I discovered Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’ through Caroline’s (from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat) review of the film version of the book. It looked like a dystopian novel and I also suspected that Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ was inspired by Haushofer’s book in some ways. Something about the book tugged at my heart, and I couldn’t articulate it then. So, I went and got the book and started reading it last week. I finished reading it yesterday. Here is what I think.
The story told in ‘The Wall’ is simple. The nameless heroine, a forty-something year old woman, goes on a holiday to the forest with her cousin and her cousin’s husband. They stay in a hunting lodge. The plan is to spend a few days there and relax and maybe do some hunting. The cousin and her husband leave our heroine during the evening and go to the nearby village. They leave their dog Lynx behind. It is late evening and the couple still haven’t come back. Our heroine has dinner, feeds the dog and goes to bed. When she gets up the next day morning, there is still no sign of her cousin and her husband. Our heroine and Lynx take a walk and during the course of that, she discovers that there is a transparent wall which has suddenly come up and it has shut her off from the village and from the rest of the world. (I don’t know whether it is true or whether it is just me noticing similarities between the two novels – in Stephen King’s ‘Under the Dome’ a giant dome suddenly covers a town one day, cutting it off from the rest of the world. Looks eerily similar to Haushofer’s wall.) It is only her and Lynx and maybe some wild animals in her part of the world. She hopes that in the next few days someone will come and rescue her. But nothing happens. As every day passes, the heroine realizes that no one is going to come. She also discovers something strange. She looks through the wall to the other side and discovers that there is no life on the other side. She discovers animals and people who are dead – it looked like some people had died while they were in the middle of doing something. It looked like some major catastrophe had struck the world and she and Lynx have survived it by luck. Then one day a cow walks into her life. And later a cat. And our heroine decides to take care of them and dedicate her life to everyday activities – taking care of her animals, getting food, managing the place like one does a farm. The rest of the story is about what happens in the life of these four characters (and more which join them later).
Though the story is quite simple, ‘The Wall’ is much more than this simple plot. It is about what a human can do when she is the last person on earth. It is about the relationship between humans and animals and the environment. It is about parents and children and letting go. It is about the relationship between women and men. It is about freedom and the lack of it. It is about love, loss and death. It is about renewing oneself. It is about the small joys of everyday life. The cover of the book quotes Doris Lessing on this :
“It is not often that you can say only a woman could have written this book, but women in particular will understand the heroine’s loving devotion to the details of making and keeping life, every day felt as a victory.”
‘The Wall’ is also a commentary on the human condition. It is a commentary on modern civilization. It is all these and more. I liked very much what the blurb said about the book :
‘The Wall is at once a simple and moving chronicle – of growing potatoes and beans, of hoping for a calf, of counting matches, of forgetting the taste of sugar and the use of one’s name – and a disturbing meditation on 20th-century history…The Wall is a haunting study of what a person can love when everything has been taken away.’
I loved Marlen Haushofer’s book. ‘Loved’ is an understatement. It deeply touched me and pulled all kinds of strings in my heart. I read it very slowly to make the reading experience last longer. I didn’t want it to end and I was sad when I crossed the last page. Normally after I finish reading a book, I take it to the next room (I keep unread books in one room and read books in another) and put it on top of the latest read pile. I look at that read book pile once in a while and try to remember which books I liked and which were my favourite scenes and passages. Sometimes I take out a book and read some of my favourite passages. But I rarely re-read a book. So, once a book reaches the next room, it almost always stays there. But, once in a blue moon a book comes along which resists that move. I am unable to take that book to the next room. My heart refuses to let go of the book. I carry the book everywhere and keep it with me and re-read my favourite passages many times. I keep that book on my study table or on my nightstand and keep looking at it. ‘The Wall’ is that one book which comes once in a blue moon. I don’t think I will be able to let go of it, anytime soon. I am not sure I will be able to let go of it, ever.
While reading the book, I felt that the Marlen Haushofer had poured her heart and soul into every page of the book and the whole book glows with her inner beauty. It made me think of the kind of beautiful person she must have been. There is beauty in every page of the book and in every scene. When I read the sentence – ‘So there I was in a wild and strange meadow in the middle of the forest and suddenly I was the owner of a cow’ – it makes me smile again, like it did when I read it the first time. When I read this passage – ‘The little one’s nature was rather different from other house-cats; more peaceful, gentle and tender. She would often sit for ages on the bench in front of the house watching a butterfly’ – it makes my heart glow with pleasure, like it did the first time.
The author gives the reader an idea of what is going to happen at the end of the book, and so I was dreading when I reached the last part of the book. My dread increased with every page, because joy, beauty and happiness continued to flow from the pages of the book and I was hoping against hope that what the author was hinting at was not to be. Well, the heartbreaking thing did happen at the end. But the ending of the story was life affirming too. I finished reading the book yesterday, but I still can’t stop thinking about the heroine, Lynx the dog, the cat, Pearl the kitten, Tiger the tomcat, Panther his brother, Bella the cow, Bull her son – they haunt me in my dreams in gentle ways.
I have read some wonderful books this year but I have no hesitation in saying this – ‘The Wall’ is my favourite read of the year. I am planning to read some wonderful books in the coming months, but I don’t think there is any book which is going to nudge it even gently from that position. It is also one of my favourite books ever. I am planning to read it again later this year.
If you haven’t read ‘The Wall’ yet, I am jealous of you. Because when you get to read it, you are going to experience the pleasure and delight and joy of reading it for the first time. But I hope that you don’t keep me jealous for long. I hope you go out and get the book and read it now.
