Claire Louise-Bennett on The Wall
Recently, just after Christmas, I had a fairly pleasant conversation on the phone with someone I used to be in a relationship with. I told him about the daughters of two friends of mine, one of the girls is three, the other just turned four. After I’d finished recounting a couple of stories about them and the funny things they say, my ex said, “It’s strange, isn’t it, the way you’re not really interested in all that.” “Strange for who?” I said back, and he laughed, that slow luxuriant laugh that I occasionally still find attractive and irritating. I live alone and have done for many years and it doesn’t feel strange to me at all. As a child, whenever I dared imagine myself as an adult, I always envisaged living on my own. I was deeply impressed by the cheerful dens I came across in folk tales and adventure stories, and invariably pictured myself in just such an abode. I liked the way the wily creatures who lived in these elemental dwelling places made ingenious use of the things around them: acorn cupules for bowls, pinecones to grate nutmeg, harebells as caps in the rain. A living space, in all senses of the word. Those early I’m ages of home never expired, and about ten years ago they manifested in reality—there, through the hedgerow, as if by magic, stood a four-hundred-year-old thatched cottage, my not-so-new home for a little while. It really was a dream come true. But how was I to live in it? This might appear to be a stupid question—who needs to think about how to occupy their home? Probably not many people since most homes are inhabited by a family, and are therefore designed to optimize security, comfort, and convenience; the kind of pact you have with those sorts of habitations is fairly straightforward. What are you supposed to do, however, if you are the sole tenant of an old stone and dank reed pile that is already bristling with mice and wasps and birds and spiders and perpetual drizzle? Shifting away from the popular perspective, which casts living alone as a grim state of affairs, I wanted to embrace it as a fruitful situation, which would entail, I anticipated, conceiving of the home as something other than a domestic space. In what other ways could it function? What does it mean to dwell? What does it mean to belong? I sought out a few books that explored various modes of inhabiting that did not revolve around family life and interior design, books such as The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard, In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki, and A Book of Silence by Sara Maitland. Distinct in approach, each of these texts taps into the cosmic potential that the intimate relationship we have to our immediate surroundings engenders, and the capacity for reverie it can encourage. Beautiful, imaginative, and stimulating; yet occasionally a little far-flung—I had a yen for something more rugged and quotidian. I was aware of Walden of course, but didn’t foresee that it would be much use to me, written as it is by a man. Men can live alone in the woods for years on end without anyone thinking too much about it. If you are a woman living alone, on the other hand, there must be something wrong with you; you are unappealing, or barren, or disturbed, or conniving, or frigid, or selfish, or degenerate, or bereft, or spent, or difficult, or abandoned, or deviant, or bonkers—someone to be wary of in any case, because it’s quite unnatural, it’s strange isn’t it, to live on your own if you’re a woman. What on earth do you do all day? Nothing good, that’s for sure, since you’re not involved with taking care of anyone. What kind of woman spends her days not looking after someone else? If you are a woman and you want to avoid causing offense there needs to be a legibility to your actions. You cannot be an unquantifiable presence on the periphery. The only way a woman can experience solitude, without judgment and recrimination scuffing up against her peace, is if the rest of the world has come to a complete standstill and there is no one around to see her. That’s how it must have seemed to Marlen Haushofer, who, in writing The Wall, devised the most extraordinary scenario in order to imagine herself into a place where she could live alone and be free.
Born Maria Helene Frauendorfer on April 11, 1920, Haushofer grew up in Frauenstein, Molln, a mountainous and densely forested part of Austria. Her mother, a former maid, was strict, somewhat distant, and deeply religious. Her father was a forester in Effertsbach. When she was just twenty-one years old she married a dentist named Manfred Haushofer, they had two sons together and lived mostly in Steyr, where Manfred’s dental practice was. The pair divorced in 1950, but reunited in 1957. Haushofer looked after the children, took care of the house, and helped out at the dental practice. She wrote at the kitchen table whenever the house was quiet and empty. Day-to day life in a provincial Austrian town in the 1950s must have been tremendously suffocating. Haushofer, who was something of a tomboy growing up, responded to its conservatism and monotonousness by keeping herself to herself—when she died from bone cancer at the age of forty-nine her neighbors hadn’t the faintest idea she was a writer. In her autobiographical novel Nowhere Ending Sky, Haushofer gives free rein to her memories of growing up in rural Austria, depicting her boisterous antics, visceral relationship with nature, and the freedom from social constraint she enjoyed as a child with exuberance and humor. Of her own books it was her favorite, and its reason able to interpret her fondness for it as an indication of the enduring attachment she had to those formative years, a time when she had a direct, undistorted engagement with the world immediately around her. Haushofer felt that as we get older and accumulate experiences the capacity to see “the true picture” is significantly compromised. Our heads become crammed with memories and associations, making the eyes unreceptive, unable to see anything new. The irrevocable conditioning our perception undergoes is ruefully alluded to throughout The Wall, where the narrator concedes that, “Since my childhood I had forgotten how to see things with my own eyes, and I had forgotten that the world had once been young, untouched and very beautiful and terrible.” She acknowledges that she can’t be a child again and experience things in the way a child does. However, solitude, she discovers, brings on an emptying of the mind and a renewal of the senses; “loneliness led me, in moments free of memory and consciousness, to see the great brilliance of life again.” It is this aspect of Haushofer’s credo that resonated with me very strongly when I first read The Wall, some twelve or so years ago, while I was wondering how to go about living alone within my pile of stones without feeling that someone or something was missing from my situation. I was already beginning to experience for myself the dismantling effect that spending a lot of time on my own, quietly, can bring about. Like the stranded narrator in this novel I had serendipitously come by, I intermittently had the sensation that something which usually inserted itself between me and everything else had dissolved, allowing me to see things as themselves. There is a scene that expresses this revelatory occurrence beautifully. I read it over and over again. Every evening during the months she is at the Alm the lone woman sits on the bench outside the mountain hut with her dog at her feet and looks up at the night sky. She looks at it for a very long time, without thinking, without reminiscing, without any feelings of fear, and, divested of these intrusions, that normally “raced ahead of my eyes and distorted the true picture,” she is able to see that the night isn’t dark at all, it’s very beautiful, and she starts to love it. When finally it grows cold she goes back into the hut, feeling calm. “It had something to do with the stars,” she explains, “and the fact that I suddenly knew they were real.”
