Friday, 27 June 2014

Book Review: The Wall by Marlen Haushofer you might have noticed, I dedicated this June to literary genres which I don’t usually read. After sidesteps into humour, woman’s fiction and horror I’m moving on to the dystopian this week. At the same time I’m returning to my roots, namely to a modern classic of Austrian literature. The author ironically called it a “cat story” when she handed the finished manuscript over to her mentor, Hans Weigel, and asked him for his opinion. In fact, The Wall by Marlen Haushofer is a rather disturbing robinsonade with a female protagonist. Reading it I couldn’t help being reminded of two books that I had read early in high school: the original Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe, it goes without saying, and The Last Man Alive by Alexander Sutherland Neill. 

Marlen Haushofer was born as Marie Helene Frauendorfer in Frauenstein in Mölln, Upper Austria, Austria, in April 1920. After graduation from a (formerly) Catholic school in Linz, Austria, in 1939 and her labour service in East Prussia, she studied German philology. After the war, in 1946, she made her literary debut with short stories in papers and magazines. In 1952 she brought out a novella, Das fünfte Jahr (The Fifth Year), which was followed by her first novel titled Eine Handvoll Leben (1955; A Handful of Life). Her most important works are the novels The Jib Door (Die Tapetentür: 1957), The Wall (Die Wand: 1963), Nowhere Ending Sky (Himmel, der nirgendwo endet: 1966), and The Loft (Die Mansarde: 1969) which was the last work still published during the author’s lifetime. Worth being mentioned are also her children’s books, especially Brav sein ist schwer (1965; It’s Hard to be Good) and Schlimm sein ist auch kein Vergnügen (1970; Being Naughty Isn’t Fun Either) which seem never to have gone out of print. Marlen Haushofer suffered from bone cancer and died after surgery in Vienna, Austria, in March 1970.

The account of events that the narrating woman in her forties gives in The Wall begins with what was meant to be a nice weekend away from town, presumably Vienna, with her cousins Luise and Hugo at their hunting lodge somewhere in the Austrian mountains. It’s spring, more precisely a last day of April in the early 1960s. In the evening Luise and Hugo leave to have dinner in the village, while the narrator stays behind with the hunting dog called Lynx. The following morning everything seems as always at first although it’s kind of odd that the cousins haven’t returned. The narrator isn’t worried yet and takes Lynx for a walk to the village, but they don’t get far. Overnight an invisible wall has turned up from nowhere and doesn’t allow any person or animal to pass. The dog is bewildered and so is the narrator. She walks along the wall to see if there’s an end to it, but there isn’t and, what is worse, there’s no living creature to be seen on the other side. There’s nothing but an old man with his hollow hand halfway to his mouth in the process of washing his face at the well in front of his house who gives the impression of having been petrified in a split second. The narrator concludes that some sort of horrible weapon must have hit the country or that an experiment went terribly wrong and wiped out all life, but she has no means to find out the truth. Before long she returns to the lodge with Lynx to think things over. The next day she begins to explore her surroundings and the limits of her world. On a pasture she finds a cow isolated from her petrified herd and her shed. The lonely and helpless animal is at once a godsend and a burden because it gives milk and needs to be taken care of. The narrator analyses her situation, makes an inventory of all things in the lodge and realises that the provisions won’t last for more than a couple of months if she has to rely on them alone. At the same time she is painfully aware that life hasn’t well prepared her for surviving in a mountain forest. She knows how to milk a cow and to handle the scythe to mow hey to get it through the long winter. She has learnt to use a rifle although she never did anything but target practice, but she knows that she’ll have to shoot deer to have fresh meat for Lynx and herself. There are also potatoes and beans which she thinks wiser to plant than to eat, since she doesn’t know for how long she’ll have to hold out. From then on the daily routine of hard work and fight for survival begins. One day a shy tabby cat turns up at the lodge and hesitantly joins the narrator and Lynx. As it turns out later the cat is pregnant and so is the cow. Two and a half years pass by in the eternal rhythm of life. Then Lynx is killed and the narrator sets out to write down their story knowing that nobody will ever read it.

The nameless first-person narrator of The Wall (who refrains from giving her name because it’s of no importance in a world without people to address her) recounts her life in the wilderness in a matter-of-fact language. She has survived World War II and the threat of an all-destructive third war is very present in the early 1960s, the time of the Cold War and the Cuban Missile Crisis that almost started an atomic war as we know now. Thus her presumptions about what happened are only consistent with her experience. It’s also obvious that she has resigned to her fate and has no hope that things will ever again be as they were. In fact, she doesn’t even show a longing to return into the densely populated world where she comes from because she’s a very self-sufficient woman. To me it seems that in a way she even enjoys being alone and able to live her true nature without having to consider the opinion of others. At times she’s close to break down under the huge task of keeping herself as well as her animals alive, but however weak or tired she is, no matter if she’s ill or well, she never gives up and never refuses her responsibility. She is a woman who has learnt to fight and to endure. There are many ways that this book can be interpreted. For me it mirrors the basic human condition. In the end everyone of us is alone and living in a world of her/his own because we all build invisible walls around us to protect us from harm – if we are aware of it or not. Sometimes it may even seem as if the outside world were standing still and we were the only ones moving on. And all the time we have to fight, not just to stay alive in a hostile environment, but also to keep our humanity intact.

For me The Wall by Marlen Haushofer has been one of the most impressive and thought-provoking reads this year. It’s certainly not a light entertainment that is forgotten as soon as it’s over. On the contrary, the story lingers on in the mind. Even days after I had finished the novel, scenes from it emerged from my subconscious and made me ponder about life and myself. All things considered it’s a book that truly deserves my highest recommendation.


  1. I read "The Wall" more than a couple of years ago but it has staid with me until today. A great novel with lots to think about. A book I will never forget.

    You can find my more modest blog entry about the book here

    Marianne from Let's Read

    1. Thanks for your comment, Marianne! Always good to see that I'm not the only one impressed by a book :-).


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