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Posts Tagged ‘Marlen Haushofer’

I wrote this as part of the celebrations for the tenth edition of German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’ and Lizzy from ‘Lizzy’s Literary Life’.

Marlen Haushofer is my favourite German author. She was Austrian and wrote in German. I first discovered her through Caroline’s (from ‘Beauty is a Sleeping Cat’) post about the film adaptation of ‘The Wall’. I got inspired and got the book, and when I read it, I didn’t want it to end. When I finished reading the book, it became my alltime favourite book, at that time. It is still one of my alltime favourite books. It is one of my treasured possessions and a book I refuse to lend to anyone. If you are curious about the plot, it goes like this. A forty-something old woman goes on a holiday with her cousin to the countryside. She goes to take a nap in their cabin. She wakes up to an eerie silence. She discovers that she has been separated by a transparent wall from the rest of the world and everyone on the other side is dead. She has a dog, a cat and a cow for company. This is revealed in the first few pages. What happens to this one human character and three animal characters is revealed in the next 250 pages. We would think that with just one human character, the story would have nowhere to go, but what Haushofer does with this minimalist cast is absolutely magical. I’ll let you read for yourself and find out what happened. After I read ‘The Wall‘, I wanted to read all of Haushofer’s books. But there were just two more of her books available in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them and read them across the years. One would except that after reading a profound book like ‘The Wall‘ one would almost experience a sophomore slump while reading the next Haushofer book, but when I read ‘The Loft‘, I found it beautiful in its own way and it had one of my favourite lines, which goes like this –

“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.”

I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a long time, because I didn’t want to read my last Haushofer book in a hurry. Sometime back I felt that I had waited for too long and I read that too. It is a beautiful coming-of-age story and one of my favourite coming-of-age stories. If I hadn’t read ‘The Wall‘ before, ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ would have been my favourite Haushofer book. It still is one of my alltime favourite books.

I don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer. Information about her is hard to come by on the internet. The Wikipedia page in English devoted to her has just the basic facts about her. She must have been well-known in her time in the German-speaking world or in Austria atleast, but after her death in 1970, she seems to have slipped into obscurity. She came again into prominence and burned brightly like star, briefly, a few years back when ‘The Wall‘ was adapted into a film which won lots of acclaim. Since then she has slipped back into obscurity again. I know only a few people who have read ‘The Wall‘ and half of them are friends to whom I recommended it to. ‘The Wall‘ is one of the great masterpieces of twentieth century literature. It deserves more readers.

Though we don’t know much about Marlen Haushofer, she reveals herself through her books. Atleast, I think so. If we try peeking behind the beautiful sentences, we find someone who is warm and affectionate, introverted, and who loves animals. How can someone who wrote this –

“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.” (From ‘The Loft‘)

or this –

“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.” (From ‘The Wall‘)

be anything but warm and affectionate, and a beautiful soul?

I am glad that Marlen Haushofer walked on earth once upon a time. I am glad that she was a beautiful soul. I am so happy that she wrote these beautiful, exquisite masterpieces. I wish our times had overlapped. I would have loved to meet her. But I am glad that she lives through her books. As they say about Beethoven and Mozart, that they didn’t die, but they became music, Marlen Haushofer didn’t die, she became her stories.

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Marlen Haushofer is one of my alltime favourite writers and her book ‘The Wall‘ is a masterpiece and one of my alltime favourite books. Haushofer was probably well known during her time, atleast in her native Austria, but has mostly been forgotten during the decades since. Interest in her work revived a few years back when a film adaptation of ‘The Wall‘ came out and it was received with great acclaim. But since those heady few months, Haushofer has sunk back into obscurity. I don’t even know whether she is read in her native Austria now.

The Wall‘ was the first book of Marlen Haushofer that I read. I loved it so much that I searched for all of her books which were in print. I found only two more in English translation – ‘The Loft‘ and ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. I got them both and read ‘The Loft‘ soon. I kept ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ aside for a rainy day. I read the first few pages many times, but refused to go ahead. A few days back I decided that it was time. It was time to take it out and read it properly and enjoy the pleasures and the insights it had to offer.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ is the story of a girl called Meta. When the story starts, Meta is around two-and-a-half years old. We see the world through her eyes, as she views grown-ups including her parents as giants, she loves the barrel in which someone keeps her for a while, while they work in the farm, she loves the tree, the big old stone, the dog, her house. As the story progresses, we get introduced to new characters – Meta’s uncles, aunts and grandparents, her neighbours, the people who work in her home, the casual visitors who turn up at her home. At some point Meta’s mother gives birth to a new baby and now Meta has a baby brother. Initially she is jealous of him, because now her mother ignores her and gives the baby her full attention. But one day, Meta is able to see the situation from her mother’s point of view and after that day she is not jealous of her baby brother anymore. We get to see how life is in the farm, the pleasures that it offers and the challenges that it provides. We get to see how the change of seasons initiates a new set of activities in the farm and results in the arrival of new people. We get to know about Meta’s relationship with her father and mother and how different they are – her father is a dreamy type who is nostalgic about the past while her mother is a practical type. We also get to know how Meta’s uncles and aunts are very different from each other but how they all love her in their own ways. We get to know about how Meta and her dog love each other and trust each other. There is even a white hen in the farm which the other hens ignore and Meta is kind to that hen and it gets attached to her and keeps following her everywhere. There are more things in the book, but I’ll stop here.

