Month: December 2014

Review of “The Wall” by Marlen Haushofer

(Reader’s note:  I wrote a series of notes on this review shortly after I finished reading the book, nearly a year ago, but I never managed to publish my thoughts until now.  Enjoy!)


The Wall

Now that I have finished reading The Wall, I will never think about our yearly vacations to the Austrian Alps the same way again.  It has been a growing tradition in our family to try to go skiing twice a year, once on Thanksgiving weekend and then again in March, at the end of the season.  For a couple of years we managed to do this yearly routine.  We would stay in a small village along the main road leading into the Oetztal valley. A small mountain brook fed by a waterfall some three hundred meters from the bedroom window and balcony ran by the vacation apartment where we stayed.  On the night of our arrival, we would go to bed early to have the chance to get to the slopes the following morning.  From there, we’d ski the whole day until before the last ski gondola would return to the valley below.  The view was always something to see.

Mountain pass panorama

Here is a panorama I took of the Austrian Alps the last time I went skiing in 2013.

I remember the first time I went skiing in the Alps.  Shortly after we’d arrived at the tallest lift station on the mountain, the wind picked up and a cold weather front came up over the neighboring mountain range.  It was really ominous, watching those milky clouds roll over the mountain like that.  I’d never seen clouds move the way they did.  There was nothing we could do but ski downhill.  We were in the mountains, and it was becoming clear that this would be my rites of passage, so to speak.  My partner went down the mountain with a cat-like grace, weaving this way and that. Clearly, thirty plus years of experience guided her the whole way down.  I could barely make a sweeping turn, on the other hand, what with this being my third time on skis.  I felt ridiculous as more and more experienced skiers passed me by.  What the hell am I doing way up here, I thought on more than one occasion.  Once, I had to side-step my way down the slope; it was just too steep for my skill level.  This and the pending doom that the clouds forbore only made me more anxious — and annoyed.  I still blame my partner for taking me down a red-diamond slope with a snowstorm just off the horizon. I would be lying though if I said I didn’t enjoy myself; after all, I did survive to tell the tale. What an adventure that snowstorm turned out to be, too.  A complete white-out at 2,500 meters.  I could barely see my hand in front of my face, let alone the path that I was skiing on.  There was nothing but raging snow, blowing this way and that, to remind me that I was on top of a mountain.  It was all one big blur, the whole three grueling hours of it.  Eventually I made it down to the middle station, drank a lot of Jägertee to calm my nerves and relaxed in the end at a thermal spa that evening, where I gave my aching muscles the rest they deserved.

Coming back to this book The Wall by Marlen Haushofer, I could think of nothing but my own experiences in the mountains as I read it.  How rugged and hazardous living there could be, especially if it was without the support of some fraction of civilization.  The thought of living alone, the way she does in the novel, with no one to aid, comfort or console you, is tormenting, not only for her but for us as readers, as well.  To consider how this story came to be is somewhat puzzling, too.  From one day to the next, she is alone, terribly alone, because of the wall:

I couldn’t see what he was so frightened of.  At this point the road emerged from the gorge, and as far as I could see it lay deserted and peaceful in the morning sun.  I reluctantly pushed the dog aside and went ahead on my own.  Fortunately, thanks to Lynx’s [the dog] 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  (Haushofer 8).

From this point on, this unnamed narrator struggles to survive in a world where only her and her animals exist.  All other traces of humankind are frozen on the other side of the wall, an invisible barrier that keeps her trapped within a mountain valley.  At one point during her survey of the valley, she describes a man she finds on the other side of the wall: “The man by the stream had fallen over and now lay on his back, his knees slightly bent, his cupped hand still on his way to his face.  He must have been knocked over in a storm.  He didn’t look like a corpse, more like something excavated from Pompeii…. rather like things that had never been alive, entirely inorganic” (Haushofer 45).  In the end, she finds companionship with the animals living with her inside the wall, her dog companion, Lynx, and several cats, who all help her maintain her sanity.  That, however, does not go untested without its trials and tribulations.  There is a return to nature of sorts in this novel and that means more than simply existing.  She is no different from the animals she natures and cares for in the novel, but at the same time, she is more than that.  She mostly tells us about her experiences behind the wall through a reflective journal, but traces of her thoughts, her memories are periodically forced to the surface throughout the text to reveal clues to her past.  And she struggles with those memories, for better or for worse.

