Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Book Review: "The Wall" ("Die Wand") by Marlen Haushofer

Die Wand (The Wall) (1963)
Marlen Haushofer (1920-1970)

314 pages

Even a casual glance through the fiction books I’ve reviewed since starting this blog reveals my penchant for post-apocalyptic novels. My interest, though, rests not with the precipitating, catastrophic event itself, but rather with the characters’ reactions to the new situation they find themselves in. How do they pick up and go on?

Precisely that dilemma presents itself to the narrator in Austrian author Marlen Haushofer’s novel, The Wall (Die Wand, in the original German). Haushofer constructs the story as a report written by a woman trying to make sense of her life spent in a shockingly constricted world: Two and a half years earlier, having traveled up into the Austrian mountains for a few days of holiday with a couple who own a small hunting lodge, she had settled in for the evening while the couple walked back down to the little village below the lodge to pass some time at the local inn; the next morning, surprised the couple had not yet returned, the woman walked down toward the village to try and discover what had happened to her friends, only to encounter a wall, “a smooth, cool, resistance on a spot at which there really couldn’t be anything but air.” (14) With just that little amount of warning or fanfare, the woman finds her life unimaginably changed.

Returning to the hunting lodge, the woman holds at bay the crushing fears threatening to overwhelm her by turning her focus to her immediate survival. Initially she takes stock of what is available in the lodge, but, in the weeks that follow, as hope of rescue dims, she is forced into a broader evaluation of her options in the mountain highland she finds herself trapped in. Occasionally the woman’s thoughts do return to the wall, and speculation on its origin, but given her lack of any means to investigate it, the never-ending work to stay alive, and her barely contained fears of potentially permanent isolation, she forcibly cuts such digressions short.

Thus the story dwells hardly at all on the cause of the apocalypse, or its broader implications — in fact, we readers are seemingly freer to speculate about that than the woman herself, as she mentally protects herself from hopelessness and depression. Deliberately avoiding any specifics of the apocalyptic event itself, Haushofer has instead created a captivating drama out of the woman’s physical and physiological fight to survive.

The tension in the story arises out of details in the woman’s recollections as she writes her report, help by notes she has kept on a calendar. She uses the act of writing to help maintain her sanity, processing the events that have transpired since the bewildering moment in which the wall radically changed her world. She does this by starting her story at the beginning, when the wall first appeared; but as she writes her report, she cannot help but foreshadow dramatic incidents that have befallen her over the two and a half years. She does this cryptically, clearly attempting to keep dark memories of certain days at bay, even as they unavoidably force themselves into her thoughts. As readers we begin to assume her dread, coming to recognize the devastating impact these hinted-at events will have on the fragile world she has constructed for herself, both physically and mentally.

The woman’s efforts to adapt and survive make up a large part of the story, but a deeper thread winds through the plot, as the woman looks back on her time before the wall, re-evaluating her former life, and more broadly life in that former world now ended by the wall, in the harsh and clarifying light of her new existence. She comes to see the shortcomings of her earlier self, and becomes increasingly dismissive of the miss-placed emphasis she sees people had unthinkingly placed on so many elements of modern life. She gradually discovers that, despite her many difficulties, she is more comfortable in this new, simpler and more natural life, than she had ever been in her old one.
Here in the woods, I am actually in my appropriate place. … how they had all plagued me with things that revolted me. I had only this one, small life, and they hadn’t allowed me to live in peace. Gas ovens, power plants and oil pipelines; now that people are no more, they finally show their true, pitiful face. And back then one had made these things into idols instead of simply useful objects. (243)

Though The Wall can be read as a straight-forward, post-apocalyptic survival novel, Haushofer weaves into the story a thoughtful meditation on the many and varied complexities mankind has created in the modern day world. These complexities have generally been allowed to develop with little thought to their impact; through her narrator, Haushofer makes evident some of what we have sacrificed in the exchange: an ever increasing separation from the natural world of our origins.

Other reviews / information:

Read quotes from this book here.

