Marlen Haushofer’s Bucolic Apocalypse
The disaster that gives Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (1963) its name arrives with minimal fanfare in the opening pages of the novel. The unnamed narrator, who is staying in a hunting lodge in the mountains with her cousin Luise and her cousin’s husband, Hugo, remains at home while her companions head down to the nearby village for dinner. They do not return, and the next day the narrator discovers that she has been cut off from the rest of the world by an insuperable barrier. Looking through the invisible wall (“a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air”), she can see that something incredible has happened to the world below the mountain; in the little farmhouse downstream, an old man is now fixed like a statue in an eternal action, one hand cupped to bring water to his mouth. The stream beneath him is still flowing, but the man is motionless. It is as if everything living has been frozen in time. On her second trip to the wall, the narrator spots two stationary cows: “Their pink nostrils were no longer damp and smooth, and looked like prettily painted fine-grained stone.” Later, dead birds are blown into sight by a great storm: “They looked pretty, like painted toys. Their eyes shone like polished stone and the colors of their plumage hadn’t faded.”
What is this catastrophe that does not wipe the world clean but simply fixes it in place? The Wall is never more than vaguely suggestive. There are hints of cold war or nuclear disaster; the narrator thinks about enemies and aerial observers, but no one comes to claim their victory, and she soon gives up looking for an explanation. Some “incomprehensible thing” has taken place. The rest of The Wall is set in the wake of this event, as the narrator figures out how to survive on the mountain with only a dog, a cat, and a cow for company.
After accepting the reality of her situation, the narrator throws herself into the hard work of staying alive, and everything she sets her mind to, she accomplishes. At times I found myself thinking that the disaster couldn’t have happened to a better person, not because the narrator deserves her fate, which she doesn’t, but simply because she’s so good at doing things. The hunting lodge is a huge help to her—because of Hugo, who had “a great love of perfection and order,” the narrator finds herself admirably equipped with supplies: tools, weapons, ammunition, clothing, medicine, matches, along with a sack of potatoes and a bag of dried beans that she saves for planting with ruthless practicality. Armed with the above, she chops wood, scythes hay, milks her cow, digs a bean garden and a plot for the potatoes, catches trout and hunts deer, all with great stoicism.
Though many of the works by others in her literary cohort of postwar writers (think Thomas Bernhard, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Elfriede Jelinek, to name a few) were celebrated outside of Austria, Haushofer’s writings, which span from the early 1950s until her death from bone cancer in 1970, have remained relatively obscure. None of the three novels translated into English have received much of a reception, and loving Haushofer’s work means entering that select group of people who are not repelled by their astonishingly ugly covers. (The Quartet Books edition of The Wall is a triumph in misdirection; looking at the rain-streaked image of a young girl with her head bowed, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were about to read a treacly YA novel, while the golden field and loopy font combination of Nowhere Ending Sky  firmly locate the viewer in Jodi Picoult territory. At least the cover of The Loft  is convincingly austere.) And this is such a shame, because each of these books deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as some of the greatest works written in German of the last century.
Haushofer’s sentences are simple and concise, and full of careful thought. The ideas she expresses are so important that you wonder how you have managed to get by without them. There is something fundamental about The Wall in particular that reaches far beyond the supposed territory of its story. The book is a lesson—and an agonizing one—on how one might come to live among things neglected with cost. That New Directions has recently reissued it with an elegant picture of a cow on the front should be a great event for everyone who cares about literature.
The cow is on the new cover for a reason. There are other animals trapped on the mountain. Lynx, her cousin’s dog sent back from the village on the evening of the disaster, becomes the narrator’s friend and ally, and soon she is joined by the cow, Bella, and a cat with no name. A considerable portion of her work involves caring for the animals, and the only one of her tasks that she truly resents is hunting—the act of killing unmoors her from her present and plunges her into introspection, and this is something that must be avoided at all costs. Though, at times, the narrator does think about her life before the wall, we learn little about her. She is the mother to two grown-up daughters, who each receive scarcely more than two sentences of narrative space, and she thinks about her dead husband only toward the very end of the book. Like the wall, which has been obscured by new growth, and the scene beyond it “swallowed up by nettles,” the narrator’s past (“unsatisfactory in all respects”) becomes an object to avoid the sight of, and she makes a great effort to avoid getting embroiled in it.
Though The Wall shares the broader fascination of postapocalyptic fiction with a slow and inevitable loss of reference—of what it looks like when objects, flora, and creatures cast off the meanings we have assigned to them—it is more interested in the transformative potential of this kind of quiet interlude. Stock images of clocks that have stopped working and roads overgrown with weeds soon give way to an extended meditation on identity and purpose. Near the beginning of her report, the narrator provides one of the only good excuses for literary namelessness that I’ve ever read—“It occurs to me that I haven’t written down my name. I had almost forgotten it, and that’s how it is going to stay. No one calls me by that name, so it no longer exists”—and during her first year in the forest, the borders of her selfhood undergo a radical shift: “I’m not ugly, but neither am I attractive, more like a tree than a person, a tough brown branch that needs its whole strength to survive.” Unlike the statues on the other side of the wall, the narrator is able to become—however briefly—part of a larger network of living things, a branch that belongs to a tree, or the ground on which trees can grow. (“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.”) In her dreams she brings forth animal children: cats, dogs, calves, birds, and other creatures she cannot identify.