Snowfall

Ultimately, she is alone.  Except for the many animals around her, she is terribly alone.  These animals become characters.  They take on a life of their own.  She survives because of them and they because of her.  The tragedy at the end of the novel rips the reader from the comfortable complacency that settles and takes hold and forces us to loath what happens — more so, how it happens.  To reveal this point in the plot would spoil the whole novel, but it is in this moment at the end that the strength of this female protagonist comes shining through.  Even after something tragic like this happens, she still goes on living.

Whether you look at the book from a feminist point of view, with the female protagonist struggling to survive in the mountains behind an invisible barrier or from a psychoanalytical viewpoint, with a hint of her isolation being self-imposed, almost as if she is living in a personal hell, if you will, one thing remains certain of this book:  it is not easy to analyze.  Some would argue that the novel is SF (science fiction), but the only reference that suggests any possibility for such a genre classification lies in the very early parts of the book, where she says something about “nuclear wars and their consequences” (Haushofer 3), but claiming it to be such is a bit far removed from any SF sub-genre I can think of.  It could very well be an existential novel, one where she must learn to find her place in nature.  There is one point in the book that I found to be supportive of this idea, and it rests with the appearance of a 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 doesn’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 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.  Perhaps they find it so repugnant that they can’t even peck it to death.  Every day I wait for the white crow and call to it, and it looks at me attentively with its reddish eyes.  I can do very little for it.  Perhaps my scraps are prolonging a life that shouldn’t be prolonged.  But 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 (222).

The white crow showing up is no coincidence in terms of the plot development, either.  It appears just before the tragedy and becomes a point highlighted by the narrator even again in the final lines of the story, after she’s lost everything else.  “The crows have risen, and circle screeching over the forest.  When they are out of sight I shall go to the clearing and feed the white crow.  It will already be waiting for me” (244).  It would be easy to link this white crow to her own character, an outcast of sorts, left to die alone, outside of the security of the flock.  The black crows are bully-ish, scavenging and taking what they want for themselves, carrion opportunists that would eagerly jump at the first chance for a meal.  But, this white crow is different.  It separates itself from the flock, much like our narrator, contrary to exile being involuntarily imposed on her.  Perhaps the ostracized bird is forced to stay away, too, a thought worth thinking about.

On a side note to my existential thoughts here, the crow was once commonly known to be white in Greek myth.  It was only through tragedy that the black crow was born.  According to Cassandra Eason from her handbook on Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols, the story goes that Coronis, the daughter to Phlegyes, became pregnant by the god Apollo, who left a white crow to watch over his beloved mistress at the city of Delphos.  Coronis, however, went off and married the hero, Ischys, despite her previous affections for the god.  Upon learning from the white crow that reported everything to him, Apollo slew Coronis and Ischys, and in his anger turned the crow black for being the bearer of bad news.  Apollo claimed the child born unto the world and named him Asclebius, who later became the healer semi-deity (66).  Seeing the symbolism of the white crow here as the bearer of bad news might help to foreshadow certain events in the novel, but that would require a certain amount of knowledge on Greek mythology to see it coming.

Whatever way you look at the book, there are many reasons why I feel this book is a genuine work of art.  Written by an Austrian writer who clearly had a way with the world she was raised in, Marlen Haushofer told a tale of isolation, despair, but above all else hope that is so convincing, it may very well bring you to tears.  If nothing else, it will leave you thinking about it for a very long time. This is the perfect novel to read on a cold, wintery day, albeit I would not recommend it for those who may be weary at heart or who find themselves easily depressed.  In fact, I would recommend drinking a hot cup of tea (perhaps a Chai) while reading it or going for a run once you’re done.  Whatever you do, though, go out and meet a friend or talk to a neighbor.  Go out and be social, because there’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re alone, or taking for granted what may not be there someday.

Works Cited

Eason, Cassandra. Fabulous Creatures, Mythical Monsters and Animal Power Symbols: A Handbook. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2008. Googlebooks. Web. 08 Aug. 2013.

Haushofer, Marlen. The Wall. Trans. Shaun Whiteside. Berkeley: Cleis Press, Inc., 2012.  Print.

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Am I really “reading” an audiobook?

