#WITMonth: Marlen Haushofer

It’s not often that you have the privilege and delight to start off the Women in Translations with two books of such high calibre, books that will stay with you forever. After Tokarczuk’s modern fable about humans vs. animals, I moved on to The Wall by Austrian Marlen Haushofer. Once again, it was a book that so many people had been recommending, including my childhood friend who now lives in Berlin, so that’s where I finally bought it a couple of years ago.

This time my reluctance to read it was not because I thought I’d enjoy it, but because I feared I might not (and I’d have to admit that to all my friends who loved it).  I thought the premise sounded deadly dull: a woman wakes up to find she is the only survivor in a small portion of the Austrian Alps, sealed off from the rest of the world by a transparent wall. The rest of the book describes her daily life over the course of the seasons, her struggle to survive, a sort of female Robinson Crusoe, with only a dog, a cat and a cow as her companions, and a lot of hard work that she has to learn to do: chopping wood, growing potatoes, scything the long grass to produce hay and so on.

And yet this relatively short and simple story is anything but dull. She keeps a sort of notebook of her experiences, not a diary but a story written a couple of years after she started her hermit lifestyle, so there is a sense of foreshadowing throughout. Both the unnamed narrator and the reader are forced to slow down, to think about time in a very different way, to become one with nature and the seasons. The descriptions of the natural world and the loving observations of animal behaviour are very moving, almost magical. The empathy that the woman develops with her animals, choosing her duty towards them over any attempt to ‘escape’ from the enclosure, is one of the things which reminded me of Tokarczuk’s work (and I wonder if the Polish writer was inspired by the Austrian one). Haushofer’s father was a forest ranger and she spent her summers in early childhood roaming on the Alps a bit like Heidi, which would explain her profound love of nature (although she admitted she relied on her brother’s expertise in botany and animal husbandry while writing the book).

Photo of the author on the cover of a biography entitled ‘I’m possibly crazy’, which I think I might have to get…

The narrator shares this quiet sense of acceptance and even contentment with the author. I gather Haushofer’s life was not all that happy. Growing up and studying during the Second World War in an Austria that rather conveniently forgot its Nazi proclivities after the war, she divorced and later remarried her dentist husband, helped him out in his work and raised two children. She was hugely respected by her contemporaries, won several literary prizes, but (whether out of a sense of bourgeois guilt or whatever), always put her family first. She was frustrated that she did not have enough time to write but, modestly, never made a big fuss about it. She was a contemporary of Ingeborg Bachmann, but was forgotten for a while, although Elfriede Jelinek considered her a source of inspiration.

The book has been interpreted as a description of some sort of psychological breakdown or depression. It has also been interpreted as a feminist or ecological tract or anti-nuclear manifesto. It can be all of those things, but to me it’s about a journey of self-discovery: just what are you capable of in extremis, what inner reserves can you have and how do you find peace despite suffering pain and loss, despite being confronted daily with your mortality.

Time is the main character really in this book: it seems to stand still, and yet we can feel its passing, in the seasons, in the animals and the body growing old.

I sit at the table and time stands still. I cannot see it, smell it or hear it, but it surrounds me on all sides. The stillness, the lack of movement, is frightening. I jump up, run out of the house and try to escape it. I do something, things move on and I forget about time. But then, all of a sudden, it surrounds me once more. I might be standing in front of the house and looking at the crows, and there it is again, invisible and silent, holding us firmly – the field, the crows and myself. I’ll have to get used to it, to its indifference and constant presence. It spins out into infinity like a spider web…

[own translation]

It was particularly moving to read this book in a state of almost lockdown, alone in the house without the children, merely the cats for company, but overall I did not find it depressing, although I may have cried once or twice when I heard about the fate of one or the other of the animals. I read the book in German, but it has been translated into English by Shaun Whiteside and published by Cleis Books and then reissued in 2013 by Quartet Books after the success of the film adaptation.

I enjoyed this book so much that I instantly ordered a couple more books by Marlen Haushofer (unfortunately, only available in German). What is it about these Austrians, that they seem to see into my very soul (or has my soul been corrupted by growing up in Austria)? It’s a book that will certainly stay with me all my life.

32 thoughts on “#WITMonth: Marlen Haushofer”

  1. I haven’t read the book yet (in translation, in due course), but after my partner read it in German, we then got the movie and saw that early this year. It was good – and he felt that it was very true to the book despite a few changes. In the movie the ending is very odd – where it turns out there is another person and he kills her dog. I wonder if that felt as odd (to the reader) in the novel?