One night, a storm sets the bells in the abandoned churches below the mountain ringing. Another author might have capitalized on the power of such an image to evoke divine presence, to cast the world outside the wall as a strange and elaborate punishment, yet with the exception of a brief, mythic aside (the petrified old man standing by the river with his braces hanging around his ankles “like snakes”), Haushofer avoids any allusion to supernatural agency. Importantly, the absence of humanity also drains the world of symbolic meaning; on the first Christmas the narrator spends in the forest, it occurs to her that in the future “a snowy forest will mean nothing but a snowy forest, and a crib in the stable nothing but a crib in the stable.” Yet even if the mood of the novel is melancholy, it is rarely mournful. A world without people has a promise of its own: “I wished my eyes could forget what the scene had so long meant to them. For something quite new lay waiting behind it all, which I was unable to see because my head was crammed full of old things and my eyes were unreceptive. I had lost the old without finding anything new; the new was closed to me, but I knew it was there.’”
Despite such moments of slippage, Haushofer’s lifelong interest in isolation of all kinds shines through in passages that acknowledge the impossibility of true transformation. Though the narrator can shed her awareness of her humanity for brief moments, she ultimately remains apart from the harmony she beholds around her. A keen sense of our rootlessness subtends the larger action of the novel: As custodian of the mountain (among the things that worry the narrator is the eventual fate of the red deer, who now lack a natural predator, and she also comes to care for a friendless albino crow), the narrator can never belong to it, and her constant, necessary proximity to this rich and incomprehensible world only emphasizes her estrangement. Unlike Lynx or the gray cat, the narrator is not a well-adapted creature. She is separated from other beings not only by her power over them but also her inadequacy before them: “the only creature that didn’t belong here, a person troubled by chaotic thoughts, cracking branches with her clumsy shoes and engaged in the bloody business of hunting.” Her reason is also an affliction. After recording her vision of interspecies birth, the narrator wishes for a new language with which to describe it (“Perhaps I should draw these dreams with pebbles on green moss, or scratch them in the snow with a stick”). Yet, as with the ability to see the snowy landscape as nothing more than a snowy landscape, such a language remains closed to her. There are worse options, though. The specter of a wild descent hangs over the whole novel—as the narrator notes, a human being can never become an animal, but only fall much further.
The question of how we negotiate our disharmony with nature is one of The Wall’s central concerns. In the end, the narrator does not derive her sense of purpose from a hypothetical future humanity but from the responsibilities she bears towards her animal companions, each of whom is introduced in the midst of their own emergencies: A rejected dog returns unexpectedly, an unmilked cow crashes through the undergrowth, a wet cat appears at the narrator’s door seeking shelter. Her reason becomes something she can deploy in their service: “My mind is free, it can do what it likes, but it mustn’t lose its reason, the reason that will keep me and the animals alive.”
When the world ends, what is left is a duty to other beings that would have been unimaginable in the hierarchies of the past. It is ironic that the book begins with a hunting trip, as later the narrator’s entire survival depends on a changed relationship to living animals. The wall is a death sentence that leads to a focusing of attention; in such a space, “The barriers between animal and human come down very easily.” Throughout the novel, there is a refusal to spell things out, to speculate, and instead an intense interest in rhythms: The animals and their needs anchor the narrator and prevent her from suicide, which would be a dereliction of duty. As the narrator notes after her discovery of Bella, she has become the owner and the prisoner of a cow.
This new valuation is expressed in Haushofer’s positioning of her protagonist: We are told that she is writing her report from a time beyond a second disaster—one that has occured after the appearance of the invisible wall—as a means of staying sane, and so most of the narrative is located in the interlude between two cataclysmic events. Yet the crises are not equal. The destructive power of the first is far greater, but so is the pain of the second. If the stationary world beyond the wall, with its petrified animals and people, contains a hint of allegory—as though the world she has come from is nothing more than the site of a gigantic, impossible trauma—the world within the wall becomes a space not only of imprisonment but also of possibility, one in which the relationships of the past can be refigured and its wrongs righted. Although the novel takes place after a great tragedy, a strange hope is located in the generative power of a world without us, in the green forest, yellow sun, blue sky, and meadows full of alpine roses in bloom. The “great game of the sun, moon, and stars” rolls on undisturbed.
What the first disaster opens up, the second almost closes off. But despite the terrible event that ends this relative idyll, some hope is left with the reader after finishing The Wall, as Haushofer’s quiet philosophy does not admit of despair. The narrator will continue to live in the forest as long as there is something to love. From her vantage point on the mountain, she surveys the wrecked past and its limitless disasters and reminds us of what we already know: that there is no aftermath that does not also contain the seeds of its own future, and that our own world is not yet lost. “All the same, life could have been lived differently. There is no impulse more rational than love. It makes life more bearable for the lover and the loved one.”