Among the leading Austrian writers of the postwar period, Marlen Haushofer is an unobtrusive presence. Where Bachmann and Bernhard, Handke and Jelinek all in their time achieved international recognition, Haushofer hung back, failing to take the chance, when it came, to break beyond Austrian borders, and, at her untimely death (she died of bone cancer in 1970, three weeks short of her fiftieth birthday), left a miscellany of work that has neither fallen into complete neglect nor settled into general acceptance.
For German language readers, Haushofer’s claim to fame has always been her 1963 novel Die Wand (The Wall), a cult book in some quarters, made into a dutiful movie in 2012, with Martina Gedek, star of The Lives of Others, in the role of a woman who finds herself stranded in the mountains, cut off by a limitless invisible barrier from a world in which everyone appears to have died; alone, except for a dog, a cow and a cat.
In Britain, the publication in 1990 of the first and only translation of Die Wand passed unnoticed, and its reissue last year, along with Nowhere Ending Sky, Haushofer’s remarkable novel about her childhood, has been met with silence, as was also the case with The Loft, which Quartet brought out in 2011. The current availability in English of Haushofer’s three most accomplished novels offers a chance to get to know this subtle and unusual writer. Haushofer didn’t wish her work to remain obscure, but that this has been its fate is all of a piece with her character. Anonymity answered to something in her nature. Being cut off and unknowable was also what she wrote about best.
It’s said that the reclusive French composer Charles-Valentin Alkan rented a house in Paris with two front doors, so that whenever someone called at one of them, he could claim he had been in the other part of the house and hadn’t heard the bell. Haushofer divided her life after the war between Vienna and Steyr, a small town south of Linz, on much the same principle: she avoided notice in one place by being in the other. It allowed her to be two different people: in Vienna she moved in fashionable literary circles, discussed books and ideas, had affairs; in Steyr she played the biddable housewife, married to a dentist and mother to two boys. In Vienna she was known for being reticent, in company moving to the margins, from where she could listen and watch. From Steyr she wrote to a friend that the effort to remain inconspicuous was taking up half her energy. No one in Steyr knew that she and her husband had divorced (they continued to live together), or that later they’d remarried. When in 1968 Haushofer was diagnosed with terminal cancer she kept the truth to herself, telling friends and family that she had a form of curable bone tuberculosis. When she died, her neighbours were surprised to learn that she had been a writer at all.
Haushofer possessed neither the confidence nor the sense of entitlement to impose herself on the world as a writer. She doubted at times not only her own abilities but the superior claims of literature itself. She thought it was difficult to be a good person and a good writer, and she was certain that, if it came to the crunch, she would prefer the interests of her family over the demands of her art. The pram in the hall is usually thought of as getting in the way of the male writer as he tries to leave the house; no one makes allowances for a neglectful mother – not now, and certainly not then. A more suffocatingly conventional society it would be hard to imagine than provincial Steyr in the 1950s. Women were expected to keep house, while the men – described by Haushofer in a letter to a Vienna friend as ‘former-still-and-always Nazis’ (‘ehemalige Noch-immer-Nazis’) – did pretty much whatever they liked, which mostly meant boozing, hunting and screwing each other’s wives.
Haushofer developed as a writer in fits and starts. Between looking after the children, doing the housework and helping out in Manfred Haushofer’s dental practice, there was little time left for her own work, and she did most of her writing before the day got going or in the afternoons at the kitchen table. In the 15 years after the war, she wrote and published a modest stream of stories and novellas; but, with the exception of the chillingly unillusioned 1958 novella Wir töten Stella (We Kill Stella), her early work is uneven, her writing voice still in search of a settled register. In Wir töten Stella we get a sense, for the first time, that Haushofer knows exactly what she’s after. It takes the form of a piece of writing by a housewife.
