FROM THE STACKS: The Last Woman Alive – Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall

From the Stacks is a series on Weird Sister wherein we pull a book—old, new, or anything in between—from our bookshelves, and write something about it.

*Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall

I first encountered Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall (originally published in German as Die Wand) searching for audiobooks to listen to at a Sisyphean temp job, in the second level basement “B2” of the downtown library. I put books on carts and scanned them, I boxed them and stacked the boxes five high. I did this every day for eight hours. I can’t recommend the audiobook version of The Wall because it’s mostly whispered, a reading that does disservice to the confidence of its narrative. There is no word in the text that wavers. It is a near perfect book, a quiet meditation on the end of the world, a thriller that could put you to sleep. Written in 1963, The Wall still feels prescient. It knows the end is near, and also not.

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Marlen Haushofer, 1935

The Wall is a dystopic Walden, written with total control and impassive cool. The style reminds me most of Elena Ferrante, but the “weird family” of The Wall comprises only one woman, one cow, one dog, one cat and her kittens. The title refers to an invisible wall that shows up one evening and separates the narrator from the rest of the world, who appear to be dead anyway. The Wall nearly ignores the most fundamental rule of writing human beings, namely, that there has to be two of them. Emphasis on nearly; it’s hard not to talk about the genius of this book without spoiling the ending, which is swift, elegant, and gemlike in its precision. It happens in a gasp.

The narrator of The Wall, who is never named, is middle-aged, the mother of two daughters. Of her former life, we know little else. She mentions a husband, who is dead either long before the story begins, or as a result of the unknown disaster. Through the wall the narrator can see a woman sitting waxlike in her yard, a farmer paused as he raises his hand to shield his eyes. We never learn what happened or why. “The victors are such a long time coming,” she writes. And still, she reasons, it will be another five years before she runs out of provisions.

What next? “I could kill myself,” she considers, “Or try and dig my way under the wall, which would probably only have been a more strenuous kind of suicide. Or of course I could stay here and try and stay alive… The wall was a riddle, and I would never have managed to leave a riddle unsolved.” 

And so, she scythes grass, plants potatoes, harvests beans, milks the cow and rations her salt. She does other things, too, though their imperative has expired: she winds clocks, showers daily, keeps notes. She gets sick, she gets well; clouds pass overhead. The sky turns green with storms and pink with the sunrise. These descriptions should bore any reader to death, but they don’t. Instead they evoke the slow-motion wonder of a planetarium. Like Karl Ove Knausgaard’s epic experiment with monotony, My Struggle, Haushofer’s fiction is sustained by the grace of great writing. Her world is small but sensual. She describes her cats slipping out of trances, stunned by mysteries in the distance; she describes picking berries between her fingers and the damp beneath her slippers. She never reminisces, nor does she romanticize the role of last woman on Earth. She anticipates the day no one will cut the meadow, and the forest will reclaim the houses. The Wall is an environmental novel without allegory, a feminist novel that fails the Bechdel test.

“The possibility of delegating work must be a great temptation for any man. And why should a man, without fear of criticism, go on working at all? No, it’s better that I am alone.” 

The Wall should be taught in schools but won’t. It is neither an anthropocentric novel nor an American one. It has all the elements of The Old Man and the Sea but none of the ego. Few teachers would know what to do with a book as Buddhist as this. Yes, but what does she want? To survive; to keep her and her pets alive. Yes, but what are her obstacles? Rain, cold, snow, scarcity, the wall. So many classes I doodled in the margins while my teachers described the motivations of main characters, usually writers struggling to get published, as if these were life and death heroics. They drew triangles: ACTION, CLIMAX, RESOLUTION. They drew maps on white board and speculated on what’s hot (office fiction) and what’s not (abuse memoirs.) Few of them would have encouraged a novel about a woman totally alone. Maybe they’re right; maybe The Wall is only as famous as it should be, and not in circulation at my public library. But the unremarkable life is central to its concerns, and I’m sure Marlen Haushofer would not weep for her obscurity in the U.S.

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Marlen Haushofer, 1955

(Marlen Haushofer’s brief biography on my copy of The Wall describes her as “among Austria’s best known authors.” It’s not my intent to suggest she’s a nobody, only that she has a great intuition for nobodies, an imagination that can accommodate nothing so well I wondered: did she really wake up one day, all alone?)

When I first listened to The Wall, at work, I couldn’t stop listening, and so I listened at lunch. I ate an apple with peanut butter but always forget a spoon, and so I’d eat at odd hours, hoping no one would see me suck my fingers clean. The only fun I had at that job was a game I played with myself, where I tried not to talk to anyone all day. Often I won.

I realized how one woman could describe loneliness so well; every woman has lived it. Most women have already had one apocalypse that rendered their world empty and unpeopled, that left them alone to contemplate the many moods of their pets or the mysteries of their home, the view from their window. The Wall knows women must stay curious or risk death by boredom. Self-pity is and always was a drag. So trust the last woman alive. When you feel awful, keep going, say fuck it and why not.

*

flanphotoFlannery Cashill is a writer and artist. More of her work can be found at flanland.com.

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