    1. Oh no, I was trying to hide that in my review, because it did come as a complete and utter shock to me, right at the end, and is dispatched within just a couple of pages. Yes, it is a massive surprise and blow, although of course she mentions throughtout the deaths of the dog and the bull.

    2. I’m sorry if I’ve spoilt it, but given I have, can I ask, are you happy with the ending, ie, that it makes sense? Or if it doesn’t make sense that it doesn’t matter that it doesn’t?

      1. I think the shaggy, wild and aggressive man shows the other option of being left to fend for yourself in the wild. It has been interpreted as men vs. women, but I don’t think Haushofer had a particularly feminist view on it. More like the two sides of human nature.

  2. What a praise! I see that it’s available in French, published by Actes Sud, which is a good sign.

    I’m curious about it. Would you consider this as “nature writing” in a Gallmeister kind of way?

    1. It is nature writing, but also so interiorised – not lyrical twittering or swooning over landscapes. Not nature as the mirror of a very self-absorbed person who needs saving from some kind of addiction or urban lifestyle (sorry, but I have a bit of an ‘ughh’ reaction to those kind of nature memoirs). There is something hypnotic about the repetitiveness of the tasks she has to do and the passing of the seasons. I think it may have led the way for the kind of nature writing you would get nowadays from Kathleen Jamie. And, of course, it is fiction, not memoir. Which, in my book, means it is much more carefully written.
      Ah, yes, Actes Sud, of course, sounds like the right book for them!

      1. That’s Gallmeister Nature Writing then. It’s not self-centred, just people living in a place where they cannot ignore nature around them.

        I recommend the Book of Yaak by Rick Bass, even if it’s a memoir.

  3. Beautiful, brilliant review, Marina! So glad you liked Marlen Haushofer’s great book. It is one of my alltime favourites! I love it so much that I’m scared to even read it a second time. But I think, the time for a re-read has arrived. After reading your review, I’m inspired to read it again soon. Loved the quote about time that you shared. Which other books by Haushofer did you get? Only three of her books are available in English translation, The Wall, The Loft and Nowhere Ending Sky. I loved them all and I want to read more of her work. Hope all her books get translated into English. Haushofer is one of my favourite writers now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts 🙂

    1. You were one of the people urging me on to read this and I’m so grateful you did – it is wonderful! I’ll continue dipping in and out of it, to reread certain passages, I am sure. I ordered (they haven’t arrived yet from Germany): Die Tapetentur (Wallpaper Door? – strange, but I can’t think of a better translation) and a collection of short stories (Terrible Faithfulness?).

      1. I am so happy that you liked it, Marina! Hope you enjoy re-reading your favourite passages! The two Haushofer books you have mentioned look interesting! Happy reading! Will look forward to hearing your thoughts.

  4. I bought this after reading Vishy’s review and it’s one of my all time favourite reads too, it’s a hard book to describe to someone in terms that makes it sound a worthwhile read. It’s the struggle and the survival, the companionship of animals, wondering if anything will change.
    I’m happy to know there are a couple of other works in translation.

  5. I can really imagine how this one resonated in lockdown, Marina. Sounds like a powerful and multilayered read, and I think I would be on tenterhooks all the way through because of the animals…

  6. I really like the sound of this one Marina, I love the idea of the central character’s relationship with the animals and the natural worid particularly attracts me.

  7. I can see how people might think of this as allegorical, Marina Sofia. It also sounds like a very interesting psychological study, although not clinical. And a fascinating way to explore inner realities, among other things.

  8. Great post Marina! I really loved this one. I thought her relationship with her animals was quite extraordinary, very poignant. Another Haushofer I read many years ago was The Loft, which was great too, although I would now rate The Wall higher.

  9. I just finished it, and liked it a lot too. I agree that I didn’t find it depressing (for the most part) although it sometimes felt exhausting just reading about all the work she has to do! And I think that what you say about the shifting time frames is a big part of what really makes the book work- she thinks so interestingly about how she has changed from before the wall to just after to the narrative present and we see that it’s maybe less important what happens than how it shapes her. For example, I like that we learn about halfway through what happens at the end, and we wait and wait for it in order to understand it, but it happens so fast and we still don’t really get answers- except about how the event has changed her outlook, which is maybe the most crucial thing.

    1. That is a very good point! Thank you for reading and commenting. And yes, I did feel exhausted at how much work there was to do and no one to help…

Do share your thoughts!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.