Marlen Haushofer

Marlen Haushofer; illustration by Tatjana Prenzel

“Today, the fifth of November, I shall begin my report. I shall set everything down as precisely as I can…. I don’t expect these notebooks will ever be found. At the moment I don’t even know whether I hope they will be. Perhaps I will know, once I’ve finished.” Already, before we’ve finished the first page of the Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer’s novel The Wall, we see that someone wants to write down what happened. There are obstacles in their way: memory is imperfect, precision impossible. What exactly does this person want to write about? Why write without being sure that the writing will be read?

These concerns are quickly overshadowed by more immediate drama. The narrator, an Austrian widow with two grown children, writes that she accepted an invitation to spend three days with her cousin and her cousin’s husband at their hunting lodge. On her first night there, she stays in while her hosts walk to the local village for a drink. She goes to sleep before they return, and when she wakes in the morning they’re still gone. Soon enough she discovers why: an invisible wall has sprung up, separating the hunting lodge and its land from the village—and, it seems possible, from the rest of the world. She discovers the wall by bumping her head against it:

Baffled, I stretched out my hand and touched something smooth and cool: a smooth, cool resistance where there could be nothing but air. I tentatively tried again, and once more my hand rested on something like a window-pane. Then I heard a loud knocking sound and glanced around before realizing it was my own heartbeat thundering in my ears. My heart had been frightened before I knew anything about it.

The people and animals that can be seen on the other side of this transparent wall are all dead, frozen eerily in place. Walking back to the hunting lodge, she finds a “dead nuthatch, its head caved in and its breast flecked with blood.” Like her, it has run into the wall:

That nuthatch was the first in the long succession of little birds that met their deaths so pitifully one radiant May morning. For some reason I can never forget that nuthatch. While I was contemplating it, I noticed the plaintive cries of the birds. I must have been able to hear them a long time before I was aware of them.

Tales of “last men” (and, less often, last women) on their own after an apocalyptic event constitute a popular tradition going back at least as far as 1826, when Mary Shelley published The Last Man, which describes a man at the end of the twenty-first century wandering a depopulated world in search of other survivors of a civilization-destroying plague. The appeal of such stories, for both writers and readers, is easy to grasp: mortal anxieties (individual and collective) are transfigured from ambient dread into visceral reality, and complex questions about human nature and group life are handily condensed into narratives concerned almost entirely with personal decisions, now imbued with world-historical importance. (When you’re the last person on earth, the bar for narcissism gets pretty high.) The template is infinitely flexible, easily accommodating new anxieties—plagues, nuclear winter, rogue computers—and different permutations of hope and pessimism about humans’ ability to forge ahead and learn from their mistakes.

The cold war was fertile soil for this tradition: humanity had new weapons powerful enough to kill millions and transform the planet, and instead of forging a collective agreement not to use them was rapidly building more, a development that felt of a piece with the increasingly publicized ecological harms of industry and consumption. It was easy to feel that doom—a self-inflicted doom, no less—was just around the corner. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, published in 1954, nine years after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, a bacterial infection turns everyone on earth (except the protagonist) into a blood-sucking vampire; in flashbacks it is implied that the bacteria were spread by new species of insects created by “the bombings.”

The Wall was published in 1963, and the narrator’s predicament seems a similar artifact of cold war anxieties. Pondering what might have killed the creatures on the other side of the wall, she “assumed it was a new weapon that one of the major powers had managed to keep secret; an ideal weapon, it left the earth untouched and killed only humans and animals.” She thinks at first that once the poison dissipates, the wall will go away and the “victors” will arrive.

The “last man” genre is such a familiar part of our cultural landscape that for most readers this setup will prompt three expectations. Expectation One: we’ll see our protagonist learn how to stay alive. In this regard, The Wall sticks close to the template. The narrator’s good fortune is that she doesn’t have to rough it immediately. She has the lodge, which her cousin’s husband—anxious about nuclear catastrophe—kept stocked with a considerable supply of staples. A cow from a neighboring farm has been stranded on her side of the wall, so she has milk.


