She shall be nameless

Nicholas Spice

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.

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