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Back to the Wall

Marlen Haushofer’s study of the self in extremis

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, translated by Shaun Whiteside. New Directions, 248 pages.

You will want to make this a pandemic novel. You’ve read, or been told to read, a lot of them these days. So far, there aren’t many new ones, in which the virus itself appears, but there are plenty of old ones deemed newly relevant: books about plagues—the real, gangrenous kind, plus the allegorical kind—but, more abundantly, books about solitude, loneliness, isolation, alienation. So when you encounter a narrator living all alone in a remote cabin who, already on page one, has confessed to losing track of the days of the week, and perhaps—more gravely—to losing her mind, you are on alert. The evidence mounts: you learn that this woman has woken up one morning to discover an invisible barrier separating her little patch of land from the rest of the world. At first, unable to accept this, she literally hits her head against the wall. (It’s invisible, but it hurts.) Then reality sets in. She is on her own, save for her pets. She appraises the pantry. She understands that she will have to learn a new way to survive. Timely stuff!

The Wall, by Austrian novelist Marlen Haushofer, was first published in German in 1963, and it does indeed deliver on what we have come to expect from pandemic novels: a world turned upside down by an unseen menace; a social net torn apart, or revealed to have been in tatters all along; an individual life driven back on itself. And all this might have something to do with why the book, long a cult classic among German readers, has finally been published in English in the United States. (Over the past thirty years or so, three of Haushofer’s novels, including The Wall, have been translated in the UK, where they’ve found some passionate devotees and not much mainstream attention.) The title of The Wall alone, appearing just a few years after Berlin was literally divided by, well, a wall, invites a political reading, and Haushofer fans have ventured others: the book has been praised as a feminist Robinson Crusoe and advertised by publishers as a meditation on the effects of world wars. Reading the book through the lens of the pandemic is perhaps an inevitable next stage in its reception. But The Wall is not, at its core, a book about life in the face of disaster. It is a book that uses a calamitous rip in time to expose the very ordinary ruptures that, smoothed over by the relentless turning of the clock, we cavalierly disregard.

Tragedies are convenient landmarks: Where were you when . . . ? But Haushofer’s novels confirm that life is a never-ending series of befores and afters; we are constantly (every morning!) asked to start all over again. When the narrator of The Wall has counted all the matches left in her matchbox, she can no longer heft the weight of each day quite so easily. She is kept up at night with fears about the future, then lulled to sleep by dreams about the past, but she’s increasingly unable to truly imagine either, to believe in the seamless fabric of time. Haushofer’s fiction dismantles the myth of continuity: the world’s, and our own. It’s a helpful myth, of course. One of Haushofer’s other protagonists, reflecting on her youthful belief in fate—a tidy way of making the future continuous with the present—observes: “It had a lot of power in it, like all legends do.” What does a story look like without that legend, that power? The Wall gives us one answer, and, in doing so poses another, harder question: What does a person look like without it?  

Haushofer’s fiction dismantles the myth of continuity: the world’s, and our own.

The narrator of The Wall would, at first, rather not find out. The book takes the form of a journal, written not to probe the mind but simply to order it. The “report,” as she rather formally calls it, begins with backstory, as it must for readers’ sake, and also, one senses, for the author’s: Is this really happening? The little hunting lodge from which the woman writes, nestled in a lush alpine valley in Austria, belongs to her cousin and her cousin’s wealthy husband. A forty-year-old widow, the narrator is visiting on a spring vacation. One evening, her hosts venture off to the nearby village inn and never come back; the wall mysteriously descends overnight. Reconnaissance missions reveal that the world on the other side of the wall remains intact but frozen: a man bends down to drink from a stream; a sheepdog lies motionless on a doorstep. If the cabin’s owners still exist somewhere, it is as statues eternally nursing their beers. The hard-headed narrator doesn’t try to convince herself that any of this is reversible. She accepts that everyone, both nearby friends and faraway family, is dead.

This peculiar state, in which the rest of the world is at once utterly destroyed and exquisitely preserved, heightens the narrator’s own sense of precarity. That time elsewhere has stopped makes the project of measuring its progress in her life all the more urgent: she “resolutely decided to wind the clocks daily, and cross off each day in the diary . . . it struck me as very important; I was practically clinging to the meager remnant of meager routine.” As the seasons change, she continues doing the laundry and cleaning the house, even though no one is around to care. An ordinary task like brushing her teeth proves a newly extraordinary fact: unlike everyone else in the world, as far as she knows, she is still subject to time’s cruelest effect—decay. “Maybe,” she writes of her devotion to routine, “I’m afraid that if I could do otherwise I would gradually cease to be a human being.”