As the lodge’s food dwindles she tries growing potatoes and beans. She shoots deer and preserves their meat using the cold water flowing from a nearby spring. She harvests berries and nettles. She learns how to keep the cow fed and happy. She makes butter. When she gets a dental infection, she treats it by lancing her gums with a razor. The cow, it turns out, is pregnant; when the calf comes, she helps deliver it, relying on a childhood memory of watching a farmer do the same. She explores the land around her, splits and stacks wood, counts her matches, counts her bullets.

In the year 2024 this premise feels a bit dated: nowadays we worry less, I think, about sudden disaster scenarios and more about slow-moving, complex nightmares like climate change, in which no single, dramatic event changes everything. Nonetheless The Wall is laced with the drama of survival. At every step, the narrator’s life is at stake. Even when she does everything perfectly, nature’s caprices can always wipe out her progress.

A lot of the time she’s guessing. She spends days looking for a place to plant potatoes, having only a partial sense of what criteria to use: “The field couldn’t be too far from the hut, couldn’t be in the shade, and above all it had to have fertile soil.” In the one place she finds that seems promising, the soil is full of tiny bits of charcoal. “I didn’t know whether potatoes liked sooty soil, but I nevertheless decided to plant them on this spot, since I knew I wouldn’t find such deep soil anywhere else.”

Alongside the anxiety these conditions produce, Haushofer also beautifully evokes what it’s like to become immersed in physical labor, especially slow, solitary labor carried out for days on end. The narrator tells us about her sore muscles, her growing strength, and her changing body, and about learning when to push herself forward and when to rest. Despite the extremity of her situation, her days sometimes contain almost rapturous moments of peace. She becomes attuned to the moods of her animals—not just the cow (which she names Bella) and its calf (Bull), but also a hunting dog (Lynx) left at the lodge, a cat who wanders in, and its two sets of kittens.

The juxtaposition of the urgency of the narrator’s efforts and their gradual, repetitive nature produces a strange effect: everything moves slowly, and everything feels charged from within by a thrilling vitality. There are no chapter or section breaks, just one paragraph after another, which contributes to our sense of the narrator surrendering to the flow of time—not the human constructs of hours and minutes, but nature’s overlapping patterns of light and darkness, warmth and cold, growth and death.

Expectation Two: flashbacks. Characters’ lives before the disaster become a way of making sense of their actions after—and often a vehicle for social critique. To some extent The Wall plays this game along standard lines. The narrator doesn’t go into much detail about her old life, but when she does, she paints it almost entirely in a dismal shade of gray. It was “unsatisfactory in all respects.” She never got what she wanted—or, if she did, was instantly dissatisfied. She assumed all the women she knew felt the same way, but made an unspoken pact to talk about other things.

Family life was in some ways a refuge from the world—with all its superficiality, deceptions, and jostling for domination—but also an endless, exhausting chore. She sometimes wished to be dead, because in death no one would ask anything of her, and she would neither hear nor tell any more lies. Here’s how she thinks about her two children after she first encounters the wall:

The two rather unpleasant, loveless and argumentative semiadults that I had left behind in the city had suddenly become quite unreal. I never mourned for them, only ever for the children that they had been many years before. That probably sounds very cruel, but I can’t think who I should lie to today. I can allow myself to write the truth; all the people for whom I have lied throughout my life are dead.

About her husband, we learn only that he had a “good and familiar” face, and that as their children grew up he became needier and more dependent on her, as if seeking—consciously or otherwise—to keep her housewifely burdens from falling below a certain threshold. She decides that she’s glad to have been stranded alone: a man might have been useful for his strength, but, being a man, also might have spent his days “sitting around lazily in the hut, sending me off to do the work.” An old woman would have made good company—but then would have died, which would have been too sad to bear. Instead, for company, she has her animals. Haushofer’s description of human–animal bonds, with their potent mix of intense closeness and radical mystery, rank among the best I’ve encountered. Bella and Lynx, especially, need the narrator just as much as she needs them; knowing this makes it easier for her to get out of bed in the morning, and helps keep her from taking the occasional thought of suicide too seriously. Plus, the animals never lie.