As a way of clearing her mind, a woman makes use of a weekend when her husband, Richard, is away, to set down on paper what has been happening over the previous months. Stella, a teenager, just out of high school, comes to stay as a guest of the family. Under the eyes of his wife, Richard seduces Stella, gets her pregnant, fixes her up with an abortion and then drops her. Stella attempts suicide and then, in a moment of inattention, steps in front of a truck and is killed. While Richard sees no connection between the girl’s death and his behaviour, his wife is overcome with shame: she knew what was happening and failed to stop it. The price of her inaction is the loss of her favourite son’s respect.
Like much of Haushofer’s best work, Wir töten Stella doesn’t indicate a time or a place. Her aim was to write a fable about the habitual moral inertia of educated people; the local application of this acerbic tale for Austrian and German readers in 1958 didn’t need underlining. Wir töten Stella is Haushofer’s first fully achieved piece of writing, and it’s altogether in character that she should have found her settled artistic identity through an act of symbolic self-effacement, delegating the creative task to a proxy, a woman of much the same age, who, as it were, writes the story for her. Both The Wall, her most emotionally powerful book, and The Loft, her most intellectually sophisticated, make use of the same narrative ventriloquism.
The woman who ‘writes’ The Wall does so, she tells us, in order to stay sane. It’s an account of how she has survived over the previous two years, living alone in the mountains. She had gone there with friends – an older couple, Hugo and Luise – to spend a weekend at Hugo’s hunting lodge. They arrived late in the afternoon and Hugo and Luise popped down to the village for a meal, but she was tired, and stayed behind with Lynx, Hugo’s hunting dog, and went to bed early. By the next morning Hugo and Luise still hadn’t returned and when she went to look for them, she found her path barred by an invisible wall. Through the wall she could see the figures of a farmer, his wife and their cattle, fixed like statues, frozen where they stood or stooped, like the people of Pompeii overtaken by the flow of lava. All animal life on the other side of the wall had died. Much of the woman’s ‘report’ is taken up with detailed descriptions of how, after this, she built a viable existence for herself with the few resources at her disposal, and of her relationships with her animals: Lynx, the dog; Bella, a cow; the bullock that Bella gives birth to; and a cat and her various kittens.
In Germany and Austria, The Wall is routinely compared to Robinson Crusoe, but it’s more like Walden in a parallel universe (Walled-in), a shepherd’s calendar and primer in subsistence living for a disturbingly altered world. It’s a novel that contrives to be, by turns, utopian and dystopian, an idyll and a nightmare. In her isolation behind the wall, together with her animals, the woman discovers a new life, in comparison with which her existence before she came to the mountains seems trivial and pointless. For a while, she experiences an unfamiliar inner peace. But she has also told us that something terrible has happened – we don’t know what it is until the last pages of the novel – and every joint and sinew of the story is restless with a sense of threat. The natural world which it describes with such rapt attention is cupped in the larger receptacle of a vivid and sinister dream, a dream we seem to have had many times before and which on each retelling leads to the same scene of horror at its climax.
Written five years later, and Haushofer’s last published work, The Loft takes elements of The Wall and refashions them within a more intricate formal design. Once again, there’s a text written by an unnamed woman recording her life in a mountain retreat; but this time the account – a diary – is embedded in another story she is telling many years later. This frame narrative is divided into eight chapters, corresponding to the days of the week, starting and ending on Sunday. On each day between Monday and Saturday, the woman receives in the post a package from an anonymous sender – each package an instalment of her diary from 17 years earlier. She is unsettled by the diary’s sudden appearance; she had believed it lost. Each day she goes up to her private space in the loft to read the new instalment, then takes it down to the basement and burns it in a stove.
The diary – a kind of prison journal – has entries over six months. From it, we learn that a routine city siren – as if activating a long-suppressed wartime trauma – has caused the woman to fall suddenly and totally deaf, and her husband has sent her away in the hope that in the peace and seclusion of the countryside she will recover her hearing. She lodges in the house of a gamekeeper, a taciturn, menacing figure, tasked by the woman’s husband to keep an eye on her. She goes for walks each day, and on one of her walks comes on a remote hut occupied by a recluse with whom she forms an uneasy relationship. The man speaks to her in a state of great agitation about things she cannot hear: sessions, as it were, with a deaf analyst, or confessions to a deaf priest. The woman’s diary ends when, on the final visit, something terrifying happens.
