The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.

25 thoughts on “The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

  1. Oh, Another recommendation I have to follow up. I thought ‘OUR ENDLESS NUMBERED DAYS’ was so good (best book I’ve read this year) that I will add THE WALL to my ‘to read’ list. Thank you for sharing this Claire.

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    • I am sure you won’t regret it Elly, this is an excellent and memorable read, sadly little known in English. I’m so happy to have heard about it and to be able to share it, my kind of classic definitely!

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  2. Excellent review, Claire. As I was reading it I the Cold War popped into my head and then I spotted the publication date. I do hope that the filmmaker treats it well – it sounds as if a Hollywood-style adaptation would ruin it.

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    • Let me share a few other words from the cinema critic Jerry Whyte, Susan. The film was completed in 2013, a seven year project in the making, the Director having thought about it for 25 years since he first read the book. Whyte calls it:

      “…a film that represents all that is great about European cinema. Julian Roman Pölsler’s Die Wand/The Wall is the kind of film Hollywood seems reluctant to make; perhaps it lacks the patience. Pölsler pursued this unique project with single-minded devotion ever since he fell in love with Marlen Haushofer’s novel 25 years ago. The Wall is notable for the sparsity of its plot, absence of dialogue and characters, slow pacing, long takes, philosophical depth, sublime beauty, and timelessness. It is hard to imagine such a film getting the green light from the likes of Fox, MGM, Paramount or Universal.”

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  3. I really enjoyed your review, Claire. I’d heard of this novel but knew little about it – an involving read by the sound of things. Stream of consciousness is far from my favourite style, but Haushofer’s approach looks fairly accessible. (It’s very helpful to see the quotes.)

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    • It’s not my favourite style either Jacqui and it in the beginning I wasn’t even aware of it and when I did become aware of it, I was surprised how engaging it was given that. For some more really great quotes, check out Vishy’s review, it was the excellent quotes he compiled by subject that had me rushing to get my own copy.

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  4. Wonderful review, Claire! So glad and happy to know that you liked Marlen Haushofer’s book🙂 I loved your review and your comparisons of it with ‘Wake’ and ‘Our Endless Numbered Days’. I loved all the passages you have quoted and this sentence – “I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord” – made me smile🙂 Have you watched the film version? I want to watch it sometime. Thanks for this beautiful review and for the link.

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    • So great to have your comment Vishy, I was hoping you’d reappear to share the good news🙂 I had a good reread of your review once I’d done mine and abslutely love all your quotes too, they make me want to reread The Wall, I hope many more people pick it up, it’s a real gem and a deserved favourite. I definitely want to see the film, it sounds like a life work as well.

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  5. A great review of a great book Claire. I was talking about The Wall on Twitter only the other day. I loved the film and thought it did the book justice, although I read it years ago and can’t recall the subtleties. I now plan to reread. My husband, who has not read the book, also loved the film.

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  6. Your description of The Wall reminds me quite a bit of The Martian, where an astronaut is trying to survive alone on Mars. Very different in terms of the techniques needed to survive, but the situation and the psychology of it seem similar. Actually, as much as I enjoyed The Martian, I was disappointed how little it explored the psychology of the situation (according to an interview with the author, that was a deliberate decision). It sounds like The Wall digs more into the mental impact.

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    • That’s so interesting about The Martian, a book I saw had quite a lot of hype, but I resisted and your analysis suggests the reason why. The Wall would be another book completely if it lacked its introspection, it’s not merely the practical aspects of survival that allow humans to cope, as importantly it’s the psychological, perhaps more dangerous and life threatening than any other aspect, for losing the will to continue becomes the greatest battle we will face. I am sure you’re going to enjoy this one! The Wall itself has been suggested by some critics as a metaphor for depression.

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      • Personally, I did enjoy the practical aspects of survival in The Martian, but I can certainly see how it wouldn’t be interesting to everyone. That’s very interesting about The Wall possibly being a metaphor for depression. Makes a lot of sense.

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    • Good idea, I’m sure you’ll enjoy it. I like how it’s made a bit of a come back. Kind of frustrating though how the dystopian reference continues to put some readers off. I don’t think it can be so easily categorised. I really look forward to what you make of it.

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  8. Thanks, Claire, for including a few of my thoughts on Julian Pölsler’s film in your engaging review of Marlen Haushofer’s masterpiece. In honour of two indomitable women and great writers, I’d like to share an anecdote about how I first came across The Wall.

    I’d loved the novel long before I saw Pölsler’s exquisite film; in fact, every since the late Doris Lessing gave me a slightly foxed copy of the Cleis Press US edition back when I ran her local bookshop (West End Lane Books in West Hampstead). That was over ten years ago, but I remember the conversation which lead to that gift almost verbatim. Doris had just written an introduction to the Hesparus Press edition of Stendhal’s Memoirs of an Egotist and I’d asked her why she thought her friend Aneurin Bevan had named Stendhal’s The Red and the Black as his favourite book. She said Nye Bevan was a man of many parts and The Red and the Black was one of those rare books that treat the political without ever losing sight of the human. She then mentioned The Wall as a novel with similar virtues, and brought it into the bookshop as a present the next morning. Needless to say, I treasure that copy and have read it several times since.

    Thanks for pointing me towards Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, which looks interesting and which I’ll ferret out forthwith. In exchange, I have a recommendation for you.

    George Orwell defined the overarching theme of Mark Twain’s work as being: “This is how human beings behave when they aren’t afraid of the sack.” Despite the physical and metaphyical contraints imposed on the heroine of The Wall, Haushofer’s work is infused with that same sense of freedom from constraints and a concomitant, if sublimated dissatisfaction with urban life. It sounds as though it might also be there Claire Fuller’s novel; it’s certainly present in Arto Paasilinna’s The Year of the Hare. Like The Wall, it’s a wonderful novel that has much to say about modern society and our relations with animals and the natural world at large. As the famous Chinese proverb says: “A book is like a garden carried in the pocket”. Such novels as these are whole countrysides in the pocket and one’s heart.

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