It would be easy to read all this as Haushofer arguing that life inside the wall—immediate, adaptable, free from deceit, attuned to nature—is better than life outside, and by implication in postwar Austria. This reading gets support not just from genre expectations and the new edition’s jacket copy (“a critique of modern civilization”), but also from the general outlines of Haushofer’s life: after the war, married with two children, she split her time between Vienna and Steyr, a hundred miles to the west. In Vienna she had affairs and moved among the literary set; in Steyr, where no one knew she was a writer, she acted the ordinary housewife. In a letter to a friend in Vienna she described the men in Steyr as “former-still-and-always Nazis” (“ehemalige Noch-immer-Nazis”), as Nicholas Spice noted in a memorable essay in the London Review of Books.

In The Loft, Haushofer’s final book, published a year before she died in 1970 and one of the few novels she wrote to have been translated into English,* the social critique is unmissable. The narrator, also an Austrian housewife in the 1960s, struggles through a life defined to a terrifying degree by repression—of war’s psychic residues, of Austria’s collusion with Hitler’s Germany, of emotional complexity. No one can say what they truly feel, or need, or remember. The word “Nazi” is never uttered, let alone “Holocaust” or “Jew.”

Early in The Loft the unnamed narrator loses her hearing for reasons no one understands (all the relevant physiology, we’re told, is in working order). The symbolism feels like it should be slightly too obvious, but it works, largely because the narrator herself never gains full insight into her fate. Her condition is never a symbol to her, which makes it all the more terrifying for the reader. She is sent to the countryside—supposedly to recover, but in fact, we come to realize, so that her strange condition doesn’t overcomplicate her husband’s rigidly “normal” life.

By contrast, the further into The Wall we go, the less obvious it becomes that the problems Haushofer is circling are located in society or history. For all the changes forced upon the narrator by the wall, her central psychological dilemmas remain, at their core, similar to the ones she faced before. Life draws her into relationships—with humans before, with animals after—which in turn bring rewards, but also force decisions, create obligations, and always contain the possibility of loss.

When the second litter of kittens arrives, she’s happy, but also resentful of her own excitement. “I often look forward to a time when there won’t be anything left to grow attached to,” she writes. Without attachments she would be freer, under less pressure to make decisions—not in the instinctive mode of animals, but in the deliberative mode of humans, who can always look back and realize their mistakes:

The only creature in the forest that can really do right or wrong is me…. Sometimes I wish that burden of decision-making didn’t lie with me. But I am a human being, and I can only think and act like a human being. Only death will free me of that.

It’s no wonder she can’t decide if she wants her report to be read or not. A reader would be another person. People mean attachments. Attachments mean choices and suffering. Hasn’t she been through enough?

Expectation Three, perhaps the strongest of them all: after we see a character stranded by catastrophe, we will see them do more than just survive. They will figure out what happened, then find their way back to civilization—or, if civilization has been destroyed, to fellow survivors with whom they will start over. Reader, beware: it’s impossible to discuss how The Wall interacts with this expectation without spoiling some of the mystery that makes reading it for the first time so gripping.

By the novel’s halfway point, there have been no signs of other people, nor of any escape route. The narrator still doesn’t know how much area the wall encloses, or if it’s an enclosure at all; searching for gaps would mean going up into the mountains, risking time away from her shelter and her dear animal companions. Is she ever going to get out of here? This far into The Wall the narrator hasn’t done anything to plan an escape, and you start to wonder—really wonder—what’s going on. The opening moves of a conventional adventure mystery function as an artistic trap door; when the story takes a different path, the reader is sent plunging down into the deep uncertainties implied by the novel’s opening lines. Why write? Why describe your life for others? Why do anything at all?