Ceasing to be a human being can mean something literal (death) or something harder to define (a loss of humanity). The Wall is interested in both, and it is most interesting because of what it reveals about the effect of one on the other: how the specter of losing your life changes the desire to hold on to your self. On its surface, the book seems like a fairly predictable piece of survival literature. Reading the narrator’s journal means watching her harvest hay, ration potatoes, cut firewood, salivate over the memory of bread. In addition to keeping herself alive, she must also care for a dog, a cow, a calf, and several ill-fated generations of cats. Yet the matter of life and death, foregrounded in all its practical details, looms over the novel as more than just a test of self-reliance. The central question of the story is not how to sustain existence but how to understand identity—what it’s really made of, and whether it was made to endure.  

In her fiction, Haushofer, the daughter of a pious Catholic but herself an atheist, gives new meaning to the word afterlife. In The Loft, published shortly before Haushofer’s death in 1970, the protagonist, an aging housewife, describes her teenage daughter as “a posthumous child”—“a child who is born after its parents’ real life span is over.” This doesn’t make any sense—an orphan whose parents aren’t actually dead?—unless, like Haushofer, you take seriously the prospect that lives can begin and end many times before death arrives. (Haushofer herself died just before her fiftieth birthday, having kept her cancer diagnosis a secret even from family and friends.) Her most interesting characters are all, in a sense, posthumous, looking back on what has happened to them from a slightly surreal distance. In The Loft, the middle-aged narrator’s life was long ago cleaved in two by a mysterious trauma; many years after she has spliced it back together, an old journal prompts her to revisit the past. In The Wall, the protagonist, literally severed from her former world, begins writing only two years after her isolation begins, chronicling her immersion in her new life and her alienation from her old one. “If I think now about the woman I once was, before the wall entered my life, I don’t recognize myself,” she writes.

This sort of retrospection is a risky novelistic gambit: we want our characters to be dramatized, not eulogized. But for Haushofer’s diarist, narrative distance, rather than flattening perspective, seems to utterly transform it: the space between then and now becomes a site of revelation, turning the submerged movements of a single mind into the visible force of a plot. In the early days of her isolation, she writes, “it still hadn’t quite dawned on me that my former life had come to a sudden end; I knew it, that is, but only in my head, so I didn’t believe it. It’s only when knowledge about something slowly spreads to the whole body that you truly know.”

What is a “former life”? A wall is a helpfully concrete boundary, but time, in the narrator’s new existence, is constantly dividing. When survival is in question, yesterday is no guarantee of tomorrow; the dangers and demands of today make everything else irrelevant past or unknowable future. “Even the woman who marked the diary with the word ‘Inventory’ on the tenth of May has become very strange to me,” the narrator observes. And when one self can’t recognize another, one self can also betray another. The essential task of staying alive (all that wood chopping and potato mashing) makes clear to the narrator just how trivial what once passed as work (all that tidying and prettifying) really was: “I have suffered from the fact that this woman was so ill armed for real life.”

This woman. Like Haushofer, who was the wife of a dentist and the mother of two sons (Claire-Louise Bennett, in an afterword to the new edition, calls her “a reticent midcentury Austrian housewife”), The Wall’s narrator seems to have led a life hemmed in by domestic duties, raising daughters who grow into “unpleasant” adults, chatting with other women about “clothes, friends, and the theater,” all while harboring profound, unspoken sorrow. Tethered to time, femininity can become a parade of loss: virginity must be given up, children let go, beauty and relevance relinquished. But as the narrator’s past gets bigger and stranger, this stacking doll of former lives is broken into all its pieces. If a fragmented identity sounds like a diminished one, this multiplicity of selves turns out to be expansive. “I could simply forget that I was a woman,” the narrator writes. “Sometimes I was a child in search of strawberries, or a young man sawing wood, or . . . a very old, sexless creature.” She is “more like a tree than a person”—a living being for whom time is not a currency to be lost or gained but simply a fact to be measured, in rings of wood or pages of a book.

Of all the internal divisions the narrator traverses, the starkest is the one that separates, or seems to separate, mind and body. The physicality of her new tree-like self is a source of wonder. “It wasn’t until I was forty that I discovered I had hands,” she marvels. Her body is the object of change—gone are her “little double chin” and “rounded hips”—and, at the same time, it must be the agent of change: there are no other “hands” to gather the strawberries, milk the cow, or ensure that she makes it from one season to the next.

