia Goodman ’14
News Editor

Joe McVeigh, Professor of German Studies and director of the German Studies Junior Year Abroad Program in Hamburg this fall, is making several trips to Vienna to speak on Ingeborg Bachmann, the subject of his most recent book Ingeborg Bachmann Wien 1946-1953 (Ingeborg Bachmann’s Vienna), which focuses on the early years of Bachmann’s career as a renowned Austrian poet and writer.

McVeigh is currently directing the Smith JYA Hamburg Program for the seventh time.  His proximity to Vienna as director has also afforded him the opportunity to give three talks there, all three of which deal with Bachmann but are quite different and part of different settings.  “Vienna is only about an hour flight away from Hamburg, so that made it possible to do the talks without being away from the program too much.”

His talk at the University of Vienna on September 28 on “Cold War and Literature in Austria” was part of a symposium that was held and focused on Bachmann’s interest in Cold War Politics.  “Was she interested?  Yes.  Did she go public with her opinions?  Not in Vienna, but after she left in 1953,” said McVeigh.

The second talk, which occurred last Thursday, October 17, was to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Bachmann’s death.  “I was asked by the Bachmann family to appear with the writer’s brother, Heinz, at the closing of an art exhibition in Vienna on Bachmann’s writings as art.  The Viennese artist Ilse Gewolf created artworks that incorporate text from Bachmann’s works.”

Says McVeigh of his upcoming November 29 talk, “[It] will be a bit controversial.  My topic is: ‘Was Bachmann the ‘creation’ of Hans Weigel?’”  Hans Weigel was Bachmann’s mentor and lover during her years in Vienna.  He claimed in a novel he wrote about their relationship that she was his “creation” as a writer. You can imagine that this is a sensitive topic in many ways, made no less so by the fact that Weigel’s wife, the famous actress Elfriede Ott, will be in attendance.”

McVeigh cites a project from the 1990s, in which Bachmann was “only a footnote” that led him to stumble upon some lost radio scripts she wrote for the American radio network he was researching.  The archives of the station had been largely destroyed in 1955, but despite little hope of ever finding these scripts, “there they were in the posthumous papers of one of her colleagues at the station.  So I put aside the project on the radio station and worked on Ingeborg Bachmann’s scripts instead.

“Naturally, I had to immerse myself in her life and work, especially in the 50s, when the scripts were written,” said McVeigh.  The publisher of his previous book Radiofamilie, Suhrkamp Verlag in Berlin, asked McVeigh to do a follow-up book to the scripts, which led to his book on “Ingeborg’s Bachmann’s Vienna,” written in German.  Writing in German is important, “Because Bachmann is still a much-read and well-known author in German-speaking Europe. The Radiofamilie book was reviewed in every major German-language newspaper and by every major radio network in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. The book would likely not have received that kind of attention in English-speaking countries, had it been published in translation.”  However, Radiofamilie is appearing in English translation in March 2014 in Seagull Press.      

On Bachmann, “Her life is fascinating,” said McVeigh.  “During the war she wrote poetry, prose and even dramas as a teenager and questioned in them the fanatical hatred of the times. After the war, she went to war-torn Vienna to study philosophy and got her Ph.D. As a country girl from the provinces, she had to overcome many obstacles, yet she soon became a sensation in Viennese literary life.  Her work as a whole shows many feminist themes in a period when the women’s movement in Germany and Austria was still in its very earliest stages.”

McVeigh also notes that his work studying Bachmann will influence his teaching back at Smith.  “When you intensely engage with a writer’s work as a teacher, you cannot help but think how you might best get across to students the ideas contained in the writing. More importantly, you always consider how you might best get students to engage with the texts -and the life of the author- and formulate a response. In the 2008 seminar on Bachmann, the students were as much the ‘teachers’ as I was, in that they guided many of the discussions towards topics that I had not anticipated. That is the sign of good literature, that it engaged new generations and in ways that sometimes surprise.

“As in life itself, one never knows where one’s interests and research will lead.  The jump from pursuing a project in media studies (which I still hope to finish) to becoming a biographer of a major author still seems unreal at times. But that’s what makes life interesting, isn’t it?”


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