In both The Wall and The Loft, the most disturbing scene is held back until the final pages. In The Wall, a strange man appears out of nowhere and bludgeons the bullock and the dog to death with an axe, before being shot by the woman. In The Loft the inaudible analysand, the semi-crazed hermit whom the woman visits in his hut, suddenly assaults her, shocking her out of her deafness just in time for her to hear him scream something so awful that she knows she must instantly forget it. In both novels, the scene with the violent man is the crisis around which the other narrative elements arrange themselves. The key to the structural function of these episodes is that they happened before the stories start even though they aren’t related until the end of each book. In each case the narrator lets us know that something is coming, so we read both books with apprehension.
The foreboding we feel reading The Wall is especially painful. The shadow of the man with the axe falls across even the most benign and sunlit scenes of the novel. The effect is not just to say something about human – distinctively male – violence, but also to make us feel on our pulses the reality of the ‘always already’ of death, the ineluctable truth that, as Larkin puts it, ‘most things may never happen: this one will.’ The woman ends her account with a valiant gesture towards an implausible future, but the hour is indisputably late – she has only so many matches left.
The Wall is a study in dread; The Loft is lighter in mood and tone, more intellectually playful, even humorous (a lightness wonderfully brought out in the English translation), and the note of hopefulness on which it ends has a more convincing ring to it, which is striking given that Haushofer knew, by the time she finished the novel, that she was probably going to die. Here the psychic disturbance and fever of The Wall give way to a studied calm and the beauties and terrors of nature are swapped for the anodyne comfort of a featureless apartment in a nameless city. Lying awake at night, the narrator imagines death as a great waterfall towards which we are all sliding, old and young, borne along on the smooth and evenly moving surface of the glassy river of time. During the day, if we stop and listen, we can always hear the waterfall’s distant roar. But, as the woman who narrates The Loft has discovered, there are ways to muffle the rhythmic ostinato of oblivion, ways to slow down the river to an illusory stasis: habit, routine, appearances kept up at all times and, above all, an avoidance of incident. When the novel opens, everything troubling or conducive to change has already happened, and the narrator intends to keep it that way. The eruption of the past through the surface of this artificially placid life turns out to be cathartic.
Haushofer liked to say that everything she wrote was autobiographical, as if to cast doubt on her powers of imagination and invention. But her conceptions of the self and of writing were such that for her autobiography could only be a form of fiction (she had as many selves as there were books to write). It’s possible to think of her three most interesting novels, if not as self-portraits (creating a likeness), then as experiments in ways of modelling the self in the present, past and optative – Haushofer’s constructions of herself as an adult (The Loft), as a child (Nowhere Ending Sky) and as the person she perhaps would have liked to have been (The Wall). The three books belong together (and are best read together), a kinship they quietly acknowledge in small, shared details, as if signalling to each other across the gaps that establish their considerable differences.
Nowhere Ending Sky gives an exuberant, at times ecstatic account of the life of a child, Meta, growing up in the country, from the age of two to the cusp of puberty. It traces the formation of a sensibility and stands in relation to The Wall and The Loft as a kind of source document. Haushofer called Nowhere Ending Sky ‘an autobiography of my childhood’ (note the precision and care of that indefinite article), but she also called it a novel. It was the only book she was happy to own as hers – the rest she described as ‘rejected children’. Her fondness for Nowhere Ending Sky – which she wrote between The Wall and The Loft – reflected her (justified) sense of having achieved something special in this book, but also her attachment to her own childhood. Oskar Tauschinski, Haushofer’s friend and executor, thought that her early life had cast a spell over her. Like her invented selves in The Wall and The Loft, Haushofer lived at the vanishing point where nostalgia and apprehension meet. She walked backwards through life, her gaze fixed on the past, on the only place – her childhood – where she had ever felt at home.
