A Cult Classic of Extreme Isolation

A Cult Classic of Extreme Isolation

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A middle-aged woman takes a holiday in the Austrian Alps with her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband, Hugo. She is their guest at a hunting lodge, a two-story wooden villa on the edge of a forest. On their first evening together, Luise and Hugo go into the local village for a drink, leaving the woman alone. She makes a risotto for their expected return. The next morning, she wakes to an empty house, her only companion their Bavarian bloodhound, Lynx. It is a sunny day, so she sets off to the village with Lynx, in order to discover what has happened to Luise and Hugo. Lynx runs on ahead, but is soon “howling with pain and shock.” Bloody saliva drips from his mouth. A moment later, the woman bumps her head hard, and stumbles backward. She stretches her hand out and touches “a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a windowpane.” Three times she checks, and concludes, with horror, that a “terrible, invisible thing” is blocking her path.

Thanks to Kafka, I have a hideously realized picture of what it might be like to wake one morning and find I have been turned into an insect. Thanks to the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer, I have a hideously realized picture of what it might be like to wake one morning and find I am entirely alone in the world, confined by an invisible barrier. As in Kafka, a mundane realism prepares the ground for the unreal. In “The Metamorphosis,” Gregor Samsa worries that he will be late for work. In Haushofer’s “The Wall”—first published in German in 1963, and now reissued by New Directions in a lucid translation by Shaun Whiteside—we get sharp details about the hunting lodge, about the irritating Luise and her fat industrialist husband (Hugo, we are told, got rich by making a type of saucepan), and about their bloodhound; we also hear about desultory conversation concerning “nuclear wars and their consequences,” fear of which has led Hugo to keep a store of food and other useful things in the lodge. So when we confront the impossible wall, a few pages in, it is an index of the real rather than an apparition of the fantastical. The return to the now solidly established horror, in realism’s steady pacing, is always more visceral than the initial encounter. Gregor Samsa imagines sleeping a little longer and “forgetting all this nonsense.” Nothing is more powerful, in Haushofer’s early pages, than the narrator’s tentative return to the wall, after she has had some lunch and smoked three cigarettes back at the lodge: “Then I walked on with my hands outstretched until I touched the cool wall. Although I couldn’t have expected anything different, the shock was much more violent this time than the time before.”

Now she must take stock. The eerie silence betokens some kind of catastrophe. She can see through the wall, and on the other side are scenes of petrified destruction. An old man, standing by a brook and still bringing his cupped hand to his mouth, remains immobilized. When Lynx sees him, the dog emits “a drawn-out, terrible howling,” understanding “that the thing by the spring was not a living human being.” If the man by the spring is dead, the woman reasons, “then all the people in the valley must be dead, and not only the people but everything that had been alive. Only the grass in the meadows lived now, the grass and the trees; the young leaves brilliant in the light.” All she can do now is survive. Increasingly, she will also survive for others, in order to take care of the menagerie she collects around her, the animals who, in turn, keep her alive. Centrally, she has Lynx, “my only friend in a world of troubles and loneliness. He understood everything I said, knew whether I was sad or cheerful and tried, in his simple way, to comfort me.” She is joined by a cow, who blunders through the forest to join her: the woman names her Bella. Later, a cat arrives. The woman has dwindling supplies; she will have to learn how to shoot deer, an act she detests and never reconciles herself to.

She starts writing the “report” we are reading; when she finishes it, she has lived two years in solitude and can barely imagine another way of life. Even if she suddenly received the most exciting news, she reflects, it would have no meaning for her. She would still have to muck out the byre, fetch hay, chop wood. This is her calendar. She has lost sense of the days and the months, her clocks have all stopped. She is no longer “a servant of time.”

“The Wall” is a dystopian novel that gradually becomes a utopian one, as our narrator makes a new community. Haushofer’s inhabiting of animality is remarkably tender and selfless. The narrator spends little time mourning her two grownup children, but she becomes a loving parent to her animals. A long scene in which she helps Bella give birth to a calf is strange and wondrous. The woman understands that Bella, anxiously in labor, is calmed when she speaks to her: “So I said the same things to her that the midwife in the clinic had said to me. It’ll be fine, it won’t be much longer now, it’ll hardly hurt and that kind of nonsense.” She manages to pull the calf out of Bella’s womb, and lays it next to her: “It was a bull calf, and we had brought it into the world together. Bella couldn’t get enough of licking her son, and I admired the damp curls on his forehead. . . . I could read in her soft, shining eyes that she was bathed in warm delight. I felt quite strange, and had to escape from the stable.”

Marlen Haushofer (1920-70) has never been as celebrated as Elfriede Jelinek and Thomas Bernhard, two Austrian writers who came of age with her. “The Wall,” a cult classic of sorts, seems destined to be rediscovered by each generation, its reputation warmed by devoted readers. (I owe my knowledge of it to the writer Nicole Krauss’s recommendation.) Only two other novels by Haushofer are available in English translation—“The Loft” (“Die Mansarde”) and the autobiographical bildungsroman “Nowhere Ending Sky” (“Himmel, der Nirgendwo Endet”), both translated by Amanda Prantera. These novels were originally published in 1969, just before Haushofer’s death.

Haushofer is a rather terrifying writer, brutal both in her unillusioned clarity and in the calm with which she tracks the consequences of her fictional premises. She became an intense critic of the afterlife of Austrian fascism, acute at tracing the state’s ideological contamination of private life. Her novella “Wir Töten Stella” (1958), or “We Kill Stella,” limns a world of guilty secrets and repressions. It’s narrated, unreliably, by the forty-year-old Anna, who describes how Stella, a friend’s teen-age daughter, came to stay with Anna and her husband, Richard; how Richard had an affair with Stella and then abandoned her; and how Stella responded by committing suicide. Anna tells the story as if Stella were an unwelcome intruder, “a foreign body in our house,” whose eventual expulsion will bring the necessary return of domestic order. The political allegory is ominously legible. Although Anna is obviously saving face, privately she seems to have no illusions about the sort of postwar repressor her husband really is: “I used to blame only Richard, and I started to hate him. But now I know it’s not his fault that I am reacting in this way. . . . There are so many of his kind, the whole world obviously knows it and accepts it, and no one puts them on trial.”

