One Way to Watch the World End
The Wall (Die Wand)
by Marlen Haushofer
Ullstein Buchverlage GmbH, Berlin 1968
translated from the German by Shaun Whiteside, 1990
New Directions, 2022
reviewed by Seana Graham
The title of this book may be more familiar to you now than it would have been a few months ago, given that James Wood has recently written it up for The New Yorker. But a member of my reading group discovered it through an earlier review by Claire-Louise Bennett, which is included in this current volume as an afterword. (I’ll provide links to both pieces below.)
So here’s the setup (and it all happens in the first few pages, so I’m not giving much away): a middle-aged woman is invited by her cousin to come stay with them at her husband’s hunting lodge in the Austrian mountains for a few days. The couple go into the village, but only their dog Lynx comes back. When our unnamed protagonist goes off the next morning in search of them, she runs into a smooth, translucent wall, which she soon discovers separates her from almost everything.
At this point, conventional storytelling would probably take us into the realm of science fiction. Much would be made of how the wall came to be and who or what had built it. Unless this was a particularly dystopian style, our narrator would almost certainly find a way to get around it, solve the crisis and eventually emerge victorious. Despite the premise, though, this is a different sort of novel. It is about a woman thrust into solitude who, while learning how to survive, has time to reflect on what her life has been and what it has truly meant to her.
The book may more closely resemble Robinson Crusoe, if Lynx can be thought of as a kind of Friday. The story is told in the form of a report that the woman writes down, describing the practical details of how she manages to survive alone in the world. Her motivation for keeping such a record are similar to Crusoe’s as well—to keep track of time, to keep her mind active and to leave an account of her experience, even though she is fairly certain that no one will ever read it.
Although there are many elements of this book worth discussing, in this short review I’d like to focus on two. First, Haushofer’s extraordinary care in rendering this woman’s domestic life with animals, who prove to be in some ways more satisfying companions than people ever were to her. Unless I’m forgetting something, there is no dialogue at all in this book, so in a real sense the woman’s only verbal outlet is in this notebook she’s keeping. But that doesn’t mean she isn’t in communication with the animals—it’s just on a different level. As we learn early on, there will be deaths in this alternate family. Even so, I expect you may be as surprised as I was at how deeply the loss cuts even for the reader.
The other aspect I’d like to cover is the character’s relationship and review of the past. She assumes with just cause that the people she has known are all dead. But she doesn’t spend a lot of time mourning them, not even her own children. There is a sense that she has already lost them long ago and her conclusion is that it is something in the way people live with each other in modern society that has caused this to happen. And since we are in this season of Advent, I thought I might end with a small section she writes on Christmas (for she, like Crusoe, keeps track of the dates—though like Crusoe, she eventually loses track of them).
She begins by describing her gradual disillusionment with Christmas—how she had experienced it as a small child as miracle and mystery, then felt it slip a little into feasting and gift giving and eventually to meaninglessness—resurrecting itself when her own children were born, but quickly fading away again both for them and for her. “I realized I’d dreaded it since my children stopped being children. I hadn’t had the strength to bring the dying feast back to life.”
But on her first Christmas in isolation she finds something different.
I stood up and walked to the door. The lamp cast its glow onto the path, and the snow on the little spruce trees gave a yellowish gleam. I wished that my eyes could forget what that scene had so long meant to them. For something quite new lay waiting behind it all, which I was unable to see because my head was crammed full of old things and my eyes were unreceptive. I had lost the old without finding anything new; the new was closed to me, but I knew it was there. I don’t know why that thought filled me with a faint, almost imperceptible joy.
Here’s wishing everyone a not so imperceptible joy this season, however and whatever you celebrate.
Seana Graham is the book review editor at Escape Into Life. She has also reviewed for the biography website Simply Charly. She attempts to keep up with her various blogs, including Confessions of Ignorance, where she tries to learn a little bit more about the many things she does not know. You can find links to many of her short stories at her blog Story Dump. The recent anthology Annihilation Radiation from Storgy Press, includes one of her stories. Santa Cruz Noir, a title from Akashic Press, features a story of hers about the city in which she currently resides.