For Haushofer adulthood was a kind of falling away. She was an atheist and the very idea of a soul was questionable to her. Yet one could imagine her in another age having embraced the platonic doctrine of anamnesis, whereby the soul enters the world in the newborn baby, dusted with the gold of immortality only to fade like a comet burning itself out as it falls towards earth. Nowhere Ending Sky celebrates life in its first fresh intensity, and the trajectory that connects Nowhere Ending Sky to The Loft is a downward arc. Compared to Meta’s world, the world of The Loft is well on its way to heat death.
The contrast between the openings of the two novels is striking. The writing in each case is assured, not to say brilliant, but where Nowhere Ending Sky starts with a burst of light and energy, The Loft hesitates on its own threshold, as if backing into view. We open Nowhere Ending Sky to find ourselves in Blake’s dangerous world, sitting at the bottom of a rain butt with a toddler who has been put there for safekeeping while the adults get on with haymaking. Fury at her abandonment gives way in little Meta to a concentrated communing with the feel and smell and taste of her surroundings in the barrel, in her ears ‘whisperings, the swishing noise of grass, the faraway calls of voices from the fields’, high above her a round patch of sky – ‘a deep blue alleyway that ends nowhere’ (compare Larkin’s ‘deep blue air, that shows/Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless’).
Nowhere Ending Sky throws us straight into the middle of things; The Loft opens at the margin of its subject, with what seems like an immediate digression from what is really on its mind, as though the narrator is intent on distracting our attention from more disturbing matters with her sparkling conversation – or perhaps simply filling an awkward social moment. Her tone is suspiciously nonchalant, off-hand, almost flippant. She and her husband, Hubert, discuss whether the tree outside their bedroom window is an acacia or some other tree. Neither of them knows anything about trees, so the argument (which is habitual) can’t be resolved. Thinking of acacias, the woman reflects that ‘in old-fashioned novels, where words are given their just currency, their scent is described as sweet and intoxicating, and so it is – sweet and intoxicating – only it is no longer possible to say so using these words.’ Hubert likes acacias, the woman tells us, because his father, when he was young, used to walk down an avenue that was lined with them. ‘I imagine him doing this,’ she continues, ‘not alone but in the company of a young girl. She’d have carried a parasol, I think, and the parasol would have been made of yellow silk. And the scent we can no longer describe by its proper adjectives would have filled the world. A round, integral world that no longer exists.’ It’s in just such a world – round and integral (the German word is ‘unbroken’) – that Meta lives. But if that world is a kind of arcadia for her, it’s because experience still trumps language and words haven’t yet come adrift from what they signify. Haushofer was born and grew up in Effertsbach, a village in a mountain valley not far from Steyr. Her father was forester for a large estate and the family lived in a capacious house with a small farm attached. As a child, Haushofer encountered death as part of normal household routines. In Nowhere Ending Sky some of the most arresting passages concern the killing of animals.
Meta has a particular horror of a place at the back of the house which never sees the sun. This is where the pig is slaughtered and the deer skinned and gutted. Nourished by blood, the grass and other vegetation in this miniature killing field is especially green and luxuriant. The day the pig is slaughtered is a dark one. Everyone is out of sorts. The shrieks of the pig as its throat is cut are heard all over the house. Meta is aghast. How can it be that the happy pig everyone had grown to love is now unceremoniously done to death? And how can it be that she, who so deplored this barbarity, afterwards enjoys the sausages and roast pork the pig provides? The butchering of the deer brings its own special gruesomeness: the gentle beast’s skull is cracked open and maggots are swarming inside it. Nature is horrific enough without man adding his bit. Once a year, the slurry pit has to be emptied. All day long, the maids ladle the slurry into buckets and take it away to the fields. The stench is appalling. The house stinks for days. In the walls of the empty pit, Meta observes the worms – fat, white grubs that live on shit. What sort of creation is it that ordains the fate of the slurry worms? Meta has been brought up to believe in God, but the evidence against him is crushing, and long before she’s sent away to convent school she has stopped believing.
