I don’t know why, but it seems I am drawn to books about singular women that have a heightened contact with nature. I’ve just read The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip, about a female wizard that grew up in isolation, surrounded by fantastic beasts. I also have fond memories of Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead by the Polish Olga Tokarczuk – who won the 2018 Nobel Prize. And don’t get me started on The Door by the Hungarian Magda Szabó: while my review of that 1987 book was just short, it is one of my favorite reads ever – if you haven’t read it, I urge you to give it a try.
25 years older than The Door and 46 years younger than Drive Your Plow…, The Wall also has a central European origin: Austria. Marlen Haushofer wrote it in German, and Die Wand was translated in English in 1990 by Shaun Whiteside.
The story has a clear speculative premise: the female protagonist gets trapped in the Austrian mountains, as a suddenly appearing giant transparent wall closes her in, encircling the hunting lodge and the surrounding landscape – mountains, woods, an alm, a valley. It seems all animal life outside the wall is dead, and the woman is left to her own devices to survive – together with a cow, a dog, and a cat.
Those expecting a full-fledged sci-fi romp will be disappointed if they can’t appreciate anything outside genre. The origin of the wall is never explained, nor explored. It is something of a paradox that the story’s only speculative element is at the same time very dominant, yet hardly present. Haushofer’s choices make for a novel that hasn’t dated at all.
The Wall takes the form of a first-person account of the woman, who writes about her ordeals to keep madness at bay. The book has no chapters, and its 224 pages are one long sequence describing chronologically what happened, with the occasional foreshadowing rumination. The story’s focus is rather monomaniacal, and what happens is more or less predictable: she turns to a farming life, one that might offer her better chances of self-realization than her old life.
In a way, it is a miracle Haushofer managed to write an utterly compelling novel, rather than a drab, boring tale about someone planting potatoes again and again. The Wall sucked me in after 30 pages, and if I could, I would have finished it in one sitting.
Two factors contribute to that. The fact that the main character writes only for herself makes for an honest voice, resulting in someone interesting, devoid of moral conventions, a woman that isn’t shy to admit she has grown disinterested in her two children.
Haushofer herself led something of a double life, living partly in small town Steyr, where she was the quiet wife of a dentist and nobody knew she was a writer, and partly in Vienna, where “she moved in fashionable literary circles, discussed books and ideas, had affairs”. The Wall‘s protagonist easily convinces as a real character, not some naive concoction, and it seems to me this is the result of Haushofer being in touch with the full spectrum of human existence – and not some idealized moral version of it.
The second factor is that Haushofer – with very few narrative tricks – manages to convey a constant feeling of dread to the reader. Because of the specific nature of these tricks, it is best to limit your exposure to spoilers. If you have read the book already – and only if – Nicholas Spice wrote an excellent, long piece on Haushofer in the London Review of Books that is very much worth reading.
The effect is (…) also to make us feel on our pulses the reality of the ‘always already’ of death, the ineluctable truth that, as Larkin puts it, ‘most things may never happen: this one will.’
The novel is a pastoral science fiction story that is nothing but realist, but at the same time there are plenty of possible metaphorical interpretations – besides the obvious questions it raises about modern life. Another Spice quote points at a psychological layer too:
Asked about The Wall in an interview, Haushofer replied: ‘One sits around a table and is – so many people, so many walls – far, very far apart from others.’ Her work speaks of a conviction that our social selves may seem knowable and capable of connection but the inner self of consciousness – the self that says ‘I’ – is axiomatically alone. The personalities we are known by are constructed to appear stable; the ‘I’ that thinks to itself of itself has no personality and is unreachably immured within each individual mind.
I came across a paper on the novel in German, with “Ästhetik des Taktilen” in the title, and that rings true as well. Haushofer wrote about the body that feels – and not only the human body, but the bodies of the animals that populate the story too. She has a sharp insight in how material circumstances dictate lives, and while her outlook might seem nihilistic to some – no free will, no soul but in the body – it does speak for the value of emotions and thoughts. Haushofer firmly inscribes those in our biological lineage, and the protagonist forms a small community with her animals.
One final quote from Spice to seal the deal – why spend too much time writing a review when someone else has already said it better? One caveat: I think interpreting this as historical allegory is more than a stretch – that way of reading seems more determined by Austrian circumstances back then than by the book itself.
Purged of rhetorical flourish, her prose is a model of simplicity and concision; but the pictures which her sentences paint are enigmatic, overdetermined, elusive. We can claim her books for feminism, for eco-politics, for existentialism or psychoanalysis, or we can take them as thrillers or dreams. The first Austrian readers of The Wall and The Loft read them as powerful allegories of recent European history, but they would work equally well as elegiac essays in the nature of mind. Implicitly they remind us that we exist in multiple nested frames of reference: as pure consciousnesses without attribute, as psychological constructs, as social beings, as citizens of the polis, as products of historical circumstance, as members of our gender and our species. In Haushofer’s worlds, nothing is just one thing: the wall excludes but also contains, suffocates and liberates;
If there is a main lesson in The Wall, it might very well be the one described by Michel Faber, who puts the book next to Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis and Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.
The Wall‘s nameless protagonist and Haushofer are both forced to develop a different, more interesting relationship with solipsism: after all, there’s work to do, food to grow, animals to care for.
Even though there was a bit of a frenzy about the book in France in 2019 after an Instagram post about it went viral, and such towering figures as Doris Lessing and Elfriede Jelinek are among the book’s admirers, I feel as is if I’ve just read one of literature’s best kept secrets. (The terrible cover art for all the English editions surely hasn’t helped to propel this book to a larger audience.)
It goes without saying I can recommend The Wall wholeheartedly to about any reader: both to readers of regular literary fiction, as to the speculative fiction fan that does not mind a slipstream last-women-on-earth dystopian utopia in a part of the wilderness that is still tamed.
Die Wand was also translated in French as Le mur invisible and in Russian as Стена. I read the Dutch translation by Ria Van Hengel, De Wand, which was first published in 1988 and again in 2010, as an updated and revised version by the same translator. In 2012 a German-Austrian movie adaptation was released.