The Most Interesting Book I Read All Year Is This 1963 Austrian Novel

Marlen Haushofer's 'The Wall' is a meditation on the cost of freedom

Jen Vafidis

A few years ago, I went to a screening of the 1981 ensemble comedy They All Laughed, which was followed by a conversation with the director, Peter Bogdanovich. I liked the movie, and I wanted to see Bogdanovich. I knew from interviews and friends what to expect of him in person: an unreliable narrator of cinematic history, bearing a trademark ascot and expired precocity, hell-bent on mentioning every great person he’d ever met. He was essentially his character from The Sopranos, the know-it-all therapist’s therapist to Dr. Melfi, but with even more self-importance.

They All Laughed is a special film. It has always been unfortunately ironic: a romance about cuckoldry starring Dorothy Stratten, who was murdered in 1980 by her estranged husband. She had cheated on him with Bogdanovich, who probably never got over her death. Upon its release, it had a shadow of tragedy, making it more than a fizzy ensemble comedy about couples. In more than one way it was about not knowing what you have when you have it.

That night, it was clear that for Bogdonavich, the film had become not just about missing a lost love, but about missing everyone. When the lights came on, he sat in a director’s chair before us, looking stunned. He admitted that this was the first time he had watched the movie in a long while, and it was painful that it had to end. The main cast — not just Stratten, but also Audrey Hepburn, Ben Gazzara, John Ritter — had been dead for years. This movie was like seeing them alive and happy, and now they were gone again. The experience had hit him so quickly that he did not know what to say about it.

As he described this, Bogdanovich looked profoundly old, knowing things I don’t want to know. I thought he might fall over at any moment. On the one hand, he had preserved something worthy of preservation: the way these actors were as people in front of a camera, and a mode of filmmaking that is now basically dead. On the other hand, he hadn’t been aiming for preservation; perhaps he hadn’t thought that far ahead. He had not anticipated how he would feel seeing his movie in a world that no longer resembled it. He was the bearer of a torch, the last one standing. A few years later, he would die too.

Bogdanovich looked profoundly old, knowing things I don’t want to know. I thought he might fall over at any moment.

This memory came back to me recently as I read The Wall, the 1963 Austrian novel by Marlen Haushofer, and the most interesting book I’ve read all year. The plot: An invisible wall falls from the sky and suffocates everyone on one side of it. A nameless narrator claims that she is the only human alive, and she must record what happened. At the time of the extraordinary event, she was on vacation with her cousin and her cousin’s eccentric husband; she had taken a nap at their house while they had gone into town; the wall kept them from coming home ever again.

While our narrator might be the sole existing human, she is not without support. It turns out that the eccentric husband was something of a survivalist and incidentally stowed away supplies in preparation for an apocalypse, including food, matches, and guns, with lots of ammo. These supplies are not infinite, but it allows her to stave off the inevitable, and instead dedicate her time to keeping herself alive without any of the structure that modern life had provided her.

As she settles into this new reality, she becomes a stranger to everything she once was: a hapless mother to her children, an unsatisfying wife to her husband, and a gossipy friend to her neighbors. She finds a delirious, triumphant freedom in seeing herself outside of any relation to other people; she claims no gender, preferring to see herself as a tree. In spite of this, her compulsion to care for other beings persists. There is the cousins’ abandoned dog, for one, who decides she is his new master. Together they discover the petrified corpses on the other side of the wall, all of them staring at the sky without seeing; they hunt rutting deer and trudge through streams. By their side is also a feral cat, who assumes a distant fealty the way cats do, and an abandoned cow, whom the narrator and the dog discover lumbering in distress across a meadow. The narrator is consumed, burdened with keeping her animal family alive. In case you prefer a warning before reading about animals, I’ll spoil it for you: she mostly fails.

Critics have called The Walla brutal and absorbing dystopian novel” and “a feminist rewriting of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel, ‘Robinson Crusoe,’” which presage a qualifying “but it’s also about…” (e.g., middle age and the self, grief, the pandemic, the wonder and beauty of animals), before neatly summarizing the book as a utopian allegory. Not once does our narrator wink or nudge you toward subtext, even though there are endless implications to what she is describing; she is direct, because her themes are ancient, perhaps the only ones that matter. For instance, the torture and folly of our need for meaning: “Things happen,” she shrugs, “and like millions of people before me I look for a meaning in them, because my vanity will not allow me to admit that the whole meaning of an event lies in the event itself.” She jokes later: “It’s difficult to shake off an ancient, deep-rooted megalomania.”

Maybe that quote is itself a spoiler: the book does not answer the questions raised by its central extraordinary event. Why should it, when the event is merely itself? We never learn what the wall is, really, or who is behind it, or what it could possibly mean for civilization. In fact, when we could learn something clarifying in a scene at the novel’s end, the narrator’s faults get in our way. The reader is no longer ignorant to the fact that they are missing something outside of the narrative, beyond what the narrator can describe for posterity.