Haushofer wasn’t the cheerful, materialist sort of atheist who delights in universal randomness, loves life and can’t fathom why anyone would fear an oblivion of which we will have no consciousness. She could never quite rid herself of the religious reflexes of her Catholic upbringing, and there is an after-image of God or of the gods (by no means benign) discernible across her work, a faint watermark of the Almighty visible if you hold her writings up to the light. Like Julian Barnes in Nothing to Be Frightened of, she did not believe in God, but she missed him, in her case as an amputee misses a limb, the phantom pain accompanying every waking moment, a constant reminder that what should have been there wasn’t. If her brain told her there was nothing beyond material reality, her imagination wouldn’t listen: hell she might know not to exist, but the fear of it persisted. The narrator of The Loft turns the blades of sharp knives downwards, because she can’t bear the thought – as the superstition has it – of the souls in purgatory being forced to ride on them.
Not long before her death, Haushofer wrote a short prose fragment in which she drew up her life’s accounts and found a nil balance: the good and the bad have cancelled each other out and there is nothing left on the ledger; death writes off every debt and writes down every surplus: ‘alles ist vergebens’ – all is in vain. She signs off: ‘Dafür sei Gott bedankt, den es nicht gibt’ – ‘for which, thanks be to God, who doesn’t exist.’ What the first half of the sentence gives, the second takes back: that rhythm of existential disappointment – hopes raised only to be dashed, a world restored only to be brutally smashed – is fundamental to her work.
Haushofer’s female protagonists, cursed with the thinnest of skins and possessed of their maker’s unforgiving vision, experience life as a series of shocks and traumas, from which their only recourse is to recoil deeper inside themselves. This retreat from ‘we’ and ‘she’ to the safety of ‘I’ can already be traced in the shape of Nowhere Ending Sky. The distance covered between the book’s first and last scenes, between Meta the ecstatic toddler in the rain butt and Meta the fledgling adolescent, back from her boarding school for the holidays, who looks at her parents and little brother at the supper table and realises that the magic of childhood has vanished, is the distance between being unconsciously a part of the world and consciously separate from it. Gradually, Meta has learned to distrust the common ground and to detach herself from her third-person self, and the book ends as she is about to enter the lifelong solitary confinement of subjectivity. From now on, as it were, she shall be nameless.
The narrator of The Loft is an illustrator, but she has only ever been able to draw insects and birds. She hopes one day to draw a bird that looks as though it is aware of the existence of other birds. Her own close relationships – with her husband and her two children – seem outwardly warm and friendly but she experiences them as mere simulations of the real thing. The narrator of The Wall has no one to relate to at all, and she knows her sense of connection to her animals is mostly an artefact of her own need. Asked about The Wall in an interview, Haushofer replied: ‘One sits around a table and is – so many people, so many walls – far, very far apart from others.’ Her work speaks of a conviction that our social selves may seem knowable and capable of connection but the inner self of consciousness – the self that says ‘I’ – is axiomatically alone. The personalities we are known by are constructed to appear stable; the ‘I’ that thinks to itself of itself has no personality and is unreachably immured within each individual mind.
No wonder then that the narrator of The Wall turns to writing in order to stay sane. The fiction of fiction is that the writer can speak directly to the ‘I’ of the reader and that the reader can get inside the space in another person’s head which reality dictates is forever closed. To read The Loft and The Wall is to enter the cosiest of imaginary relationships, as we wander around Haushofer’s narrators’ minds, intimate with their thoughts and feelings. The poignancy of The Wall lies in our realisation that the comfort we are giving the narrator with our companionship is an illusion: the text we read is just text and the person who wrote it has long since gone and was always simply alone.
