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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Wall

Marlen Haushofer

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Wall

Title: The Wall
Author: Marlen Haushofer
Genre: Novel
Written: 1963 (Eng. 1990)
Length: 261 pages
Original in: German
Availability: The Wall - US
The Wall - UK
The Wall - Canada
Le mur invisible - France
Die Wand - Deutschland
La parete - Italia
La pared - España
from: Bookshop.org (US)
  • German title: Die Wand
  • Translated by Shaun Whiteside
  • The German edition (dtv, 1999) comes with an Afterword by Klaus Antes
  • With a Foreword by Julian Roman Pölsler
  • The New Directions reprint (2022) comes with an Afterword by Claire Louise-Bennett
  • The Wall was made into a film in 2012, directed by Julian Pölsler and starring Martina Gedeck

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Our Assessment:

A- : quietly powerful

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Christian Science Monitor . 27/7/2022 Erin Douglass
London Rev. of Books . 18/12/2014 Nicholas Spice
The LA Times . 4/6/2006 Jim Krusoe
The New Yorker . 19/9/2022 James Wood
Svenska Dagbladet . 24/11/2014 Martin Lagerholm
Wall St. Journal . 3/6/2022 Martin Riker
Die Zeit . 14/10/1983 Manuela Reichart

  From the Reviews:
  • "Smoothly translated by Shaun Whiteside, the novel’s unadorned prose and minimal references to its particular era give it a timeless, meditative weight. The most vivid descriptions seem reserved for the power, threat, and beauty of the ever-present landscape. (...) What sets The Wall apart from other survival tales is the removal of the world beyond." - Erin Douglass, Christian Science Monitor

  • "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. (...) The foreboding we feel reading The Wall is especially painful. (...) The Wall is a study in dread" - Nicholas Spice, London Review of Books

  • "It’s a dream in reverse, about a woman who wakes to find herself surrounded by a wall. (...) It’s a reverie that, while it lasts, leaves the reader feeling both anxious and protected." - Jim Krusoe, The Los Angeles Times

  • "The Wall is a dystopian novel that gradually becomes a utopian one, as our narrator makes a new community. Haushofer’s inhabiting of animality is remarkably tender and selfless. (...) Haushofer is a rather terrifying writer, brutal both in her unillusioned clarity and in the calm with which she tracks the consequences of her fictional premises. (...) The Wall is one of those books, like Dead Souls or Don Quixote, which effortlessly wring meaning upon meaning from their opening narrative conceit." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "Eine weibliche Robinsonade. Eine Endzeitvision. (...) Ganz unpolemisch oder ideologisch wird das Untergangsbild unserer Zivilisation entworfen, nichts bleibt mehr übrig, nur die eine Frau, die sich im Alleinsein mit der Natur verbindet und verbündet. (...) Marlen Haushofer, die diesen beeindruckenden Roman einmal bescheiden eine Katzengeschichte genannt hat (...) setzt aber trotz aller Aussichtslosigkeit, die aus ihrem Roman spricht, noch auf eine Möglichkeit: auf die Liebe." - Manuela Reichart, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: this review is based on the original German text, not Shaun Whiteside's English translation, which I have not seen beyond the Google preview pages; all quotes are, however, from his translation (yes, it was possible to cobble them together via the Google preview pages).]

       The premise of The Wall is both simple and extreme: on a 30th of April the unnamed, widowed narrator joins the Rüttlingers -- her cousin Luise and Luise's husband, Hugo -- on a trip to their alpine hunting-lodge; after arriving there Luise and Hugo head back down into the village for an outing -- and never return. Concerned, the narrator goes to investigate the next morning -- with Luchs ('Lynx'), the Rüttlingers' hunting dog that they had collected from where he was boarded on the way to the house -- and, on her way down to the village, comes up against: "something invisible, smooth and cool blocking my path". A wall.
       The wall is like clear glass, impenetrable (though apparently only going so far down into the ground -- water does seep through underneath -- as well as up, as clouds pass overhead unhindered). The narrator can actually see another human being, on the other side of the barrier, a man standing by a well, but he is as if frozen in place. Quite obviously dead. Something bad happened out there, something incomprehensible, and the narrator understands she is only alive because she is protected by this barrier.
       The woman has no idea as to how the wall came to be, or what it actually is; she comes to refer to it as a wall because: "I had to give it some name or other now that it was there". She thinks it's likely that it is part of a weapon, and she expects that at some point someone -- the victors in whatever war this was -- will find her. Of course, she also realizes: "Perhaps there were no victors".
       The narrator begins her narrative in November, two and a half years after the appearance of the wall. She had been keeping track of events, and the days (more or less: a few seem to have gotten lost along the way), taking notes, but never really writing it out; now she sits down to write a full report of her experiences, and does so over the next four months, with what limited paper and writing instruments she has at her disposal.
       Lurking over the narrative is, from the beginning, the question: why now ? Why has she waited until now to record her experiences ? That some turning point was reached seems obvious -- though not one that truly changed her basic circumstances: she is still essentially caged behind this wall. She does, however, repeatedly note that Lynx is now dead, and it seems a safe bet that his demise has something to do with her new resolve.
       Just how important the animal was to her is clear from almost the beginning, when she immediately realizes:

We were in a bad situation, Lynx and I, and at the time we didn't know just how bad it was. But we weren't lost entirely, because there were two of us.
       Among the questions the narrator can not answer are just how far this protected territory extends -- how long is the wall -- and whether or not she is actually alone. She explores some, but the alpine terrain makes it difficult to get very far. And almost immediately she comes across a cow, which she brings home and settles in a makeshift stable by the hunting-lodge -- a welcome source of milk and butter, but also an obligation that ties her more closely to one place, making it more difficult to explore further afield. Clearly, there are other animals in the enclosed space -- indeed, a cat joins her as well, and has several litters of kittens over the years, suggesting there are more out there, and the narrator also hunts meat for food, for her and her pets. She eventually also visits some other structures in the area, including an Alm -- but it appears that at the time of the disaster no one else was in the safe zone that she finds herself in.
       Much of her report is how she got by. Hugo had stocked his lodge well -- fearing and preparing for the possibility of nuclear war -- and a hunting rifle made it possible to hunt animals. There were potatoes and dried beans, both of which she planted, and while there are limited fruits and berries in the wild, she is able to harvest and enjoy these some as well. She has a decent store of matches, for vital fire -- enough to tide her over for a total of five years, she reckons -- and until they run out should be able to survive on what she grows and kills.
       The cow give birth to a steer, and the cat has kittens -- though not all of these survive. The animals, and taking care of her and their food-needs, keeps her quite busy -- but she also reflects some on her life, and her situation.
       She has two nearly grown daughters, but has to accept that they, and everyone she knows, has perished. She wonders whether whoever was responsible for the wall will ever come -- she has seen no planes overhead, which suggests there's not much going on out there ... -- and wonders what that will mean. After all:
They could come back any day and get me. They will be strangers, who will find a stranger. We won't have anything more to say to each other. It would be better for me if they never came back.
       She comes to realize:
The wall forced me to make an entirely new life, but the things that really move me are still the same as before: birth, death, the seasons, growth and decay. The wall is a thing that is neither dead nor alive, it really doesn't concern me, and that's why I don't dream about it.
       She surprisingly rarely looks back on her earlier, normal life -- but there are some nice, telling reflections-on-society slipped in, such as her noting that:
Disorganization had never been one of my faults, yet I had rarely found myself in a position to carry out one of my plans, because as sure as fate somebody or something had always turned up to ruin them. If I failed now, it would be my own fault, and I could only hold myself responsible.
       In a way, The Wall is fairly uneventful. The narrator presents day-to-day life, which is as routine and almost dreary as most day-to-day life -- albeit under a very unusual set of circumstances. These, however, do not prove that much more challenging: after all, other than the complete isolation (i.e. that she has to be completely self-reliant), much about her circumstances isn't that far removed from much human experience. She battles nature and the elements, but is equipped to do so fairly well, and manages without extreme hardship -- this is no desert island she has suddenly been washed up on.
       What is different, of course, is her complete isolation. She has been removed from society -- and, as far as she can tell, civilization itself has come to an end. She does long believe someone -- those victors, for want of a better term, of whatever situation is behind this wall -- might come looking for her, but ultimately this is such a distant prospect that it doesn't really factor into her life or actions. She can not plan for it, and doesn't bother to.
       She finds companionship with her animals, and sadness in their loss; Lynx, especially, was a creature she leaned on; without him, she feels as though amputated. Haushofer's vision is extreme, but it's interesting that she does give her protagonist this close and meaningful company: she can imagine survival without human companionship, but seems unable to imagine her protagonist completely cut off from any social contact, even if that is just with animals. As is, this communing-with-nature is an important element of the novel -- though of course also limiting it as a vision of a (wo)man truly alone.
       There is one dramatic (and traumatic) event, one a long time in coming, hinted at but only revealed very near the end, explaining how Lynx died (and triggering the narrator to write her report) -- a flash of violence pretty much out of nowhere. Like the appearance of the wall itself, it is abrupt and fathomless, raising more questions than it answers. Its nature also makes for an intriguing final twist, in how the narrator's situation remains fundamentally unchanged -- beyond a terrible loss -- even as it suggests that other paths had been possible behind this wall. If not completely upending everything she had believed about this remaining world around her, it does force her to reëxamine it some.
       Superficially, The Wall is an almost humdrum novel -- an adventure novel with limited adventure, a commentary on modern civilization with barely any outright commentary -- yet there's so much strength to the controlled quiet of the narrator's voice that it is easily compelling. Haushofer beautifully builds her story off her premise, and in avoiding efforts at the sensational has created an all the more powerful, haunting work.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 May 2020

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The Wall: Reviews: The Wall - the film: Marlen Haushofer: Other books by Marlen Haushofer under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of German literature

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About the Author:

       Austrian author Marlen Haushofer lived 1920 to 1970.

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© 2020-2023 the complete review

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