Austrian literature is on the agenda today, so before I arrive at the actual subject of this post, I should mention that with the arrival of August 2013 we are now 100 years from the nice day at the opening of Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities. Here’s to a century of the parallel campaign!
Following a recommendation I recently finished reading Marlen Haushofer’s 1968 novel Die Wand, available in English under the title The Wall. The novel is back on everyone’s lips because a film adaptation appeared about a year ago. I missed its theatrical release, but it looks like it will be released on DVD in the United States in October.
When I picked up the novel I expected something akin to an Austrian strain of nature writing. The novel is a first-person “report” by a nameless narrator who goes on a trip with relatives into the Alps. They leave one evening, and only the dog returns home. When she sets out to investigate their disappearance, she runs into an invisible wall, beyond which the world is motionless. The mystery of this fantastic event is never really unraveled, although the narration makes it pretty clear that the arrival of the invisible wall is a thinly veiled nuclear catastrophe. What unfolds from there is a kind of post-apocalyptic Robinsonade. The report covers about a year and a half after this strange calamity in which the narrator appears to be the only human left alive.
I admit that in the first fifty pages I began to wonder where exactly the novel was going. Much like Defoe’s novel, the plot at the beginning seems to set off on a kind of providential narrative. Within a few pages, the narrator has a cow and a cat in addition to a dog. She learns how to work with the earth, managing to grow potatoes and store food, and she adapts to the rhythms of the various seasons. In spite of the opening of the novel, in which the narrator talks about having forever lost track of time, the fact that the report is partly the result of a limited amount of paper, and that she is undertaking the project as a means of clinging to her own reason, I wondered from the first fifty pages or so that I might be headed for a story of “how I learned to stop worrying and live in sustainable harmony with nature.” The apparent providential narrative instead ended rather quickly, and the narrator developed a much different relation to her circumstances than her predecessor in 1719.
For one thing, the report becomes a prolonged reflection on the conditions and possibilities of freedom. The narrator is on one side of a wall. She is both free and imprisoned in relation to the dead world beyond the barrier. She also meditates on the question of freedom as it relates to the animals she lives with and cares for. The cow Bella keeps her alive, but they exist in a relationship of mutual dependency. The animals are interesting characters in their own right, but also occasion reflection on the nature of care and the possibility of freedom within the obligations the narrator feels towards her non-human animals. She also contemplates what it would be like if she were living in her situation with a man, and concludes that in spite of the companionship, she would not be better off. There is no such thing as inner freedom, she decides at one point.
There’s also the problem of writing itself. In the opening paragraph the narrator talks about having lost a few days, so already there is a question of accuracy as it relates to calendar-time. But she is also writing as a way of fending off insanity, the risk of “in die Dämmerung starren” (8). Writing in this sense is about preserving one’s own humanity. But preserving humanity here is not about staving off animality. The Dämmerung that the narrator mentions is not animality, but a kind of thoughtless abyss.
I’ve attached the U.S. trailer for the film version below. The English dubbing in this trailer is done by the actress who plays the protagonist herself, Martina Gedeck.