1188223_microphoneWith a busy semester work load ahead of me, my son demanding more of my attention, and my regular household responsibilities — the usual routine stuff — I find that I have little time for some of the more personal pleasures in my life, such as this blog; but, I imagine this is the case with most writers. It is about time management and priorities, after all. If I am not able to create, I can at least consume. Several months ago, I discovered the Overdrive Media Console app, which allows one to borrow and download audio- and eBooks from his or her local library, if such a service is rendered. When it comes to reading, I will always prefer a physical paper or cloth book over an eBook, but the audio format is proving to be most valuable during this busy time.  In fact, these book types are helping to fill what is otherwise a void in my reading habit. With my earphones jacked into my Samsung, I can listen to the audiobook while I do the dishes, for example, or while I drive the car to go to class (a word of caution here, though, as it is easy to be distracted), instead of listening to the radio which offers nothing worth listening to. I have also listened to my audiobook in the evenings, while I was bringing my son down for bed. I have found that there are many moments in my day which are lost to mundane tasks that can otherwise be supplemented with the narrations of an audio book reader. As a result of this discovery, I have read four novels in just under a month, which is quite an incredible feat for me.

But, this begs the question, am I really reading? This is a point I feel I have to ask myself, because it is not the same experience listening to an audiobook as it is to read the words off of the page for myself. Yet, the narrations are read out loud, using vocabulary from the text that is otherwise often excluded from any normal conversation or dialogue, words that one typically only finds in written form, so the narrator remains true to the text of the book. Another point about audio books worth mentioning is that I am just as involved with listening, taking in every word, the same way I would be committed to visualizing with my eyes the words that emerge from the page. The added advantage to this is that I can do other things, tasks that don’t require so much of my mental capacity to concentrate, while “reading” my book. A level of concentration is still needed, though, to register and process what I am listening to. In some cases, I miss certain points in the reading that I have to backtrack to in order to follow along with the narration, a part of listening to an audiobook that I don’t see any differently from jumping back a page or two to reference a point previously mentioned. This is one of the only drawbacks that I am noticing about “reading” an audiobook — that other senses are always competing for my attention, something that you may know from my previous posts can be problematic, what with my absent-mindedness, especially while driving. In fact, I drive a lot slower when I listen to an audiobook than when I do not. I usually reserve the audio book for any type of extended driving I have to do. If I am on the highway, the audio book comes out; it stays off if I am driving in town. The last thing I need is an accident.

The dangers of listening to audiobooks aside, I don’t feel like retention for what I am “reading” is a problem, as I am focused on the book being narrated, the reader’s voice often compelling and pragmatic. I have found myself adventuring with genres of books that I previously invested little of my efforts into. My focus in reading has often been with fiction, but I do not feel the same elation from listening to an audio work of fiction as I do with actually reading one. This is partly because of the figurative nature of literature that I enjoy so much, savoring an author’s use of symbolism and metaphor the same way a taster might relish a gourmet delicatessen. Non-fiction, the books I find myself listening to more, delves into another literary form on its own, one comprising of fact and personal account. While these works can take on creative twists in their own way, the primary purpose is to convey information about their given subject matter, so an author’s tone and use of syntax is arranged differently. I don’t think a book like The Satanic Verses with its fragments and colloquialisms would work as effectively in non-fiction form (or in an audio format, for that matter). After all, the poetic license afforded to a work of fiction like Rushdie’s novel is what gives fiction its unique appeal, something I feel I enjoy more when I have the chance to sit down and explore it more thoroughly, flipping back to previous pages to encounter the beautifully written prose over and over again. With audio books, this is not as easy to do. “Reading” an audiobook is solely for the sake of listening and learning in my opinion. Since the beginning of the year, I have read: two biographies — one about Jack London, the other regarding Carl von Stauffenberg; one band biography about Metallica; and a survey on the cultural history of rabies. The next in line is the autobiography on Gandhi.   All of these books have been easy to read because they are presenting information in more of a chronological manner. Fiction gets easily lost in the mental traps of its protagonists, so much so that it is easy to lose place, especially if multiple points of views are being expressed. I don’t know how an audio work of literature, say The Brothers Karamazov by Dostoyevsky, would “read” if I were to listen to it. I don’t know that I would want to experience a classic work like this in audio form, anyway.

I guess I answer my question. While I am listening to someone else read aloud what has already been written, I am still encountering those same grammatical forms that distinguish writing from the dialogues of conversation. My concentration is still focused on the material as it is being presented to me, whether it be from the monologues of one reader or the voice-overs of each “character” in the book, much in the same way a radio theatrical production was done in the olden days — a form of reading, I might add, that I don’t really like, nor should the book include any musical score set to fill the space between chapters or to heighten dramatic effect. I prefer a single reader over many — a quietly edited book, if you will — since this is what mirrors my own mental voice as I read a physical book. When I allow my eyes to skim across the lines of words on a page, taking in their meaning and relating these words to one another, I don’t imagine the voices of children or women playing out their roles; rather, their voice is my own. Nor, do I imagine some underscore of violins amplifying the dramatic mood of a scene. The only thing that occupies my mind while I read are my thoughts. I am glad to have this technology to allow me to enjoy a good book, even if I do not really have the time to do so in any other form.

