After I read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ sometime back (and which I totally loved – it is one of my alltime favourites now), I thought I should read other books by her. If possible, all of them. When I searched for her works, I discovered that only two other works of hers have been translated into English, and that too only in the last couple of years. I felt sad when I discovered that, because I think all her works should be available in translation so that the rest of us can have the opportunity to discover what German readers have known all along for many decades – that Haushofer is one of the greats and her works are beautiful and profound. The first of Haushofer’s works which were translated recently was ‘The Loft’ and the second one was ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’. I got both of them and decided to read ‘The Loft’ first. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
‘The Loft’ is the story of a 47 year old Austrian housewife, who is also the narrator of the story. (I somehow felt that her name was revealed in the story, but now when I think about it, I think we probably don’t know her name till the end. Another of those vintage Marlen Haushofer tricks – reveal the heart of the heroine without revealing her name J) Our heroine describes one week of her life. She describes the everyday things that she does – making breakfast and lunch and having them with her husband,
“Hubert comes home to eat whenever he can because he prefers sitting in silence by my side to sitting in silence anywhere else. I suppose you could look on it as a declaration of love.”
cleaning the windows, beating the carpet, dusting the bookshelves,
“We have too many books. No one will ever read them…Nothing is so bitter as the dust from old books…When the books are set out in orderly rows you hardly notice them, but the moment you start taking them down they turn into a mountain you can barely see over.”
receiving guests, meeting people whom she is obligated to meet (like her mother-in-law’s former maid who is in the nursing home or an old acquaintance with whom she has nothing in common but whom she meets because they spent some time together during the war), having conversations with her son when he visits them, having conversations with her daughter whenever she is at home, going grocery shopping, going to the hairdresser, listening to her husband while he shares stuff that happened at work, spending time in the evening watching TV with her husband because her husband likes her company, though she herself doesn’t enjoy that programme. Every chapter talks about a different aspect of everyday life. While reading it, we slowly sink into the everyday rhythm of our heroine and we become part of the story and we feel the warmth and the soothing quality of everyday routine.
During the course of this predictable, safe and calm week, there are, of course, a couple of surprises. (If there weren’t, then reading the story would be like listening to the chant of monks in a Buddhist temple. What is a story without some dissonance?) The first surprise is a nice one. We learn that our heroine is also an artist. So whenever she has time after she has completed her household tasks – either after finishing lunch and cleaning the kitchen or after dinner when her husband is not watching TV but is reading and she has some time before going to bed – our heroine goes to the loft, which is her sanctuary. Even her husband cannot come there without her permission. In the loft, our heroine practises her secret art. She paints. She likes drawing insects, reptiles and birds. She is good at it. When she was younger, she used to draw illustrations for books. She doesn’t do that anymore, but she paints for her own satisfaction. Her dream is to one day paint the perfect bird. In her own words,
There is still one thing for me to cling to : namely, the hope that one day I will draw a bird that is not completely alone in the world. This will show clearly by the way it holds its head, or the way its little claws are placed, or simply by the colour of its feathers. This bird is asleep somewhere inside me, and all I have to do is wake it up. It is a task I must accomplish on my own…
So far so good. Life is boring and beautiful. But then something happens. On a Monday (the second day of the story), our heroine receives a yellow coloured package. Inside it are papers which look like journal entries. There is no accompanying letter or note. We, the readers, are puzzled and wonder whose journal entries they are. We also wonder who sent it and why. Our heroine doesn’t keep us in suspense for long. She reveals that they are from her own journal from her younger days. A journal she thought that she had lost. A journal she wrote when she was separated from her husband for a couple of years. But even she is not able to tell us who sent the package and why. We start wondering why our heroine was separated from her husband. There seems to be a secret there. Something which is probably not so nice. Our heroine reveals what that is. After this point the story keeps shifting alternately between the present and the past, while a new yellow package arrives everyday carrying more pages containing more journal entries from the past. The present story is narrated by our heroine, while the past is revealed through the journal entries.