Have you read this book, others by this author, or even similar ones by other authors? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts.
Other of my book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Sunday, January 29, 2017

“Thoughtful People” in Partisan Times

On a recent edition of the radio program On Being entitled How to Live Beyond this Election (27 October 2016), host Krista Tippett interviewed teacher and community activist Eboo Patel, and poet Natasha Trethewey.

Addressing the increasingly vitriolic and partisanship discord that has largely eliminated considered discussion and debate in the U.S., Patel recalls a key moment in his own growth as an engaged citizen --- as someone interested in developing understanding, and participating in discussion:

DR. PATEL: One of the ways my life changed in college was William Raspberry who wrote for the Washington Post.
So, when I was 19 or 20 — and I was a fire-breathing dragon at this time. You couldn’t come within 50 feet of me without getting long lectures on people of color, consciousness, and socialism. My dad damned near kicked me out of the house at one point. He said to me, “If you give me one more lecture being bourgeois, you can find some other bourgeois dad to pay your bourgeois college tuition."
DR. PATEL: William Raspberry writes a column in which he says, “The smartest people I know secretly believe both sides of the issue.” And that was so striking to me. Because I was — the way I viewed the world at that point was, “I’m the smart one. You all are the dumb ones. My job is to figure out how to make you smart.” And the definition of “smart” was you thought like me.
MS. TIPPETT: Or how to make you see things my way, which is smart.
DR. PATEL: Yeah, exactly, right? And this notion of William Raspberry, who was, generally speaking, a progressive columnist was like — look, the smartest people I know choose the pro-life side and understand that there’s something else at stake. The smartest people I know are against the death penalty and understand that people who might be in favor aren’t crazy, that there’s a set of values, something at stake there.

(Patel’s comments begin at 28:26 into the unedited version of the interview; the unedited and edited interviews can be found here, along with the transcript of the edited version.)

Patel refers to a column, Our Civil Disagreement, written by Pulitzer Prize winning journalist William Raspberry (1935-2012) at the close of his long career. In that essay, which appeared in The Washington Post on 19 December 2005, Raspberry used the word “thoughtful” as opposed to “smart,“ which I would say is a small, but important difference; one does not necessarily need to smart to be able to be open to carefully listening to and considering opinions that differ from one’s own. Otherwise Patel captures well the essence of Raspberry’s wonderfully stated counterpoint to our partisan times.

The entire column is worth the time to read, and can be found here; I’ve reproduced below the portion that inspired Patel’s epiphany:

…we've come to think that producing winners and losers is the essence not just of politics but also of life. It isn't.
Making this country work for everybody is, and it would be a good thing if all of us -- journalists emphatically included -- remembered that.
What has made this a little easier for me is a discovery I've mentioned before: that in virtually every public controversy, most thoughtful people secretly believe both sides. I know I do. But the fact that I am unalterably both pro-life and pro-choice keeps me from savaging thoughtful advocates of either view. (I still retain my license to savage anyone who insists on putting horror masks on people whose opinions they don't like.)
Can it be that trying to see the other guy's side simply takes too much of our time and energy? Sometimes I suspect that the desire to savage rather than convince an opponent stems from the nagging suspicion that just maybe we are on the wrong side of the logic. I mean, if you are convinced that your position is the correct one, why wouldn't you want to examine it and explain it in a way that might win a convert or two?

One wonders what Raspberry would make of the ever more disturbing depths to which public partisanship and bickering has sunk in just the few years since his death.

Other reviews / information:

For a look at the origins of modern day partisanship, see Making American Foreign Policy, by Ole R. Holsti, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Duke University. From my review of the book (linked to here):
[Holsti] demonstrates how Vietnam sundered the Cold War consensus that had existed since WW II, and from the data he demonstrates the quite divergent and highly partisan viewpoints that have developed, and how an alignment arose between domestic and foreign policy opinion on each side of that partisan divide. He also examines the trends in opinion over the past five decades, noting that even such dramatic events as the end of the Cold War and the 9-11 attaches have not led to the development of a new consensus, and that in fact the partisan and ideological divides in politics have only become deeper.