Image source: McNally, Victoria. “Recording your Audiobook, part 1: Setting up.” Bookworks: The Self-Publishers Association. WordPress.com. 04 Mar. 2013. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

Candied Almonds at the Christkindelsmarkt 2014

I have written this story to thank an unknown vendor for a kind service rendered at the Christmas market this year.  The story is a bit off topic from what I usually post here, but I thought I would share the story for the holidays.  Season’s Greetings, good readers!



“So, can anyone tell me how to get to the bus depot from — let’s say — here, at the shopping center?” I scanned the room, looking for anyone willing enough to give the lesson a try.

I caught Gretchin out of the corner of my eye, who seemed moderately interested and brave enough to give the directions I was asking for.

“Gretchin, would you like to try it?”

“I will. Go out onto the street and turn right.”

“Good, and then?”

“Walk straight along the road to the intersection and turn left.” There was a slight pause as she thought a moment about the next step.

“Yes, and then?”

“The bus stop is in front of the hill,” she said, wincing at her uncertainty for this last part.

At the top of the hill,” I corrected.

“The bus stop is at the top of the hill,” she repeated, a little discouraged by her mistake but thankful for having the opportunity to have another go at it. A few of the others were diligently writing in their notebooks.

“Well then, everyone, I do believe we are running out of time,” I said, noting the relief in everyone’s faces, “so my last question for the day will be — where’s the Christkindelsmarkt?”

Everyone chuckled at the suggestion, and immediately began gathering their things. I too set to the task of straightening up, eager to join my students for a nice evening at the Christmas market. I hadn’t had the chance to visit the market yet, and it was already two weeks into the season for it. Judging how quietly most of my students reacted during this evening’s lesson, I would say we were all in need of a spiced wine.

I took my jacket down from the coat rack and pulled it on over my shoulders as I hoisted my leather tote, bulky and cumbersome from the weight of a whole day’s worth of English lessons, and made my way for the door, switching off the lights as I left. All of my students approached me the week before, asking if I would be interested in joining them after this evening’s class for a festive outing at the Christmas market, and I humbly accepted the invitation. It was a nice feeling to know that my relationship with them was being taken to a new level.

*****

We all walked down the steps together and made our way for the main entrance. I dropped off the CD player with the School’s caretaker, bid him a nice evening, and caught up with those who were making their way out of the door. The weather outside was frightful, and the misty dew made the evening air cold and clammy to the touch. One could see the mist swaying this way and that under the sodium lamps, the orange tinted glow taking the edge of the chill the moisture created. We walked together down the main street to the pedestrian zone, making small talk along the way.

Not even five minutes later, the cobble-stoned streets turned into the first signs of holiday festivities. Hanging over the street, from store front to store front, were the first ornaments leading one to the Christmas market. Wreaths adorned with holly berries and mistletoe hung from lighting fixtures at intervals of a few feet all the way down the street, marking the way through the city’s center to the marketplace where the kiosks could be found. People were coming and going from shops, large shopping bags showing their agendas, as we made our way closer to the market’s edge.

Finally, our group stood before the Christkindelsmarkt. We slowed down and stopped at the edge of the market to take the scenery before us in. The constant chatter of people talking, conversations that were muddled out by other conversations, filled the night sky. All of the eateries and stands were centered around a gigantic conifer tree that towered well over a few of the storefront buildings along the marketplace’s edge. The tree was adorned with large glass-ball ornaments in varying shades of red, green and violet; long strands of lights were draped from head to toe, illuminating the tree to reveal its magnificence.

I scanned my students, taking in their reactions, and waited for them to make the first move. It was soon clear that we didn’t have a plan of any sorts, so we decided to meet back up in ten minutes time to allow everyone a chance to fetch something for themselves. Most of them went for the eateries. I headed to the first spiced wine stand I could find. It wasn’t long before I was sipping on a steaming-hot mug of mulled wine, the savory taste of the wine lifting my spirit.

As everyone started to make their way back to our meeting point, we started to settle into our niches. Some of them were interested in practicing their English, so we conversed the majority of the evening on a wide range of topics. One of my colleagues from the school stopped by to join us, and she added all the more to great conversation that was developing from the evening.

