“It’s only since I’ve slowed down that the forest around me has come to life.”
Yet again I abandoned a book this week, this is becoming a disturbingly regular habit (okay, it’s twice). This time it was Jessica J Lee’s Turning, a book which, on the surface, should have been bang in my reading zone: a memoir about a woman who embarks on a life-changing challenge, to swim 52 lakes in Germany, but which just failed to deliver for me. Too much hinting and too little substance; too little swimming too, bizarrely. And a mind impatient for something different, my mind. Impatient, as it often is. So instead I decided to attempt to confront my growing dissatisfaction with fiction and return to a book which couldn’t fail to hold my attention: Marlen Haushofer’s marvellous The Wall. And yes, it is cheating. It’s a long time since I read any new fiction, but reading familiar fiction at least keeps my hand in and retains the possibility that some new fiction might yet appear, successfully, in my future.
For those that haven’t encountered it (and why haven’t you?) The Wall is the account of one woman trapped in an alpine valley by a mysterious force, which she describes as ‘the wall’. She has visited her friend’s hunting lodge in the valley many times before, and this time was intended to be no different. Her friend, Hugo, whose lodge it is, and his wife Luise go out to the village for the evening. Our protagonist (unnamed) stays behind at the lodge. At some time in the evening Hugo’s dog, Lynx, returns but Hugo and Luise do not. The protagonist goes to bed and when she wakes in the morning her friends have still not returned. Finding this strange she sets out towards the village only to encounter the wall. It is invisible, she doesn’t know what it is, but it creates an impenetrable barrier around the valley. Whilst investigating the scope of the phenomenon, she discovers death on the other side of the wall. Whatever has happened, it appears to have been deadly and she can find no route out of her valley. She and Lynx return to the hunting lodge and begin what becomes a long, relentless trudge to survive.
Aside from Lynx she discovers a cow, who she names Bella, and a cat and together they become a family. There appear to be no other humans in the valley. What follows is both simple and deceptively complex. Our protagonist becomes focused on survival, both for herself and for the animals who she is sure will perish without her. Bella is pregnant, as is the cat and new life brings both hope and responsibility, the promise and devastation of loss. She describes days spent sawing wood, scything the meadows, collecting berries and milking Bella, she suffers exhaustion and anxieties, her days are a trial in just keeping going and whilst nothing really ‘happens’ in the book – there is little drama and few events beyond the weather – the story remains intense and gripping. She reflects on both her old life and the new, there is a sense that she is only, by being trapped, starting to become and inhabit herself. She examines her old life and finds it wanting, as she describes here:
“On that long walk back I thought about my former life and found in unsatisfactory in all respects. I had achieved little that I had wanted, and everything I had achieved I had ceased to want. That’s probably how it was for everybody else, too. It’s something we never talked about, when we used to talk. I don’t think I shall have the opportunity to talk to other people about it again now. So I shall have to presume it was so. Back then, walking back into my valley, it still hadn’t quite dawned on me that my former life had come to a sudden end; I knew it, that is, but only in my head, so I didn’t believe it. It’s only when knowledge about something slowly spreads to the whole body that you truly know. I know too that I, like every living thing, will have to die someday, but my hands, my feet and my guts still don’t know it, which is why death seems so unreal.”
So whilst her new life is tough, it is a daily slog just to get through the days and she is prone to disease and illness, to infirmity growing in her body through exertion and malnutrition, she is also fulfilled and, perhaps, for the first time able to be herself rather than the person that ‘society’ both demanded and expected her to be; or perhaps it is truer to say that she no longer allows herself to be influenced into becoming something other than what she is, because there is no longer anyone to influence her. This lack of influence is both a boon and a detriment. She ceases to understand what it means to be ‘human’, without companionship she forgets how to interact, she suffers from depressions and anxieties and has no one to share the burden, yet she does not crave the conflict that would come with another human being. She cannot explain her desire to survive beyond her responsibilities towards the animals, though she clearly has a desire to survive.
The Wall is a fascinating book; it is fascinating because it comprises nothing more than the musings of a woman whose life has become a cycle of farming and walking, existing, with no possibility of anything more. Yet she is comfortable, happy even, in this life. It is a life which suits her. Her reflections on her former life, her motivations and the way she spent her time are fascinating. She is not judgemental, and yet she dismisses her former life as full of empty irrelevances, of anxieties and activities which have no meaning, particularly when compared to her new life. As she reflects here, there is a calming rhythm to life in the forest:
“I worked on peacefully and evenly, without overtaxing myself. I hadn’t managed that in the first year. I simply hadn’t found the right rhythm. But then I had very slowly learned a little more, and adapted to the forest. In the city you can live in a nervous rush for years, and while it may ruin your nerves you can put up with it for a long time. But nobody can climb mountains, plant potatoes, chop wood and scythe in a nervous rush for more than a few months. The first year, when I still hadn’t adapted myself, had been well beyond my powers, and I shall never quite recover from those excessive labours. On top of that, I had been absurdly proud of each new record I broke. Today I even walk from the house to the stable in a leisurely woodlander’s stroll. My body stays relaxed, and my eyes have time to look around. A running person can’t look around. In my previous life, my journey took me past a place where an old lady used to feed pigeons. I’ve always liked animals, and all my goodwill went out to those pigeons, now long petrified, and yet I can’t describe a single one of them. I don’t even know what colour their eyes and their beaks were. I simply don’t know, and I think that says enough about how I used to move through the city. It’s only since I’ve slowed down that the forest around me has come to life. I wouldn’t like to say that this is the only way to live, but it’s certainly the right one for me. And so many things had to happen before I could find my way here. Before, I was always on my way somewhere, always in a great rusk and furiously impatient; every time I got anywhere I would have to spend ages waiting. I might just as well have crept along. Sometimes I became quite clearly aware of my predicament, and of the demands of that world, but I wasn’t capable of breaking out of that stupid way of life.”
And in this context her musings also reveal the complexities in our own lives, the inauthenticity of at least some of what we do. Perhaps it is inevitable wherever there is ‘society’ that we must compromise some of what we are, what we want and desire, for the sake of a harmonious life, but perhaps what The Wall neatly reveals is that too many people have to sacrifice too much. That there is a beauty and meaning in a simpler life, one in which we are not reliant on variety and technologies, in which our interactions are simple and purposeful. But perhaps this is truer, still, for women whose lives – particularly in the period Haushofer was writing – were and are so proscribed, so limited and so lacking in possibility. Of course things have changed, yet women still face so much approbation when they do not match the ‘ideal’, the expectation – look at Theresa May who is accused of being ‘robotic’, not empathetic as women are meant to be; or Ariana Grande who is accused of being too sexualised, or Madonna before her and so on. Sadly the same proscription appears to also be true for young men who are increasing expected to mould their appearance, to be ‘manly’, muscular, to lack weakness or compassion, who are forced into an idealism which drives them to do terrible things and whose uncertainties are ‘solved’ with rigid discipline. Perhaps The Wall is as true now for everyone as it was for women at the time it was written, but setting political interpretations aside for a moment, it remains a true and compelling book about a person unpicking themselves from the bones of social expectation and whilst we cannot all be trapped in an invisible valley to achieve it, and most of us certainly wouldn’t want to be, the self-knowledge that she gains is accessible to all of us. Reading this wonderful book simply reminds me that self-reflection, an awareness of my own desires and needs, and a will to focus upon those things, is the best and perhaps least dramatic way to achieve it.