The Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer is not new to me. A few years ago I had read her novel The Loft, which I had loved at the time, but I knew that her best regarded work was the dystopian and feminist classic The Wall. The current lockdown, therefore, seemed like the ideal time to delve into it and what a brilliant novel it turned out to be.
The Wall is a powerful book about survival, self-renewal and the capacity to love.
The narrator is an unnamed middle-aged woman and when the novel opens, she is in an Alpine hunting lodge writing about the two and a half years she has spent in the forest, and the events leading upto it.
I’ve taken on this task to keep me from staring into the gloom and being frightened. For I am frightened. Fear creeps up on me from all sides, and I don’t want to wait until it gets to me and overpowers me. I shall write until darkness falls, and this new, unfamiliar work should make my mind tired, empty and drowsy. I’m not afraid of morning, only of the long, gloomy afternoons.
These events which are recounted in a couple of pages are simply this – the woman accompanies her cousin Luise, her brother-in-law Hugo and their dog Lynx (a Bavarian bloodhound) to spend the summer in the couple’s well-equipped hunting lodge in the Alpine forest. One evening, Luisa and Hugo head down to the village, but our narrator and Lynx stay behind in the lodge. The next day, our narrator realizes that the couple is not yet back which strikes her as quite strange.
While taking Lynx out for a walk, she bumps against an obstruction she can’t see and is stunned.
Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s obstruction, I had slowed down, for a few paces on I gave my head a violent bump and stumbled backwards.
Lynx immediately started whining again, and pressed himself against my legs. Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing that it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.
She can see on the other side of this invisible wall, and what she notices is alarming. In one of the huts, on the opposite side, the dwellers have been turned into stone. Clearly, an unimaginable catastrophe has struck and the narrator and Lynx have been spared because they were not on the other side when it occurred. In a way, the narrator is possibly the last woman standing although she has not yet grasped the significance of this.
Against such a terrifying backdrop, the rest of the book then is all about how the narrator fights for survival and ekes out a living in the forest.
It is a source of comfort to her that the dog Lynx is by her side, and on one of their expeditions she comes across a cow who has also survived and who she brings back to the lodge.
At this stage, the narrator still harbours hope of being rescued but meanwhile she must adapt to her new circumstances, carry on with day to day living and caring for her animals. And that involves some hard, physical work.
She converts a cabin into a byre for Bella the cow. She learns to milk the animal so that she can feed herself, Lynx and a cat who is also now part of this small, odd family. She manages to find a patch of land where she can grow potatoes and beans. Then there is the hay harvest that she must attend to, chopping and stocking wood supplies for the winter and cooking meals everyday however meager.
These are activities the narrator notes down in her diary, and it becomes a source of the tale that she is writing for the reader.
The work is not easy and the fact that the woman has not done it before makes it all the more harder. But she manages to get it done even when it begins taking a toll on her body.
As you can see, there is not much in terms of plot per se, but The Wall makes for a terrifying and gripping read simply because the woman is in unchartered territory with unknown dangers lurking around and the reader is on the edge wondering how she will make it through.
It’s her love for her animals and her instincts to take care of them that keep her going. But naturally, she is beset by fears and forebodings. And she is also prone to bouts of depression, understandably so, fuelled by her circumstances and also changes in weather that oscillates wildly between periods of calmness and violent storms and cold winters.
There are successes – she helps Bella deliver a healthy calf, the potato field sprouts a good supply of potatoes, which means that she and her animals are never hungry. Plus, she manages to hunt deers too, an activity she loathes and never gets used to, but one which she must carry out to provide meat for the dog.
And there are setbacks too – coming to terms with the loss of some of her animals which inevitably happens despite her best efforts to care for them, and surviving an illness in the dead of winter.
As she is writing her account, the narrator is of course focusing on the physical aspects of survival. But she also talks about the thoughts swirling in her head about life, about caring, the differences between her old life and new, and the meaning of it all. To me, these were some of the most quotable and striking paragraphs in the novel. Here’s one…
If I think today of the woman I once was, the woman with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age, I feel little sympathy for her. But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly. After all, she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. When she was young she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries. Only a giantess would have been able to free herself, and in no respect was she a giantess, never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.
The deep bonding with her animals is one of the highlights of the book, so sensitively portrayed. I loved how the narrator had such a wonderful connection with Bella the cow.
I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to. I’m tired of everything being taken away from me. Yet there’s no escape, for as long as there is something for me to love in the forest, I shall love it; and if some day there is nothing, I shall stop living.
Loving and looking after another creature is a very troublesome business, and much harder than killing and destruction. It takes twenty years to bring up a child, and ten seconds to kill it.
Despite the bleak circumstances, the narrator’s strength of will to forge ahead is what makes The Wall so extraordinary. At first, she expects to be rescued and go back to her old way of life. But as the seasons roll one after the other and the months turn into years, she comes to terms with her new reality and learns to accept it. The setbacks hurt her deeply but she finds the strength to take it in her stride and look forward to new beginnings.
In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months.
I knew The Wall was highly regarded, and I can confirm that it is every bit as good as everyone says it is.