I took a look around at the various stands, my wine having since been empty some minutes before, when I noticed people around the stands thinning out. More and more people were beginning to part ways. “Seems to be clearing out,” I commented, as the others turned around to look. The eight o’clock church bells started to ring out into the night, marking the closing of the Christmas market.

“Well, I must go home now,” Terrence said politely, addressing each of us, shaking everyone’s hand in turn. From there, it was a chain reaction of departures, everyone seeming to buzz still with the last vestiges of the festive outing. Suddenly, it dawned on me. I was forgetting something. Knowing that I was going to the Christkindelsmarkt that evening, my wife instructed me to pick up a bag of candied almonds. The last strike of the eight o’clock bell was like a light bulb going on in my head.

“Oh crap! I forget to buy almonds! I’ll be right back everyone.”

*****

In a mad dash, I raced through what remained of the Christmas market, but it seemed I was too late. Most of the kiosks had already closed up their stands, heavy blinds keeping me from fulfilling my promise. I paced the market aisles, running from one row to another, in the hopes that around the next corner would be a stand still open for business. By the last row, I had lost hope. I had forgotten to buy candied almonds, and my wife would be disappointed for it. “What luck,” I said to myself out loud, disappointed in myself for having gotten too wrapped up in the festive moment. Suddenly, I saw them.

“Wait! Please, wait,” I yelled, nearly out of breath from rushing over to them.

Two men were wrapping a tarp over the open side of their stand, both vendors struggling to fix the tarp in place. They stopped what they were doing to listen.

“Please, I made a promise to buy almonds for my wife this evening, and I nearly forgot. Would you be so kind to sell me some before you close up for the evening?” I pleaded, hoping they would make the transactions.

Both vendors looked at each other, when I added, “I know you’re closing up for the night, but I would be very grateful if you would sell me a bag.”

“Alright. No problem. We will sell you a bag,” said the man closest to me, a tall fellow in a winter vest and ski cap. He looked at his colleague, who immediately looked annoyed at his statement.

“You have no idea how much you’re helping me. Thank you.” I added, hoping to smooth things over a bit.

The other vendor, now behind the display, asked what I wanted. I took a look at the prices and opted for the more expensive bag, in hopes that my selection would at least show my gratitude for their service.

The man began shoveling candied almonds into the bag, setting it upon a scale for measure, and started closing it up, when his colleague closest to me said rather curtly, “This man asked for a large bag of almonds.”

With a mounting tension in the air, I listened as the vendor with my almonds exclaimed something back to his colleague in Russian, a language I didn’t need to understand to know just what was happening. I took a quick look at the scale and saw that the balance has tipped for a lesser weight. He was planning to rip me off a few almonds, no doubt for my disrupting their closing time.

I cast a quick look at the taller man next to me to see what his reaction would be and his glaring gaze at his colleague was colder than the night air where we were standing. I turned back to the vendor behind the display and asked how much it would be for a large bag, knowing full well the price was marked right in front of me.

I pulled out another bag, a larger bag, and began loading more almonds into my request, seemingly disgruntled at having been called out for his actions. Once he finished, he placed the rightful amount of almonds up on the glass counter and said, “5 Euros.”

I quickly paid the man, nodded to his friendlier colleague, thanking him for his kindness, wished them both a nice evening and ran back to my friends. Of course, they were waiting, perplexed by my sudden disappearance, as they knew I was coming back but they didn’t know why I had run off in the first place, so I owed them an explanation. I told them about my promise and why I needed to run off the way I did, and they all laughed with me.

*****

It was easy to shrug off what had happened just then in the presence of my new friends, but I couldn’t help but wonder on my way home that evening if I had set things in motion that would change the way those two men would come to work with one another. I wouldn’t have been none the wiser if that vendor had indeed cut me short on my request. The fact that his colleague stepped in to defend me, a customer — no doubt for something as simple as a bag of almonds — when he could have turned a blind eye to the own ordeal leaves me thankful for all of the honest people that exist out there in the world today.   It’s the principle of the matter that counts here, so I have written this piece to thank him, whoever he may be, for doing the right thing, even when it was at his expense in the end.

Image source: ReneS. “Christmas Market in Jena.” Wikipedia.org. Wikipedia foundation, Inc. 21 Dec. 2007. [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas_market#mediaviewer/File:ChristmasMarketJena.jpg]