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. – Marlen Haushofer, The Wall
I read this book shortly after watching the first season of the television adaptation of Stephen King’s Under the Dome and it’s impossible not to compare the two although really the only thing they have in common is that an invisible and seemingly impenetrable barrier mysteriously appears one day imprisoning (or protecting, depending on your point of view) those within. In King’s case it’s the town of Chester’s Mill in Maine; in Haushofer’s it’s a number of chalets and hunting lodges in a corner of the Salzkammergut in Upper Austria. The dimensions of King’s dome are assessed quickly enough but the woman who narrates The Wall never learns the exact size or shape of whatever it is that’s surrounding her. Because of where she’s located it’s not impossible that there are others somewhere in the mountains but pretty soon she starts to realise that the likelihood of anyone else having been trapped inside the wall is virtually nil and she, in very practical fashion, gets down to the day-to-day business of survival. The idea of rescue is also a possibility but she doesn’t rest on her laurels or allow herself time to feel sorry for herself (or mourn the death of her family); she assumes it’s going to take a long time if, indeed, anyone does come.
On the surface then her story is not so dissimilar a story to Robinson Crusoe or Cast Away; she has to work with what she’s got. Luckily her cousin's husband, Hugo—whose hunting lodge she’s been staying in—had been a bit of a hoarder and a hypochondriac so she has an excess of some very helpful things like medicines but there are also perishables she’s going to run out of quickly like food. Her luckiest find is a cow, which she names Bella, but there are pros and cons of having a cow and the main problem is the milking which has to be done daily and so restricts how far she can travel. This is partially why she never manages to map the wall but this isn’t something that really seems to bother her.
If I had one problem with the book (although, of course, my problem is with the character of the book’s narrator) it’s how little time she spends investigating the wall. One of the questions posed very early on in Under the Dome was whether rain would be able to penetrate the dome but the woman never wonders about how high the wall might be and, indeed, when the rains come I got no sense of relief. Let’s face it, it might’ve been eight feet tall and she could’ve clambered over it. I’m being facetious when I say that but, in the book at least, she does give in to being trapped a little too readily. In the film adaptation (which I watched the day after finishing the book) there are more encounters with the wall, including crashing a Mercedes Benz into it (which wasn’t in the novel but gave the special effects guys something to do), but even there I couldn’t stop myself thinking that a part of her was relieved to be trapped, that she wasn’t so much trapped as freed from a life she really wasn’t revelling in much. She does talk about her life before but she doesn’t pine after it. Significantly she never reveals the names of her husband or children.
She does talk about trying to dig under the wall at some future time. In fact she talks about digging a tunnel under it big enough to allow large animals to escape. Why she doesn’t try sooner is that she realises she’s protected within the wall. Outside the only person she can see is a man frozen; death must’ve come very quickly indeed. There are no birds, except dead ones on the ground, and no animals and no signs of human life for as far as she can see through her binoculars. Whether the danger has passed she can’t be certain. (Again I had to wonder about the birds within the wall and why they didn’t fly over it and why she didn’t wonder why they didn’t fly over it.)
We do know she survives two and a half years. Because of a tragedy (the deaths of her bull—it turned out the cow was pregnant—and Hugo’s dog, a Bavarian bloodhound called Lynx) at this point in time she sits down to write a report, not that she expects anyone to ever read it, but everything in the book is leading up to these losses which she’s struggling to come to terms with. Not that these are the only deaths in the book—she loses two cats along the way—and we know these deaths are coming because she talks about them in the past tense even though in her narrative they’re still future. She has enough matches to last another couple of years, her crops have been more of a success than she could’ve hoped, the deer are plentiful and there are fish in the stream (although how the water penetrates the wall is another unexplored puzzle): her life may not be an easy one (and in this respect the film brought home to me just how hard some of the things she was describing must have been without the aid of machinery) and she’s far from happy but she does note that, for the first time in her life, she is calm.