(Note : The next two paragraphs might be a little spoiler-ish and so please be forewarned.)
While reading the journal entries, we learn that during her younger days, a few years after her marriage, when her son was still young and her daughter was not yet born, our heroine suddenly becomes deaf. The doctors say that it is a psychological thing and cannot be treated with medicines. Our heroine’s happy life is suddenly disrupted in a rude way. For some reason, our heroine and her husband decide that she will live in a cottage in the mountains until she recovers her hearing. A gamekeeper who lives nearby will take care of her everyday needs like buying provisions. While living in the mountains, our heroine takes long walks in the evening. One day she discovers a strange cottage and a strange man sitting in front of it. He tries talking to her, but she tells him that she is deaf. They have a brief conversation by writing notes to each other. The strange man is very happy to see our heroine. After they meet up for a few times, during which time they have coffee or lemonade together and are quiet or exchange a few words through their notes, one day the strange man asks our heroine (through notes) whether she can come everyday and he would like to talk to her aloud and he would pay her for that. It looks clearly that he wants to talk about something deep in his heart, something he can’t tell anyone. Maybe it is about a crime or atrocity he committed. Maybe it is about strong feelings he has on something which he can’t really share with anyone else. The fact that our heroine is deaf makes him realize that he can open his heart out to her without her judging him. He probably thinks that speaking aloud will make him feel better by lightening the burden in his heart. Our heroine takes pity on him and agrees to his request. She refuses to take his money though. These two solitary characters start meeting everyday. The strange man seems to talk loudly. Half of the time it looks like he is screaming. His face reddens with emotion when he speaks and his hands move in violent gestures. After a while it is difficult for our heroine to watch his hands – they look terrible. She can’t hear what the man says and what terrible truths he is revealing. Then one day the man tells her that he wants to leave the place and asks her if she wants to come with him. By that time, our heroine has lost all hope of regaining her hearing.
What does our heroine do? Does she say ‘Yes’ to this strange man? Given the fact that our heroine is back with her family, what happened in the meanwhile? It also looks like our heroine can hear well now. What traumatic event happened which helped her gain her hearing? Is she finally able to paint the perfect bird that she dreams about? The answers to these questions form the rest of the story.
I liked ‘The Loft’ very much. It is vintage Marlen Haushofer and has all the elements which Haushofer fans have come to expect of her – a forty-something year old unnamed heroine who narrates the story, heartwarming prose enveloping the reader in its warmth, dialogue being mostly absent, descriptions of everyday activities revealing the beauty in them, insightful passages sneaked into these everyday scenes. The book captivated me with its first lines :
“From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we never seem to be able to agree about. Hubert says it’s an acacia…In old fashioned novels, where words are given their just currency, their scent is described as sweet and intoxicating, and so it is – sweet and intoxicating – only it is no longer possible to say so using these words. But never mind, it’ll go on being sweet and intoxicating so long as there’s one nose left in the world able to smell it.
and refused to let go off me till its last. It revealed the beauty of everyday things and also showed how it all can change in the blink of an eye. It also showed how we can find joy sometimes in everyday things and at other times in the strangest of places.
I can’t resist comparing ‘The Loft’ with ‘The Wall’, of course. It is a hard thing to do. Because ‘The Wall’ is a masterpiece. Every writer dreams of writing one book like that. Most aren’t able to pull it off, though they get critical acclaim and win fame and fortune and glory. But when they are able to pull it off and create a masterpiece like that, the rest of their work pales in comparison. It is a case of ‘Be careful what you wish for’. It is sad. Having said that, I should also say that ‘The Loft’ doesn’t pale in comparison. It is able to hold its own. It has all the vintage Haushoferian elements, but it is also different from ‘The Wall’. There are more characters here, the world the story is set in is our own, the main characters look like us and do everyday things like us and our dear Marlen uses everyday elements and scenes to create beauty and art. If you like ‘The Wall’ and enjoyed Haushofer’s style, you will like this too.
