Novel

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.