The book is keen in its blurb to suggest that multiple readings of The Wall are possible and an obvious bandwagon to jump on is the feminist one but really this is no feminist manifesto. It may well be a world without men but it’s also a world without other women. Although, of course, there is a male in the book, Lynx the dog, who is the woman’s support, protector and becomes, in her words, her “best friend”. Sure there’s no sex involved and I’m stretching a point but quite often I see points stretched in order to provide feminist readings of books that are just books. I’m not a feminist but then neither am I a masculinist; there’s both room (and a need) for both sexes so I guess that makes me a humanist (without the capital h) although I’ve never really thought about it until now. Who reads Robinson Crusoe as a masculinist novel just because there’re no women in it? It could be said that one of the things that drives the woman to keep surviving is the mother in her who refuses to leave her animals, the cow especially, to their own devices but as a man with pets to care for I don’t see that as an especially feminine perspective. It’s in our DNA to take care of things. And I think this desire is amplified when we’re isolated—look at the Birdman of Alcatraz, for example.
One review said she didn’t think men would like this book. And Doris Lessing wrote:
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.
I’m not sure I agree with either of them.
Of course this is also, strictly speaking, a work of speculative fiction and there are loads of last-man-on-earth-who-turns-out-not-be-the-last-man-on-earth stories to pick from although I can think of a few where we only have a cast of one. Not so many last-woman-on-earth stories whether or not she proves to be the only person. In that respect this book is exceptional but the problems she faces aren’t unique to women. She mostly, for example, enjoys the solitude but still gets lonely from time to time, especially after the death of the dog, and I suspect it’s that overbearing loneliness that has driven her to write, to talk to an anonymous future reader. As post-apocalyptic tales go this is no The Road although like The Road we are kept in complete ignorance about what’s happened or who’s to blame. In that respect the book also reminded me a little of The Quiet Earth which investigates what happens after an attempt to establish a worldwide electrical grid leads to the mysterious disappearance of most of the earth's population; it’s also a bloodless, silent apocalypse.
Human beings had played their own games, and in almost every case they had ended badly. And how could I complain? I was one of them and couldn’t judge them, because I understood them so well. […] The great game of the sun, moon and stars seemed to be working out, and that hadn’t been invented by humans. But it wasn’t completed yet, and might bear the seeds of failure within it. I was only an attentive and enchanted onlooker; my whole life would be too short to grasp even the tiniest stage of the game. I’d spent most of my life struggling with daily human concerns. Now that I had barely anything left, I could sit in peace on the bench and watch the stars dancing against the black firmament.
As for the book being “a philosophical parable of human isolation” that it is, too. I’m always wary of words like ‘parable’ because they have a tendency to reduce people to cardboard cut-outs and there are moments in this book when, and this isn’t helped by the fact we never know her name, we find ourselves thinking of the narrator as simply ‘the woman’ and not a person with wants and desires and perhaps this is partly because she is reduced to an automaton going through the motions necessary to maintain her world and keep herself and her animals alive. She gets depressed, naturally. She gets sick. She contemplates—although not very seriously—ending her life. What she doesn’t seem to do is grieve. Clearly she hasn’t left much of a life behind her. What she finds herself missing are practical things, things that would make her work easier—in the novel she doesn’t have keys to the car for example—and treats like sugar and even bread although it’s hard to imagine thinking of bread as a treat but then I’ve never had to live without it. She doesn’t miss a man and by that I mean she doesn’t miss sex; the subject is never broached and I very much doubt this is due to any special sensitivity on the author’s behalf looking at her other work. Had the woman been older I might not struggle with that but she’s only in her forties. There is something a little old-fashioned about her though, the way she talks about the animals when they’re in season:
From all I’ve seen, being in love can’t be a pleasant state for an animal. They can’t know, after all, that it’s a temporary thing; as far as they’re concerned every moment is as eternity. Bella’s gloomy calls, the laments of the old cat and Tiger’s despair, nowhere a trace of happiness. And afterwards exhaustion, dull coats and cadaverous sleep.
(It’s interesting that I’ve just read The Millstone which was written about the same time, another novel that gets labelled ‘feminist’ and which really isn’t, and which also focuses on an essentially sexless woman.)