I hope to watch the film version of ‘The Wall’. I can’t imagine how a film can be made of this beautiful book, but I would like to find out. I also discovered that there are two other Marlen Haushofer books available in English translation – ‘The Loft’ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky’. I hope to read them sometime.
I will leave you with some of my favourite passages in the book. It was very hard for me to choose a few passages and leave others out, because every passage was beautiful and quotable.
Lynx the dog
Lynx was very cheerful, in very high spirits, but an outsider probably wouldn’t have noticed the difference. He was, after all, cheerful almost all the time. I never saw him stay sulky for more than three minutes. He simply couldn’t resist the urge to be cheerful. And life in the forest was a constant temptation to him. Sun, snow, wind, rain – everything was a cause for enthusiasm. With Lynx nearby I could never stay sad for long. It was almost shaming that being with me made him so happy. I don’t think that grown animals living wild are happy or even content. Living with people must have awoken this capacity in the dog…Sometimes I even imagined there must be something special about me that made Lynx almost keel over with joy at the sight of me. Of course there was never anything special about me; Lynx was, like all dogs, simply addicted to people.
That summer I quite forgot that Lynx was a dog and I was a human being. I knew it, but it had lost any distinctive meaning. Lynx too had changed. Since I’d been spending so much time with him he had grown calmer, and didn’t seem constantly afraid that I might vanish into thin air as soon as he went off for five minutes. Thinking about it today, I believe that was the only big fear in his dog’s life, being abandoned on his own. I too had learned a lot more, and understood almost all his movements and noises. Now, at last, there was a silent understanding between us.
If it’s raining, or if there’s a storm, the cat tends to become melancholy, and I try to cheer her up. Sometimes I succeed, but generally we both sink into hopeless silence. And very rarely the miracle happens : the cat stands up, presses her forehead against my cheek and props her front paws on my chest. Or she takes my knuckles between her teeth and bites at them, gently and daintily. It doesn’t happen terribly often, for she’s sparing with proofs of her affection. Certain songs send her into raptures, and she pulls her claws over the rustling paper with delight. Her nose gets damp, and a gleaming film comes over her eyes.
All cats tend toward mysterious states; then they are far away and entirely impossible to reach. Pearl was in love with a tiny red velvet cushion that had belonged to Luise. For her it was a magic object. She licked it, scratched runnels through its soft nap and finally rested on it, white breast on red velvet, her eyes narrowed to green slits, a magnificent fairy-tale creature.
All my cats have had a habit of walking around their bowls after eating and then dragging them along the floor. I don’t know what it means, but they do it every time, without fail. In general, cats obey a practically Byzantine series of ceremonies and take it very badly if you disturb them during their mysterious rites. In comparison with them, Lynx was a shameless child of nature, and they seemed to hold him rather in contempt for that.
Bella the cow
When I combed Bella I sometimes told her how important she was to us all. She looked at me with moist eyes, and tried to lick my face. She had no idea how precious and irreplaceable she was. Here she stood, gleaming and brown, warm and relaxed, our big, gentle, nourishing mother. I could only show my gratitude by taking good care of her, and I hope I have done everything for Bella that a human being can do for their only cow. She liked it when I talked to her. Perhaps she would have liked the voice of any human being. It would have been easy for her to trample and gore me, but she licked my face and pressed her nostrils into my palm. I hope she dies before me; without me she would die miserably in winter.
In my dreams I bring children into the world, and they aren’t only human children; there are cats among them, dogs, calves, bears and quite peculiar furry creatures. But they emerge from me, and there is nothing about them that could frighten or repel me.
The White Crow
This autumn a white crow appeared. It always flies a little way behind the others, and settles alone on a tree avoided by its companions. I can’t understand why the other crows don’t like it. I think it’s a particularly beautiful bird, but the other members of its species find it repugnant. I see it sitting alone in its spruce-tree staring over the meadow, a miserable absurdity that shouldn’t exist, a white crow. It sits there until the great flock has flown away, and then I bring it a little food. It’s so tame that I can get close to it. Sometimes it hops about on the ground when it sees me coming. It can’t know why it’s been ostracized; that’s the only life it knows. It will always be an outcast and so alone that it’s less afraid of people than its black brethren…I want the white crow to live, and sometimes I dream that there’s another one in the forest and that they will find each other. I don’t believe it will happen, I only wish it very dearly.
Only much later, up in the pasture, did I actually see an adder. It lay sunning itself on a scree slope. From that point on I was never afraid of snakes again. The adder was very beautiful, and when I saw it lying there like that, entirely devoted to the yellow sun, I was sure it had no intention of biting me. Its thoughts were remote from me, it didn’t want to do anything but lie in peace on the white stones and bathe in sunlight and warmth.
It’s never entirely silent in the forest. You only imagine it’s silent, but there is always a whole host of noises. A woodpecker taps in the distance, a bird calls, the wind hisses through the grass in the forest, a big branch knocks against a tree-trunk, and the twigs rustle as little animals scurry around. Everything is alive, everything is working. But that evening it really was almost silent.
In cyclamen flowers the red of summer combines with the blue of autumn into a pinkish purple, and their fragrance recaptures all the sweetness of the past; but as you inhale it for longer, there is a quite different smell behind it : that of decay and death. I have always considered the cyclamen a strange and rather frightening flower.
Have you read Marlen Haushofer’s ‘The Wall’? What do you think about it?