Monday, September 5, 2011
Book Review - The Wall by Marlen Haushofer
I have to admit that though I work in publishing and though, up until 2010, I lived more years in Switzerland than I’d lived in the United States, I’d never heard of Marlen Haushofer until this year. True, Frau Haushofer was Austrian, and was born in Frauenstein, Austria in 1920. But Austria borders Switzerland (to the east) and both countries speak dialects derived from High German. No matter what we speak in everyday life, both Swiss and Austrians write in High German. And I attended school in Switzerland (and in France). I’ve no excuse; I really should have heard – and read – Marlen Haushofer at least ten years ago. But better late than never, right?
Marlen Haushofer studied German in Vienna and in Graz before settling in Steyr. In 1941, she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist, who she later divorced and then remarried, bearing him two sons. Haushofer’s first novel, A Handful of Life, was published in 1955. The Wall, one of her most successful books, was published in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for Literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970. I am not positive, but I believe only The Wall and The Loft have been published in English, The Wall by Quartet Books in 1991, and translated by Shaun Whiteside, The Loft, also published by Quartet, and translated by Amanda Prantera. Both may prove a little difficult to find in the United States but are well worth the hunt.
The Wall centers around a middle-aged widow who’s holidaying at her cousin’s alpine home. One evening the others leave for a night out in the nearly village. Expecting them home later that night, the widow is quite surprised when she awakens the next morning and finds herself alone. Deciding to investigate, the widow, who, through the course of the novel, remains nameless, takes her cousin’s dog, Luchs, and discovers an invisible wall that separates them from the “outside” world. On the other side of the wall is a man, frozen in mid-motion. Our narrator soon discovers that “her” world is now bounded by a measurable area that is partially forested, partially alpine meadow, and occupied by a variety of different animals.
I thought this was a wonderful beginning. It’s not entirely original, but it was certainly interesting, and it did make me want to know “what happened next.” I felt compelled to read on. I was also struck by the fact that The Wall was, for me, reminiscent of the work of Jose Saramago, i.e., a strange, new world in which the fantastic seems commonplace; an unnamed narrator in an unnamed place; a faithful dog.
The Wall is often touted as belonging to “feminist, dystopian” literature, and the heroine as being a “female Robinson Crusoe.” I generally don’t care for either feminist or dystopian literature, and I didn’t like the character of Robinson Crusoe very much, so I really didn’t expect to find much to enjoy in The Wall, but, save for one incident that almost made me regret I’d read the book, I was wrong.
The narrator of The Wall soon discovers that she is, in all probability, the last living person on earth, though she is not the last living being. There is Luchs, and a nameless cat as well, who later bears a litter of kittens; there’s Bella, a cow found in a nearby alpine meadow; and there are several deer living in the forest. Forced to learn to work with Nature, though never against it, our narrator learns how to milk Bella, how to use her hands in utilitarian ways, how to grow crops of potatoes, beans, and hay, and how to kill the deer and preserve the meat, thus keeping everyone – except the deer, of course – alive.
Readers who expect a fast moving plot won’t find it in this book. The Wall, with its minimalist plot is a supremely interior, introspective book as we learn the details of all the book’s heroine must accomplish in order to keep herself, and “her” animals, alive. We celebrate her victories, and we worry over her defeats.
As the narrator struggles with the hard, physical labor of “just remaining alive” she makes many discoveries about herself, discoveries surrounding her personality, her femininity, and her very humanity. I appreciated the author’s meticulous attention to detail in this book and thought it aided my understanding of the narrator and what she valued in life.
I might not be right, but for me, at least, The Wall was an exploration of what it means to be human and our connectedness with all of nature. The narrator must take care not to lose sight of her humanity as she struggles through two winters and one glorious summer with only a dog, a cat, and a cow for company. The things our narrator thought were so important turn out to be not important at all, such as appearance. Survival must come first and foremost. To that end, Bella plays the most important role in the narrator’s life. All of the animals are beautifully drawn, and all really come alive – as major characters – in the pages of this book. Haushofer’s characterization of Luchs is particularly powerful.
When a second unexpected catastrophe occurs, the narrator feels the need to write her story down, to explore more fully the solitary life she’s been leading. But who will read what the woman has written? Anyone? This question is never answered, just as the reason for the sudden extinguishing of all life some two years before is never given.
The Wall is, at times, a claustrophobic book, yet it’s powerful and provocative as well. The author has a fluid, lyrical writing style that serves her minimalist plot quite well. The Wall is as disturbing as Cormac McCarthy’s prize winning novel The Road, but The Wall, at least for me, was far more rewarding as well. This is, in the end, a beautiful book that I’ll remember for many years to come.
Recommended: Definitely. This is beautiful book, beautifully written, but the plot is minimalist and introspective.