Friday, May 24, 2013

Omega Woman: Marlen Haushofer's THE WALL

[Somehow, the full version of this, which was posted, got replaced by an earlier version. Urgh.]

I knew nothing of this novel till I saw the trailer for the film:

Published in 1962, The Wall is the only work of Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer's to have been translated into English. It's unrelenting.

The story's initiating event, established in the first pages of the book as it's established in the first moments of the trailer, comes when a woman visiting friends in the Austrian countryside awakes in the morning to find the friends have not returned and a transparent wall has blocked the road. This wall, after some investigation, seems to have no end, and every form of animal life on the far side has frozen in place, dead.

That's it. Our protagonist quickly sizes up her situation and sets to preparing for an uncertain period in which she must provide food and other necessities for herself, the dog and cat who live on the property, and a single female cow. Other animals live on this side of the wall, but they are non-actors, prey, or predators in relation to this small family circle. In Robinson Crusoe–fashion, the narrator takes the contents of her own diary and turns it into a reconstructed narrative of survival, recounting everything from haymaking to beangrowing to the illnesses that afflict the tiny group. Interspersed throughout, and integrated beautifully into the tone of tense description and observation, are more philosophical thoughts prompted by the terrible isolation, thoughts honed more sharply because they come from a point after certain sad events which the narrator mentions often, though she doesn't encounter them directly till near the end.

What is a human without other humans? What is a human without something to care for, some project to engage in? And, she wonders, what does it mean to be human if humans are the cause of the wall? Is this what we do, destroy one another out of our confusion?

Though the plot is little more than a succession of days and minor events, the profound isolation of the character lends to every moment a vividness, a clarity the narrator recognizes as missing from her former life of time and tasks, and this pulls the narrative along, that and a sense of unease about such a depopulated world. She is now dedicated to that which is necessary, but also acutely aware of what is beautiful, what touches her, and what endures after the last human observer is gone. There is an arc to the narrative, both dramatic and intellectual, so the work does have more shape than my description might suggest, and it's more riveting than the reader might expect.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

That Flem: Faulkner's THE HAMLET

As a novel, Faulkner's The Hamlet is something of a cobbled-together affair, built in part of some free-standing stories, but it's also expansive about elements that don't seem central to whatever the larger plot might be, thus confounding those looking for a novelistic experience. Nevertheless, there's a narrative arc at work, a moral trajectory that tracks an immoral trajectory, the progress of Flem Snopes in taking what he will from the people of Frenchman's Bend.

I read this novel during my freshman year in college for a course in 20th-century American literature, my prior reading of Faulkner having included things I'd loved ("The Bear," the long version) and a novel I'd failed to get through (The Sound and the Fury). I knew of the other two novels in the trilogy (The Town and The Mansion), but until recently, I didn't own both of those. Now that I do, I though I'd try the entire "Snopes sequence."

I recalled only three moments from The Hamlet: a teacher who has developed a terrible crush on a student puts his face to her vacated classroom seat; a mentally retarded man is observed in an indelicate situation with his one true love, a cow; and Flem Snopes, in response to something done by Ratliff, the sewing machine salesman, spits on the ground. The grotesque sexuality aside, the gesture by Snopes summed up the novel for me: Snopes did what he would, brushing aside anyone who got in his way.

Rereading the novel, I find Snopes's evil to be less direct than I remembered. He is rapacious, but like a force of nature. He doesn't run wild, unlike the wild horses he unloads on the town through an intermediary; he also doesn't possess the kind of seductive charisma as Eula, the nymphet who draws men the way a magnet draws filings. Rather, he is smart and methodical, though never overtly so. He brings to the town an absurd and never-ending series of relatives—even Ratliff, the moral center of the book, can't keep track of them, which means the reader is also at a loss—and they seem more an expression of the vegetative advance of his family rather than expressions of his will. They often complicate matters for him, in fact. Yet Flem pushes onward, working hard at what job he aims to do yet also possessing a kind of effortlessness that never reveals how hard he's actually working and how far ahead he has planned.

Snopes doesn't intend ill toward anyone, but that's why his brand of evil is so distressing: there's no motive except acquisition. Bad things will happen to people, but Snopes hardly sees the people except as means to his ends, and the ends constantly shift beyond what anyone might expect—as indeed there can be no "end" to acquisitiveness.

Faulkner gives us some of his finest writing, and some of his finest comic writing. The chapter describing the beautiful, vacant, disturbingly voluptuous Eula, daughter of the prosperous Varner clan, is worth endless rereadings, as Faulkner rhapsodizes in tones both horrified and elevated, presenting Eula as a jiggling mass of flesh that won't be contained and a kind of goddess. Naturally, once she's found pregnant and, thus, somewhat damaged good, she ends up with Snopes. Other astonishing scenes include sale and escape of the wild horses (Faulkner slowing down the action, accelerating it, reversing it—whatever he needs to do to capture the terrific and baffling violence); a murder and its aftermath, as the murderer can't seem to properly dispose of the body or the weapon; and the loving pursuit and abduction of the cow (another love goddess) over many miles and days.

Through it all run themes of desire without check, the way even the smallest amount of money can bespeak a person's whole self, and the careless violence of both nature and humans. It's a great performance that embraces a variety of narrative styles, a symphonic piece that, though it drops its familiar motifs for long stretches, never forgets, as Snopes never forgets, that the long game is what matters, that everything returns and comes to fruition in the final movement.