My first reaction to this was disappointment, purely. Then I started to justify it, the way that people who love something do. (I created meaning, of course.) I began to think the book was not primarily a dystopia, or about pandemic-adjacent isolation, but a novel about freedom, and what that actually looks like. While Haushofer’s narrator becomes more alive, a witness to the drama of stars and nature, the novel is starkly ambivalent about this. For one thing, the prerequisite for the narrator’s freedom from identity, modernity, and all that was keeping her down was the death of everyone, including anyone who could teach her how to be a homesteader. “For two and a half years,” the narrator bemoans of her time alone, “I have suffered from the fact that [I am] so ill armed for real life. Of course nobody had anticipated that I would have to make a doorway.” Now that she knows what real life is — that is, survival — she has no chance of mastering it.

We never learn what the wall is, really, or who is behind it, or what it could possibly mean for civilization.

The other layer of ambivalence is metatextual. This type of freedom is fairly conditional, out of necessity. Can humans ever be free of attachment, of their need for a system? Maybe, although I’m inclined to say no; more importantly, these needs cannot be dispensed in a narrative that is at all worth reading. As the narrator cannot avoid meaning, the writer needs a reader who will not throw the book down in frustration or doze off in depression. Thus the narrator has to be lucky. Without the eccentric cousin-in-law, the narrator would have died in a matter of days; without the magic discovery of the cow, there would be no milk, no nutrition; without any of the animals, there would be no warmth, no joy, no stakes. Haushofer pares away what I cannot fathom losing: conversation, hunger, desire. But what she keeps is instructive about the needs of our attention: sharp pacing, with surprises coming often and contradictions for each epiphany the narrator catches; sensual descriptions of both fear and satisfaction; the drama of birth and death.

Freedom requires and begets a series of absences: severance of human ties, ignorance of what’s in front of you, and no meaning to be made out of what brought you to where you are, or where you will go next. These conditions make it possible for you to see the world as it actually is, before your thoughts hurry to contextualize it. That is freedom, by Haushofer’s definition: to just be and see right where you are. But by the end of the novel, my question was no longer one of context. I wasn’t asking what the wall was anymore. I was asking: Why would I ever want to be free?

The Wall lacks something key that keeps analogies to the isolation of today’s pandemic from getting off the ground. There is no moment in the novel where nature “heals” from the scourge of humanity. To Haushofer’s knowledge in 1963, why would there be? She references an overpopulation of deer now that the narrator is the only hunter, but otherwise the obliteration of human life is not felt. This is sort of quaint from the 21st century, given our rapid pace of geological change. The narrator experiences the threat of nature’s indifference to her, in the form of storms, extreme cold, dampness that leads to very mid-century complaints about rheumatism. But she never witnesses the results of what humans have done to the planet, because it hasn’t happened yet. There is no analogy to our current day because there’s no context for one.

This seems like a very obvious thing to point out — like saying we should examine the conspicuous absence of 9/11 in the events of Don Quixote. But The Wall is otherwise adamantly timeless. As all good allegories do, it allows you to imagine yourself fully in its circumstances. And yet I cannot indulge the thought experiment of my own survival without thinking about my present and how the world is affected by the people who will die.

“I love the soft burbling of streams and cherry trees in blossom,” Annie Ernaux, another writer I gravitate toward, once said. “But I agree with Plato when he makes Socrates say that he has nothing to learn from trees, only from men in the city.” More and more, I think this choice between learning from man and learning from nature doesn’t make sense. It’s obsolete. People in cities deserve our attention, but how can you prioritize those people over the natural world, when the natural world is changing so drastically because of them, because of us? I often fall victim to a paralyzing double consciousness, something that feels ancient while being relentlessly topical: by obligation to something larger to myself, I am enraged by geological destruction, but out of necessity I try to be selective with how I take in the details, often pulling myself back from reading so much that I get hopeless and depressed.

There is no analogy to our current day because there’s no context for one.

Sometimes I fail. Every year, from a distance of 3,000 miles or so, I watch the looping aftermath of a now-perennial fire season in California, where I grew up. Videos of wreckage beneath banks of smoke pop up on my phone while I am pleasantly brewing coffee, under headlines with new names, new locations I nonetheless have memories of driving through, going to. Everyone I know there has plans for evacuation, for leaving a large amount of their lives behind.

Actually, not everyone — a few weeks ago, one of my uncles, living on his own in Weed, California, refused to leave his house as the Mill fire destroyed the town. He was stubborn, or perhaps just tired of all of it; his concept of freedom is probably similar to The Wall’s narrator, grounded in the simplicity of opting out. Let him be, he asked us, right where he is. But I could not fathom the choice to witness destruction and only witness it, to just stay where you are regardless of what’s coming to you. It seemed like a narrowing of vision, a needless limiting of one’s options.

It wasn’t too limiting, at least. My uncle and his house were spared, the fire contained eventually. But I think I will always carry the feeling I had when I didn’t know he was okay. Uneasily, I admitted to myself that there are moments when ambivalence fades, and you have to come down on one side. You have to be the bearer of a torch, whatever that torch is. What options do you have left?