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Historian Vincent Harding Foreshadowed --- in 2011 --- Social Conditions that Escalated to Impact the 2016 Election

In a 2011 interview on the radio program On Being hosted by Krista Tippett, historian Vincent Harding (1931-2014) identified among “the white community of America” a growing “uncertainty” over their place in an economy and society undergoing a dramatic transformation away from the America of their youth --- the era of their parents and grand-parents. He described “the anxiety, the fear, the anger” that was growing out of the disintegration resulting from these changes.

The uncertainty that he described in 2011 manifested itself at the ballot box in 2016 by playing an important role in the powerful rejection by a segment of American society of the current direction of the country, a reaction that went beyond voting for or against specific policies or plans. Though the results of the election should not be simplistically reduced to any single, isolated cause, Harding’s words do seem startlingly prescient, anticipating some of the principal conclusions being drawn in the flurry of analyses that the election outcome has unleashed.

His comments, which I have reproduced below, came in response to a question from Tippett about the changing face of hope in the United States. I have included Tippett’s specific question and Harding’s response to it as lead-in to give the context to his subsequent comments on the white community in America, which come toward the end, and which I have highlighted in italics.

The interview (“Vincent Harding --- Is America Possible?” can be found at the On Being website here. Tippett’s question and Harding’s reply can be found starting at the 59:13 mark of the unedited version of the interview. The transcript on the web-site is of the edited, final version of the interview; below I have added in the parts of his comments that did not make the cut into the edited version, showing them in [brackets].

MS. TIPPETT: I was listening to the BBC in recent weeks, and they’re watching us from afar. They were interviewing a journalist about this moment in American history, which seems very tumultuous and the question was, “Is it really more violent and more despairing than it’s been before or does this happen repeatedly?” And the comparison was made with the 1960s.

They said, look, there was a lot of social turmoil then. There were assassinations, right? I mean, many assassinations. But this journalist said — and I just want to know what you think — he said that he thought the difference between the 1960s and now was that even though there was incredible tumult and violence, it was at the very same time a period of intense hope, and people could see that they were moving towards goals. And that that’s missing now. What do you think about that analysis?

DR. HARDING: Hmm. Krista, I think that that is such a complicated kind of issue that I can only pick at it and tease it out and play with it in the best sense of play. I think that what I see now is the fact that all over this country, wherever I go, and, of course, where I go tends to be sort of self-selective because I am most often going into situations where people are operating out of a sense of hope and possibility, where in their local situations, whether it be Detroit, or Atlanta, or a campus someplace, or a church community in Philadelphia, that there are women and men and young people who are operating out of hope. [That they really believe in the possibilities that come to them from their own connection to the history of hope, as it were, and to the vision that they have of who they are and who they could be.]

My sense is that, in the ‘60s, there was probably a larger kind of canopy of hope that we could see, and we could identify, and that people could name and focus on. Now, we are in particular spots, locations, sometimes seemingly isolated. But I feel that there are points, focal situations, where that is still available and where people are operating from that.

So I think that it is not simply the matter of hope or no hope.

I have a feeling that one of the deeper transformations that’s going on now is that for the white community of America, there is this uncertainty growing about its own role, its own control, its own capacity to name the realities that it has moved into a realm of uncertainty that it did not allow itself to face before. 

[Up to now, uncertainty was the experience of the weak, the poor, the people of color, that that was our realm. But now, for all kinds of political, economic reasons, for all kinds of psychological reasons, that uncertainty, and unknowingness, is permeating what was the dominant, so-called, society. That breaking apart is for me more likely the source of the anxiety, the fear, the anger, the unwillingness to give in, the need to have something that they can hold on to and say, this is the way and it's got to be our way or we will all die.]

And I think that that’s the place that we are in, and that’s even more the reason why we’ve got to figure out what was King talking about when he was seeing the possibility of a beloved community and recognized that, maybe, for some of us, that cannot come until some of us realize that we must give up what we thought was only ours [in order for all of us to find new possibilities] in the building of a beloved nation. Can there be a beloved nation? Why don’t we try and see?

Other reviews / information:

W.E.B. Du Bois, author of the classic work of the black experience in the post-civil war era The Souls of Black Folk (my review here), had a similar comment on this in 1935.

My book reviews: FICTION Bookshelf and NON-FICTION Bookshelf