Questions like these are another mainstay of the “last man” genre, especially in its more artistically ambitious entries. The way they sneak increasingly to the forefront in The Wall recalls the Swiss writer Max Frisch’s 1979 novella Man in the Holocene. In this account mudslides isolate an aging widower in his rural valley; seemingly uninterrupted rain confines him to his house. The weather appears, through his eyes, as a possible sign of some unspecified catastrophe that will end the era of man on Earth, or at least separate the valley from civilization forever. There are hints of nuclear doom, but it’s possible they represent a looming danger more than anything that has actually happened. By the end, we see that the actual catastrophe the widower is facing is the fact of death, and the question of what life (his own or his species’) means (or doesn’t), and how one could ever know for sure.

These questions are all the more powerful for being approached sideways. Similarly, in The Wall, the narrator’s failure to attempt escape begins to make her worries over life’s purpose—which typically skulk at the corners of consciousness, unsolved and unsolvable—ring louder and louder, too loud to possibly ignore.

Early on we learn that Lynx, the narrator’s beloved dog, has, at some point between the events being described and the time of writing, died. Knowing this keeps us on edge, all the more so as we see woman and dog bonding intensely. What’s going to take him out? That snake? A wolf attack? In the novel’s second half, we are told that Bull, one of the cows, is also dead; in a compact gut-punch of foreshadowing, we learn that he was killed by a person with an axe. Forty-five pages later we learn that Lynx, too, was killed, though it’s not yet clear if both animals were killed by the same person. Another sixty pages pass before Haushofer reveals what happened. The intervening narrative features more descriptions of the never-ending work of survival, but now hanging under a cloud of imminent violence.

Returning to the hunting lodge one afternoon after hoeing her plot of potatoes and beans, the narrator finds a man there. We’ve known someone was coming but it’s still dizzying, in part because of Haushofer’s prose, which somehow combines the unreal rapidity of shock and the nightmarish slow motion of memory. The narrator sees that the man has killed Bull. Before she can stop him, he also kills Lynx, perhaps because he is afraid the dog will attack him, perhaps because he’s a man naturally disposed to violence. Perhaps a bit of both.

The narrator shoots the man and kills him. Less than a page after his appearance in her life, he’s dead. The absolute isolation she has felt all this time is revealed to have been something of an illusion. Nothing about the man’s corpse or clothing tells us if he was also living within the wall, if anyone else is, if he walked in through an opening, or if anyone else could do the same. Perhaps he was the last man on earth. Or perhaps someone else—a man, a woman—will show up tomorrow.

In The Loft, after the narrator gets banished to the countryside, she flirts with the idea of staying there or maybe even running away with a strange man she meets in the woods who likes to tell her his awful secrets, knowing that because of her strange affliction she cannot hear him or repeat what he says. Once her faculties return, she decides to go back to her old life despite knowing that nothing will ever be the same; how could it be, when she is welcomed only because she is once again—and, implicitly, must continue to be—“normal”? Her life is mostly miserable, even if she doesn’t always let herself admit it. Back in the “real world” her one consolation comes from her solitary, almost compulsive attempts at making drawings. Again and again she tries to fix visions from her head onto the page, where she senses the ability to create images of things that “are not supposed to exist.” She shows these pictures to no one.

For the narrator of The Wall, of course, there’s no going back. The novel closes with her accepting that she will continue, offering the animals that remain what care she can, dealing with whatever each new day throws at her. But, like her counterpart in The Loft, she finds some satisfaction—if not exactly salvation—in the act of creating a record of her preoccupations on paper as precisely as she can. It’s possible that she is writing the report only for herself, as part of an effort to understand herself and her puzzling desire to stay alive. She has by now confessed, almost guiltily, to hoping that what she has written will someday be read. The book comes to an end not because she is done but because she has run out of paper. Like the drawings in The Loft, her report remains unseen by anyone in the world. Except us.