I have just one complaint about the book, though. I wish there was an introduction – by the translator or by someone well versed in Austrian literature and Marlen Haushofer’s works – which talked about Marlen Haushofer’s life and her work and her place in Austrian literature. That essay would have been very informative and enlightening and I would have loved reading it. If this was not possible, maybe the publishers could have got an essay on this topic written by an Austrian / German critic translated into English. I think that will enrich the reading experience. I hope they do it in a future edition.
I have to say one more thing. The description of the book on the back cover has this sentence – “‘The Loft’…explores…the discord of Austrian society in the aftermath of Nazism.” When I read that first, before I read the book, I didn’t think too much about it. After finishing the book, I read that again, and I couldn’t help laughing. The reason was this. There are places in the story where there are some hints. For example the heroine tells us that her husband was in the army during the war (the war probably being the Second World War and the army being the Austrian army and hence there is a Nazi connection there). Also, we don’t know what the strange man shouts about angrily when he talks to the heroine. It could be about war atrocities he had committed. It could also be about unspeakable personal things he had done. It could also be just his anger towards the world. I am not going to tell you what it is – you should read the story to find out. But beyond some minor references, the story is clearly not about the aftermath of Nazism in Austria. The story is about the everyday life of a normal housewife who has a secret past and how that past suddenly sneaks into her present life and disturbs her harmony. Sometimes a rose is just a rose and the colour blue is just the colour blue. I don’t know why every novel written in German set in a particular period should be about the aftermath of Nazism (or about Nazism or about the advent of Nazism). There are beautiful contemplative novels on everyday life written in German. There are also love stories, crime fiction, YA fiction and fiction of every other variety and hue written in German. Please, publishers and critics, don’t reduce German literature (and by this I mean books written in German, which includes German, Austrian, Swiss books and books written in German by writers from other countries) to just one thing. It is a much vaster ocean than that.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.
Why the idea of natural causes should reassure us, when the things they cause are either evil or painful or senseless or all three, I fail to understand. What is there to be reassured about? A friendly ghost scares us far worse than a horrible live person, and that is absurd. This yearning for natural explanations must spring from our own profound human stupidity.
Gradually the Baroness’s voice transformed itself into the murmuring of the sea with an occasional breaking of a wave against the shore.
I hate that alarm…I am convinced this wretched thing is slowly killing us – a fraction every day. Merely waiting for it to start ringing is in itself a torment…Before the day can slip noiselessly into the room it is shattered to pieces by this vulgar rattling noise.
When she dies, where will all the hatred go, I wonder? Will it die with her? I doubt it; most likely it will stay in the room and then slowly filter through the chinks in the windowpanes to join the big cloud of hatred that hangs over the city permanently.
A mole cricket is not wicked, nor is it nightmarish. Its brown colouring isn’t ugly, it is the colour of the earth. It is a poor little plump insect that is hated and persecuted because it happens to feed off roots and unwittingly gets in mankind’s way. It looked lost and bewildered – a creature that cannot understand why it is hated and persecuted.
Nothing is so difficult as probing one’s own intentions. I get sudden insights now and again but introspection gets me nowhere. I either know or I don’t. My thoughts are like a flock of birds, winging around all over the place. Sometimes a wing grazes me lightly and awakens things inside me that until then have been deep asleep – pictures that I can’t summon up myself but that are suddenly there, blazing with colour. In that instant I know things I’ve never known before. And then I forget them again.
Every time I cough or blow my nose he gives a faint, defeated sigh. There is nothing worse than having to be discreet about blowing your nose – as a method it simply doesn’t work. After each sigh I hate him for a couple of minutes. Why on earth doesn’t he just let me go up to the loft on my own and do to my nose whatever I like? At the very least, he should omit the sighing. These sighs are illogical, worse, they are blackmail; they make me feel guilty when there is no cause for guilt whatsoever.
The laurel is flowering. I don’t pick any because I’m afraid the plant might cry out in pain and I wouldn’t hear it. True, I don’t remember ever hearing laurel cry out, but everything is possible, and every sound is possible to a person who cannot hear.
Have you read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Loft’ or other books by her? What do you think about them?