We might have expected an Austrian novelist born in 1920, who began writing in the late 1940s, to have been much preoccupied in her work with the war, and Haushofer’s diffidence on the subject may at first be disconcerting. It has evidently unsettled her British publishers, who, having taken the commendable step of bringing out translations of Haushofer’s three best novels, have hurried to correct the inconvenient fact of their not much mentioning the war by declaring that they do. Nowhere Ending Sky, we learn from the jacket, tells the story of a child growing up in 1920s Austria ‘while the impending advent of Nazism and war threatens to eclipse the traditional life in her family’s mountain village’; The Loft is about ‘the discord of Austrian society in the aftermath of Nazism’; and The Wall is a ‘disturbing meditation on 20th-century history’.
But Haushofer keeps the time and place of her novels out of focus. There are no dates. Austria is scarcely mentioned, Nazism not at all. She was not a realist. She believed the relation of words to reality to be necessarily oblique, analogical. Her style is unadorned but her imagination figurative. At the level of individual utterances she is the least obscure of writers; at the level of setting and situation the most delphic. Purged of rhetorical flourish, her prose is a model of simplicity and concision; but the pictures which her sentences paint are enigmatic, overdetermined, elusive. We can claim her books for feminism, for eco-politics, for existentialism or psychoanalysis, or we can take them as thrillers or dreams. The first Austrian readers of The Wall and The Loft read them as powerful allegories of recent European history, but they would work equally well as elegiac essays in the nature of mind. Implicitly they remind us that we exist in multiple nested frames of reference: as pure consciousnesses without attribute, as psychological constructs, as social beings, as citizens of the polis, as products of historical circumstance, as members of our gender and our species. In Haushofer’s worlds, nothing is just one thing: the wall excludes but also contains, suffocates and liberates; the barrel in which little Meta sits is a prison but also a place of wonder; the death of the pig is a horror and a source of delicious food. Even the wild men, terrifying and destructive as they are, give The Loft and The Wall a dark energy without which they would have little or no point.
As Quartet’s anxious misdescription of Haushofer’s books reminds us, when it comes to novels by mid-century Austrians and Germans, we need them to tell the story of the National Socialist nightmare in unequivocal terms, a story we never tire of hearing. Seventy years after the end of the war we still read as victors, eager to keep the myth of our moral supremacy alive. But Haushofer wrote as one of the defeated, as one for whom the war had been a cause of shame, the traumas of personal life compounded by the trauma of a nation. When the narrator of The Loft looks back to a lost ‘round, unbroken world’ where language was adequate to reality, we think of Adorno, for whom the war had made conventional storytelling impossible, or of Sebald, who noted that the aerial bombardment of German and Austrian cities had struck all but a very few writers dumb. The ‘clangour of words’ (Ingeborg Bachmann) was silenced.
And so when Haushofer speaks of the war she does so obliquely, through riddles and glancing allusions. Like the figures of Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader in Gerhard Richter’s paintings, in Haushofer’s fiction the shapes of the past are seen as if through frosted glass. The force of Nowhere Ending Sky as an account of a prewar Austrian childhood comes from the fact that it is not a memoir. Told in the third-person present, it gives us Meta’s life frame by frame, as a child would live it, serenely oblivious of what’s to come. A single moment of dramatic irony says everything that needs to be said. Among the visitors to Meta’s world is an itinerant Jew, Herr Schwartz, a trader in animal skins. He complains to Meta’s father that the villagers (always an unnerving presence in this book) serve him pork and then laugh at him when he refuses it. Meta is curious about Herr Schwartz. She has heard that the Jews crucified Christ and ‘concludes that they must be bad people’:
but Father says that Christians themselves have not always behaved very well either, and that if Herr Schwartz had anything to do with the crucifixion he must by now be nearly two thousand years old, which is clearly impossible. This turns a light on in Meta’s brain. Why then do people talk such nonsense about it, she asks? Father begins: ‘Well, that is a hopeless old story …’ But then one of the lads from the timber yard turns up, and he has to go off with him to the office. Meta is called to table by Mama and forgets all about little Herr Schwartz.