I loved ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘. One of the things I loved about the book was the point of view from which the story is told. We see the world through the two-and-a-half year old Meta’s eyes at the beginning of the book, and we become two-and-a-half years old while reading it. And as Meta grows up every day and week and month and year, and as her perspective about the world and her relationship to her surroundings and the people around her changes and evolves, we continue growing up with her and see the world in new ways. This transformation of perspective is gradual and natural and is not rushed or forced. It is beautiful and we don’t even realize that it is happening. But after we finish reading, say, fifty pages of the book and then go back and check the first page, we realize that things have changed so much, but when the change was happening and we were in the middle of it, we were not aware of it. Only a master can pull this off and Marlen Haushofer does it so beautifully and elegantly. Haushofer’s prose is beautiful and charming. She is a beautiful soul and it shows in every sentence of the book. You will know why when you read it. There are so many beautiful passages in the book and I couldn’t stop highlighting.

How does ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘ compare to Haushofer’s other two books, ‘The Wall‘ and ‘The Loft‘? It is hard to tell. I loved them all and they are all very different. ‘The Wall’ will probably be my favourite out of the three, but now after reading ‘Nowhere Ending Sky‘, I am not very sure, because this is equally beautiful as well.

Nowhere Ending Sky‘ starts when Meta is around two-and-a-half and ends when she is probably in her early teens. The ending is beautiful and poignant, because lots of things have changed since the beginning and Meta is not a baby anymore, and her relationship with the world has changed. The ending was heartbreaking for me. It was heartbreaking because while Meta mourned the passage of her childhood, I mourned the end of the last book of my favourite writer. It is sad that all good things have to come to an end. It is sad that there won’t be any more new Marlen Haushofer books. There is one novel, one novella and a collection of short stories of hers in German, which are still not available in English translation. I hope someday one of the translators decide to translate them into English. Till then, this is it. I am so thankful that there was a writer called Marlen Haushofer and she lived in the 20th century, and she was a beautiful soul, and she wrote these beautiful, sensitive books. I am so happy that I discovered her books and I am so glad that I loved them. I am so sad that the party is over now. One of these days, I’ll take down all the three Haushofer books I have and read them again, slowly, and enjoy the beauty of each sentence. But right now, it is time to mourn the end of an era.

I will leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

“The best thing about Father’s stories is that they keep changing imperceptibly all the time. He is incapable of telling the same story twice in the same way, and this creates a kind of web that spreads out in all directions. Nothing is fixed and therefore nothing is boring. Meta could go on listening for ever, and for quite a while now she herself has in fact been helping to spin the web. She makes suggestions, promotes and demotes officers and troops. Unpopular figures are flushed into oblivion and nobody cares a hoot. Sometimes her imagination runs away with her, and then Father gently takes another tack. One evening, for example, she transfers the whole regiment to Beluchistan, simply because she likes the name; he doesn’t contradict her, he just leaves the fact hanging there until she forgets about it. He always maintains that nearly everything sorts itself out if you give it time. And it is important to remember this.”

“What can it be like, never to have been born? She closed her eyes tightly, shuts down as many senses as she can – sight, taste, hearing – and remains motionless. But she is still there : her tummy rumbles, her heart beats and there is a red sort of curtain affair behind her lids. She must make herself smaller, shut herself even tighter. Rolled into a ball, her mouth pressed against her knees, she does her best to achieve a state of never-having-been-born. The red behind her eyelids fades, her arms and legs go numb, her tummy falls silent and her heartbeat slows. She has never been born. There is nothing uncomfortable about not being in the world; you don’t feel anything at all. Then slowly she comes to life again. Her ears are the first things to open, and they hear the wasps buzzing in the roof beams. Next her nose catches the smell of the flour sacks on which she is lying; on her tongue she can taste saliva; and when she opens her eyes the whole world comes flooding back. She is there again, delivered up to the assault of noises and sights and smells. This not-being-able-to-fend-them-off is what life is…’You ought to be grateful,’ Mamma always says, but for the first time Meta starts to doubt it. She is not grateful; she is alive, and that’s all there is to it. Sometimes it’s nice, often it isn’t, and always it’s a big oppression.”

“What grips her most is not so much the actual stories as the wealth of fascinating new words she learns from them. Just the words, not the meanings – she is in fact careful not to enquire too closely into meanings in case a fuller explanation should rob them of their mystical power. At one point she comes across the phrase ‘his voice rang with a note of triumph’, and spends the rest of the day in a trance, just musing on it. Triumph, triumph, what a dark, proud, shapely word; its meaning is not important; one day it will fall into place like everything else she hasn’t yet learnt, and in the meantime the word will retain all its magic. She is convinced that to discover new things, all you have to do is to get your words in the right order. All magicians know this, and it is the basis of their power. She would like to gain this power herself one day, but at present she is afraid of it and decides to put off working magic until she is older : she might, for instance, pronounce a wrong word by mistake and awaken some terrible monster, and she is too young and weak for that. No, for the moment her task is merely to swallow the words – not difficult because she has always had a desire to swallow things she likes – and wait for her time to come. Fortunately reading is a way of gobbling up things you love for which there is no punishment.”

Have you read Marlen Haushofer’sNowhere Ending Sky‘? What do you think about it?

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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 By Marlen Haushofer

‘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?

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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 Wall By Marlen Haushofer

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.

 

The Cats

 

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.

 

The Heroine

 

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.

 

The Adder

 

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.

 

The Forest

 

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.

 

The Flowers

 

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?

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