Sunday 31 March 2024

Marlen Haushofer, The Wall

The Wall was one of those novels that is at times rather boring, but also deeply fascinating and moving at the same time. Written in 1963, Marlen Haushofer tells the story of a woman with grown children and no husband who visits her cousin Luisa and her husband Hugo in the Austrian mountains when an invisible wall erects overnight whilst the couple are in town, leaving the 40-something year old protagonist as the last human on Earth (to the best of her knowledge). The narrator can see through the wall and identify that everything living has become petrified, people and animals suspended mid-action, but very much dead. Set with the spectre of nuclear war in the background, and the hypothesis that the wall may be an enemy attack, the woman makes the decision to survive. 

The novel is full of details of how she approaches her survival in the most practical senses: how she hunts, forages and plants food to keep herself nourished, how she weathers the elements and changing seasons, the small shifts in climate, the detail of the flora around around her; however, the narrative is centred around her dependency on the animals that she cares for and the role assigns herself to work for them as her primary impetus to stay and keep alive. 

The Wall takes the form of a report the woman is writing on her time after the wall has come up - we are told it has been over two years. The protagonist details her account of endurance, her deep loneliness and depression but also the love and companionship that fuels her will to continue, found in the friendship of the huntsman's left behind dog Lynx, a number of cats who are born and die throughout the story, Bella a pregnant cow who yields milk vital to the survival of the cohort, and eventually Bull, Bella's calf. Working with scarce resources, the woman feels responsible for the survival of her eclectic clan of pets, and with this purpose, industriously develops the skills and solutions to find a way to exist in her new ecosystem. 

Dependent on the meaning that this labour gives her, she hunts deer she'd rather not kill and seasonally moves from a hunting lodge in a valley to another property, and describes feeling split off as if into two different people who occupy two different places. This brilliant passage in an example of her psychic navigation of what it means to be in this place and her role in it - how she should neither get lost in fantasies of megalomania nor under state her environmental interventions: 

In her report, she remembers her previous life as a mother as if that person person too is a separate entity, and feels disdain to her grown children, who stopped needing her in the ways she needed to feel needed. With this role given new life through her animals, the company of whom she has come to prefer over that of humans, she reflects how her happiness in early family life with small children faded as they grew older, leaving her insecure and considerably less happy so much so that she writes, "Later on I had never been happy again. Everything changed in a wretched way, and I stopped really living". I found the confessions of anxiety that harm or death would come to her animals extremely moving. Deeply resonant was her acknowledgement that the creatures were wild and needed their freedom even if it meant they would be killed by predatory animals or disappear without explanation. A truth she accepted both in thought and action, her worst terrors were letting them out into the world without supervision, for fear of crisis, separation, loss, her own resulting loneliness and ultimately, the removal of her strongest survival mechanism. 

The book is at once the triumph of physical strength of a woman who decides she needs no other humans (indeed this comes to a head at the end of the novel), and endures an unforgiving wilderness and also a story of the dependency of the will and drive of women to care for and mother others, who find purpose and loss in this mothering. There is a tender moment where Haushofer describes an exchange of mutual mothering: the protagonist continues to stay alive to keep her cow Bella alive and knows that without Bella's milk, she and the others would all starve. In this moment of feeding, Bella is the great mother, in other moments, she is referred to as the protagonist's sister. Acknowledging the interdependency, in this passage the protagonist hopes that Bella dies before her, which would mean an easier death for her beloved cow and the opting into greater suffering for herself instead:

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