It’s amazing and unnerving how soon the frameworks that ordinarily define us and shape our encounters (while simultaneously getting in the way of them) quickly fall aside when we are alone. And when we force ourselves to recall the schemas that routinely orientate us throughout the days and nights of our lives, they seem abstract and insubstantial. Even our own name, if not heard for some time, can seem arbitrary and inessential. Indeed, while the stars have become real, the voice of the last woman left alive, almost as soon as she happens upon the wall, becomes “strange and unreal.” She instinctively lets it drop to a whisper, until it becomes indistinguishable from the sound of water splish-splashing in the spring. Weeks later her name elapses; “No one calls me by that name, so it no longer exists,” she says simply, and in this no-nonsense way dispenses with it once and for all. Perhaps there is something emancipatory about shedding these particulars with such efficiency, especially since the life she once lived was, in any case, “unsatisfactory in all respects. I had achieved little that I had wanted and everything I had achieved I had ceased to want.” Her reflections on being a wife and a mother are brief and infrequent, yet it is clear she derived scant fulfillment from these roles which are typically presumed to give a woman’s life meaning, purpose, and satisfaction. “Quite slowly they turn into strangers,” she says of her two daughters, and describes the adults they have become as “unpleasant, loveless and argumentative.” They too have entered the ranks of the unreal, and she candidly admits she doesn’t mourn for them. “That probably sounds very cruel,” she says, “but I can’t think who I should lie to today…all the people for whom I have lied throughout my life are dead.” In both senses of the word, she is not obliged anymore to keep up appearances. As far as her physical form is concerned it has become thin, angular, hardened, to the extent that she has lost the awareness of being a woman. No longer burdened by femininity, she feels herself to be more like a tree than a human. The woman she once was, “with the little double chin, who tried very hard to look younger than her age,” seems alien to this being who now thinks of herself as a tough brown branch. Everything has been stripped away, and up there in the Alm, beneath a sky full of stars, she realizes in an instant that she had spent her whole life on the other side of the wall copying the thoughts and actions of other people.
The epiphanies that this unlikely survivor undergoes are profound and devastating—in essence her previous existence amounted to nothing at all—yet she relays all this calmly, with no hint of self-pity, or bitterness, or regret. The reason for this merciful equanimity is that Haushofer, who was familiar with Simone de Beauvoir’s seminal text, The Second Sex, was cognizant of the limitations that are systematically placed upon a woman’s life, narrowing her possibilities and severing her from her own impulses, so that the world she lives in is a very small, unvarying, and impersonal one, constructed entirely by the daunting yet indifferent demands and alienating mechanisms of capitalism. “But I shouldn’t like to judge her too harshly,” the arboreal woman says of the woman with the little double chin who was condemned to chase after a meaning that didn’t exist and was quite unable to describe a common pigeon. “After all,” she explains, “she never had the chance of consciously shaping her life. When she was young she unwittingly assumed a heavy burden by starting a family, and from then on she was always hemmed in by an intimidating amount of duties and worries. Only a giantess would have been able to free herself, and in no respect was she a giantess, never anything other than a tormented, overtaxed woman of medium intelligence, in a world, on top of everything else, that was hostile to women and which women found strange and unsettling.” This censorious yet pragmatic evaluation of the domestic circumstances which enclose the lives of so many women is garnered no doubt from the author’s own stifling experiences of womanhood. A reticent midcentury Austrian housewife, who preferred to remain on the edges socially, Marlen Haushofer may not have been a giantess, yet she was able to impart probity and strength while identifying the precise factors complicit in her subjugation, a feat which to my mind makes her absolutely colossal. I have written this in a woodshed in Tipperary, my home for the time being. Most of my belongings are in a storage unit in the west of Ireland, where I lived at fourteen different addresses over twenty years until the interminable housing crisis finally made it completely unviable for me to reside there, however precariously, any longer. It’s hard for anyone to find somewhere to live these days; it’s impossible if you are a woman on your own. It’s tough for a man too of course, but wage inequality persists, so it’s likely they have a bit more money to spend on securing accommodation; prospective male tenants are still regarded with slightly less suspicion than female ones I suspect, and generally men don’t need to concern themselves with personal safety to the same degree as women, which can be an obstacle because affordable homes tend to be in less salubrious areas. Society is structured in such a way that women are still being corralled into shacking up with men and reproducing—new homes are being constructed, but most of these, I notice, are family homes, which I’ve opted not to squander my inconstant income on since that’s hardly sustainable and these houses are far too big for me anyway. When will planning, legislation, and attitudes change? When will it stop being anyone else’s business if a woman chooses to live on her own and do god-knows-what all day? When will it finally be acknowledged that, as Haushofer observed, it is the world that is strange and unsettling, not the women it is so hostile to? We’d better hope it’s soon, not least because by now we’ve really only got a few matches left.