It’s an amazing feeling, isn’t it, when as a reader you discover an author who seems to really speak both to and for you, whose writing you admire but who also makes you squirm a little because how could they possibly have gained such an insight into the deepest recesses of your soul, even those bits you want to hide because they are too embarrassing, too sad, too dark? This is how I felt about Marlen Haushofer after reading her masterpiece The Wall in the summer of 2020. I fell deeply in love with her voice, and at first I thought it was because of the circumstances: we had just experienced a world of emptiness, where time stood still. But then I read The Wallpaper Door and We Kill Stella, and I was blown away by both of them.
Plunging into a Haushofer book is like a cold dip into an Austrian alpine lake – bracing and potentially deadly, but oh, the clarity of the water! As you can see from the amount of post-its that I used for Die Mansarde, I want to remember almost every single sentence and this author has now joined my select band of favourites like Tove Jansson, Jean Rhys, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen and Shirley Jackson (I am trying to imagine a dinner party with them, but suspect they were all such introverts they would not have enjoyed it much).
This latest foray into her work is a novella (a little on the longer side, but still under 200 pages), the last work published by Haushofer before her untimely death. The title can be translated as The Loft or The Attic, which is the place where the narrator, the typical strange, middle-aged, oddly passive Haushofer heroine, retreats to work on her illustrations of birds. She is married to Hubert, an uncommunicative lawyer who likes reading about historical battles. They barely touch and they never talk about anything important. They have two children, but the son, mother’s favourite, has left home and the daughter is oblivious to her parents, as all teenagers are. Outwardly, everything seems to be very average and fine in this Viennese family, albeit dull and predictable: every Sunday the couple goes to the Arsenal Military Museum, every weekday the husband goes to work, while the narrator either prepares his lunch or else has social obligations of her own – people she doesn’t really want to meet, and with whom she doesn’t have much in common. The narrator feels safe in this boring routine, even though she has no one with whom she can really talk properly. Her only escape valve is her sketchbook in the loft.
It turns out that the narrator used to be a book illustrator specialising in birds and insects, but something momentuous happened and she no longer does this professionally. All she strives for now is to draw a bird that does not look so isolated – surely birds by and large operate in flocks, so why do her birds look so lonely? (This lone bird motif seems to crop up quite a bit in Haushofer’s writing.)
In the first part of the book, the narrator teases us with multiple hints of ‘before and after’ a calamitous event, which completely changed the married couple’s life when their son was just three years old. The narrator suddenly went completely deaf upon hearing some sirens, perhaps as a trauma response after the war (the couple met and got married during the war, so the story takes place in the mid 1960s, we suspect)). Instead of going to a hospital, her husband paid for her to ‘recover’ at the house of a hunter in the countryside for eighteen months, while her young son stayed with her mother-in-law. In the countryside she met a man who used her deafness as way to purge himself of his guilt, confessing things to her that he knows she cannot hear, crying and shouting at her, to the point where she doesn’t know whether to fear or pity him. She wrote a diary during that period of self-imposed exile, and now fragments of this diary are showing up in envelopes in her letterbox. Forced to remember and reflect upon the past, which she has successfully avoided thus far, the narrator finally gets to understand her real nature and the emotions she has been suppressing for the sake of an ‘easy’, comfortable life.
The story doesn’t sound like much, yet there are so many beautiful passages, such psychological insight, that I don’t quite know how to share with you. Let me try and give you a flavour by sharing a few favourite quotes. In the first, the narrator wonders at how she and her husband have changed over the years – we have seen this in their minimalistic, dull interactions, but the narrator’s reflections add a heavy layer of… what is it exactly? Depression? Anxiety? Extreme self-consciousness?
It used to be different. Back then, Hubert was not so concerned about his dignity, we laughed a lot and invented games, something he has forgotten about and which is becoming an increasingly hazy memory for me too… That time ‘before’ would seem so unusual to me if I were to glimpse it through a key-hole: so strange, that I would have to cry, and I no longer know how to cry.
I’ve changed too, but not completely, because every time Ferdinand [her son] praises my desserts, I could jump in the air with glee. Somewhere locked inside of me there is a little girl who wants to warm her toes and dance around like all the other children. But she has been locked up, this is what happens to little girls who don’t know how to stop being little girls. It’s really my fault, that I cannot cope with the present day.
Another reoccurring theme in Haushofer’s work is the relationship between people and animals, with the author frequently seeing humans as the evil partner. Here the narrator is debating whether she should tame a kitten who is visiting her in the hunter’s house. The cat runs to hide in a bush when the narrator tries to stroke her.
It’s better like that. She must never learn how pleasant it is to be stroked. It could confuse her healthy little cat brain far too much. She should remain free and brave, full of hatred against those who make her suffer; only hatred and caution can keep her alive. I say to her: ‘Don’t trust anyone, Cat, they only want to torture you and kill all your babies. Stay all by yourself, Cat. At some point they will catch you and try to sell your hide, but it’s not as bad to be killed by your enemy as it is to be killed by your friend.’
There is something in the very simple, clear German text (I don’t know if I’ve succeeded in conveying that in my quick translations) that just skirts tragedy but is not at all self-pitying or self-indulgent, something that feels so profoundly true and human. Reading this while also reading Cărtărescu’s Solenoid, which is also a deep dive into a troubled psyche, I couldn’t help but think how much more concise and pared down the woman writer is – and thus all the more effective (to my mind).
I read it in German, but the book is available in English from Quartet Books, translated by Amanda Prantera. Also, you don’t want to miss Vishy’s superb review of this book (Vishy has loved her for far longer than I have), while Anthony from Time’s Flow Stemmed describes it as ‘close as you can get to immaculate’. Dorian Stuber has also written a great review of her more famous work The Wall.
I was planning to read some other novellas for Novellas in November and for German Literature Month, but I might end up reading Haushofer’s biography instead.