While the narrator’s body alters the present and sustains the future, her mind preserves the past. As a tool, it functions—and sometimes fails—as a container. She is “nothing but a thin skin covering a mountain of memories.” The view from the peak of such a mountain can be quite pleasant. Rather than reckoning with the destruction of the world beyond the wall, she can simply restore it in her head. “Because I hadn’t seen the deaths of my children,” the woman observes, “I imagined them as being still alive.” Dualism and solipsism make for a dangerous combination. When her memories falter, there is no way to fill in the gaps. Each act of forgetting makes her a little emptier:

Names lived on in my head, and I no longer knew when the people who had borne them had lived. I had only ever learned for exams, and later the dictionaries behind me had given me a sense of security. Now, without these aids, my memory was in a terrible muddle. Sometimes lines from poems occurred to me; I didn’t know who had written them, and was seized by an obsessive desire to go to the nearest library and take out some books.

The journal is initially intended as one such “aid”—a means of remembering what happened. The narrator recalls that “as a child I had always suffered from the foolish fear that everything I could see disappeared as soon as I turned my back on it.” The wall, as she sees it, is a “confirmation of my childhood fears”; without warning, “my former life . . . had been mysteriously stolen from me.” Deprived of other people’s books, she has written her own. The journal becomes the best available proof of object permanence, a way of insisting on existence even when the entire world has turned its back. Its assertion of self-possession seeks to redress a theft.

But what, really, is worth keeping? Elsewhere in the report, she has scorned her old self, disparaged her old life. Would it be easier—better—to let go not only of whatever was “stolen,” but everything else, too? As the months behind the wall pass, the narrator seems increasingly ready to divest. She warns herself against being “susceptible to memories,” and is ashamed when she finds herself lost in nostalgic reveries. One summer, the narrator decides to spend the season in another abandoned hut that she has discovered on her side of the wall, in the so-called Alm, a mountain pasture where the cow and calf (now a full-grown bull) can graze in abundance. She returns again the following year, but fears turning it into “a feeble repetition” of the previous summer, telling herself that she must avoid “succumbing once more to the old magic.” The challenge of navigating the past only gets harder, because the past only gets bigger.

That first summer, the woman leaves a note on the table in the cabin—“Gone to the Alm”—even though she is “surprised at the absurd hope that it expressed.” Sheepishly, she admits that her journal serves a similar function. “I have realized,” she writes, “that I still hope someone will read this report.” Her extraordinary circumstances make the hope especially ardent—the wish to be read is, implicitly, a wish to be rescued—but does any diarist write without indulging this fantasy? It sounds grandiose, like a longing to be famous, yet it might simply express a longing to be real—to turn a set of selves into a single story that someone else can behold.

In her world, as in our own, the more powerful belief is not in endings but in beginnings.

By the time she is writing her account, the narrator has not only given up the dream of her rescuers; she has acknowledged that she might not even want them to find her: “They will be strangers, who will find a stranger. We won’t have anything more to say to each other.” Yet even as this audience recedes in her mind, another one endures. Throughout her isolation, she has kept “the endless conversation with myself alive.” In the end, what is perhaps most frightening to contemplate is not that no one else will find her report, but that she will abandon it—that she, too, will turn her back on herself and disappear.

The early days of the pandemic produced more “diaries” than anyone wanted to read. If The Wall tells us anything about what it’s like to live in our present moment, perhaps it is by showing us how and why we try to reach beyond it. The “absurd hope” of this story—and maybe any story—is that the former self who wrote it will be replaced by a future self who can read it.

In the end, the narrator’s second summer in the Alm proves to be anything but a “feeble repetition” of the first. A terrible tragedy occurs there, the greatest loss that she has experienced since the loss of the rest of the world, and the first true turning point of her isolation. A new “former” life has been carved out, this time not by the wall, but behind it. Looking back on her fateful departure from the cabin, the narrator realizes that she forgot to leave a note, as she had the previous summer: “It hadn’t occurred to me.” This might seem like a grave omen or a tragic error—a sign that she has stopped believing in the possibility of a happy ending. But in her world, as in our own, the more powerful belief is not in endings but in beginnings. She has not given up hope; she has simply—necessarily—given up one of her selves.