In a very literal sense this is a utopian novel. Bear in mind that the literal translation of utopia is “no place”; the real world is outside the wall. Inside is populated by innocents. Death is only a part of the natural order here as a result of old age, ill health, accident or a predator and what one needs to bear in mind about predatory behaviour is that it’s not bad or evil. The only living creature within the wall capable of moral judgement is the interloper, the woman. The rest are governed by the instinct to survive. And even she finds the temptation to abandon civilised behaviour (hard not to think of Lord of the Flies here) not entirely unattractive. Utopian fiction is also escapist fiction. Odd then that so much dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction is being churned out at the moment when the escapist culture of the American Depression revolved around finding inexpensive forms of entertainment that diverted attention from life's hardships. I suppose all we can glean from what’s coming out at the moment is: Things could be worse. Haushofer’s novel is no Herland, however. It is also not a dream from which she can expect to wake up any day now.
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.
We can read the novel, too, as an anti-rat-race novel like The Year of the Hare but the difference there is that Vatanen voluntarily—albeit on the spur of the moment—chooses to walk out of his old life and opt for a simpler way of doing things. So, no, the woman didn’t opt to abandon her family but when the opportunity arose she didn’t object much either: Oh there’s an invisible wall. What a shame. I’ll just have to make a new life for myself here. Luckily, unlike me (I’d last about a month and a half on my own), she’s a practical sort. Some of the books she comes across are helpful but it’s not as if she has access to the Internet and can just look up how to get a calf out of a cow when it’s stuck.
You could even read the novel allegorically if you so choose. The woman is a writer. She was a housewife, as was Haushofer and as are many women novelists. Haushofer complained about lacking space to write and so here she provides her proxy with Woolf’s “room of one’s own” and an imaginary world to explore, one protected from all outside influences by a glass wall, the book’s working title. How many writers, too, slog away day after day working on books that no one will ever read?
Of course the book could simply be about what it’s like to be an outcast. Why else would the woman feel such empathy for the white crow ostracised by the rest of the flock?
On the whole this isn’t an exciting book, indeed it can actually be a bit boring at times, but then the woman’s life is boring. There is only one surprise near the end. We know her bull and dog die and she hints that they’re killed but we don’t learn the details until the moment’s right on us and it all happens so quickly that within a page or two it’s over. It does, however, change her life because she does mourn the loss of her dog and even imagines his ghost tagging along with her:
At times now, when I walk alone in the wintery forest, I talk to Lynx as I did before. I have no idea I’m doing it until something startles me and I fall silent. I turn my head and catch the gleam of a reddish-brown coat. But the path is empty: bare bushes and wet stones. I’m not surprised that I still hear the dry branches cracking under the light tread of his feet. Where else would this little dog’s soul go haunting, if not on my trail? He’s a friendly ghost, and I’m not afraid of him. Lynx, beautiful, good dog, my dog…
The unanswered question concerning the death of her animals reflects the book’s bigger question, also unanswered, regarding the fate of humanity: Why? She—we—will never know. It’s tempting to think a man pressed the proverbial button and maybe one did. Or maybe it was a woman. Now that would raise some interesting questions.
I enjoyed the book. I enjoyed the film adaptation, too, and, as always, was puzzled by what was left out (although little was changed to give the screenwriter his due). Why the frozen old man needed a frozen old wife I have no idea; it didn’t hurt but I did expect them to revisit the scene as happens in the book, but maybe they blew the special effects budget on the car crash. As films of books go it’s definitely one of the better ones—it took three years to complete—and what was especially nice for non-German speakers is that Martina Gedeck (who at times looked disconcertingly like a dishevelled and slightly-older Davina McCall) redid her voiceover in English for the DVD so no subtitles if you don’t want them. Actual dialogue within the film is virtually non-existent. I would recommend both and I definitely felt the film enhanced my reading of the novel. You can read a considered review of the film here.
What is particularly impressive about the book is how it hasn’t dated. It could’ve been written last week. How you read the book is entirely up to you. There’s no right way although if you approach it with an agenda you’ll likely be disappointed but that’s the case with most things.
Marlen Haushofer was born in Frauenstein in Austria in 1920. She studied German in Vienna and Graz, subsequently settling in Steyr. In 1941 she married Manfred Haushofer, a dentist. She later divorced then remarried her husband, and had two sons. Haushofer published her first novel, A Handful of Life, in 1955. In 1958, We Murder Stella was published. The Wall came out in 1963, and The Loft, her final novel, appeared in 1969. Haushofer received the Grand Austrian State Prize for literature in 1968. She died of cancer in Vienna in 1970.
Laura Kapelari, Feminist Utopia and Dystopia: Marlen Haushofer’s Die Wand