Marital disaffection is continued in “The Loft,” whose female narrator chafes at her stolidly unhappy relationship with Hubert, her husband. Hubert “doesn’t like women, he merely needs them, and he doesn’t really like life either, for him it is a piece of homework that some unknown teacher has set him, and that he can’t get his head round, no matter how hard he tries.” Like Anna, the narrator of “The Loft” lives a double life, of knowing and not knowing, in order to survive. She trudges through a poisoned, postwar Austrian existence, where everything “has lost its flavor. . . . Last time I made a veal stew Hubert said, ‘Ugh, where the devil is that smell of corpses coming from?’ . . . The whipped cream stinks and the fish reeks of petroleum.” Her marriage has become loveless drudgery: “At some point I simply found myself there, washing Hubert’s socks in the basin.” As in “The Wall,” the utopian alternative to the dystopia of existence may turn out to be a separate world, a place certainly lacking those human beings known as men, and perhaps lacking any human beings at all. In her loft, the room that gives the novel its title, the woman can retreat; Hubert rarely enters. Up there, she draws animals (insects, fish, reptiles, and birds, never mammals or humans). In the past few years, she has drawn almost exclusively birds, with a peculiar, somewhat gnomic aim: “to draw a bird that is not the only bird in the world. By this I mean that anyone looking at it must grasp this fact straight away. To date I have never achieved this and I doubt I ever shall.”

“The Wall” is one of those books, like “Dead Souls” or “Don Quixote,” which effortlessly wring meaning upon meaning from their opening narrative conceit. In part, Haushofer’s novel is a sci-fi imagining of nuclear devastation, which looks with horror both forward and backward (faced with a bare cupboard, the narrator remembers experiencing an intense craving for food during the Second World War). In part, it offers a feminist rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, “Robinson Crusoe.” Crusoe blithely instrumentalizes the land, imposing on it, and on his small human community, the colonialist terms of his native Englishness. In this sense, although he is away for thirty-five years, he never loses his political and metaphysical essence; it should come as no surprise that, when Crusoe finally returns to England, he continues where he left off, and simply resumes the life of a plantation owner, now complete with slaves. Like Job, whom he invokes, he has been punished and then richly recompensed, in one long providential arc.

Haushofer’s narrator spends much of the novel shedding her essence. First to go is the social exoskeleton of her womanhood, the world’s construction of her femininity. Shaped by intense manual labor, her new body is tough, wiry, “male.” She has already removed her rings (“Who would decorate their tools with gold rings? It struck me as absurd”), and now cuts her hair short: “The womanliness of my forties had fallen from me, along with my curls, my little double chin and my rounded hips. At the same time I lost the awareness of being a woman.”

She has little sympathy for the woman she once was. Of course, she thinks, she shouldn’t be too harsh on this earlier, hapless incarnation, who “never had the chance of consciously shaping her life.” She had started a family and had been immediately beset by obligations and anxieties. She would have needed to be heroically strong to overturn that inherited order, and she was never heroically strong, was “never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.”

Why stop there? “The Wall” appears to propose what has been called (by the literary scholar Anna Richards) a “feminist ethics of care,” in which animal husbandry is, precisely, feminized. In this regard, the novel prefigures an entire discourse of the nineteen-eighties and nineties, which has emphasized the connections between masculinism and meat-eating—and, perhaps, the male God. In classic fashion, the young protagonist of “Nowhere Ending Sky” loses her faith in a providential God when she reflects that “He sees the pigs being slaughtered and the deer lying stiff and bloody in the snow . . . so either He is all-loving and all-powerful but not all-knowing, or else He is all-knowing and all-loving but not all-powerful.” In “The Wall,” Haushofer’s narrator, alone with her animals, establishes a kind of separatist commune deep in the woods, creating a new life so fulfilling and engrossing that it is not clear she would wish to rejoin the old, ordinary, damaged society, even if she could.

But there’s a danger of locking this strange book into place, in order to make it “speak,” politically. Our narrator is on a metaphysical journey, and her de-essentializing may take several further forms. There will also be a shedding of the human, whatever that quite means. It is much easier, the narrator thinks, to love Bella or the cat than to love another human being. Sometimes she feels as if she had spent fifty years in the forest. Bella has become more than her cow, has become “a poor, patient sister who bears her lot with more dignity than I do.” The animals are turning human, and the human is turning animal. Or perhaps the human is turning into forest:

One day I shall no longer exist, and no one will cut the meadow, the thickets will encroach upon it and later the forest will push as far as the wall and win back the land that man has stolen from it. Sometimes my thoughts grow confused, and it is as if the forest has put down roots in me, and is thinking its old, eternal thoughts with my brain. And the forest doesn’t want human beings to come back.

One day, she looks in the mirror and contemplates her short hair and her tanned face—and, astonishingly, disavows her face, as Emil Cioran perhaps intends us to do when he writes that the first duty, on getting up in the morning, is to blush for oneself. “It looked very strange, thin, with slight hollows in the cheeks,” she writes. “Its lips had grown narrower, and I felt this strange face was marked by a secret need. As there were no human beings left alive to love this face it struck me as quite superfluous. It was naked and pathetic, and I was ashamed of it and wanted nothing to do with it.”

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