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Sunday 20 July 2014

The Loft by Marlen Haushofer

The Loft is the second book I’ve read by Marlen Haushofer, a largely unknown but brilliant Austrian writer. Haushofer has three books translated to English: The Wall (which I highly recommend), Nowhere Ending Sky (which I’m getting around to) and The Loft. The Wall is a sturdier work, perhaps a more traditional narrative, whereas The Loft leaves a lot more unsaid. Consequently it is more ephemeral, in some respects frustrating, but a highly powered work.

Little happens in The Loft. The story revolves around a week in the life of an unnamed woman and her regular suburban life, her little arguments with her husband Hubert and her curiously distant relationship with her children Ferdinand and Ilse, as well as other peripheral characters. “From our bedroom window we can see a tree that we never seem able to agree about.” the narrator begins, and on this simple detail a stifling, unsettling story unfolds.  It becomes apparent very quickly that there is something not quite right in this little world. Haushofer creates a sense of emotional detachment, that our narrator is simply going through the motions in her daily routine and so are the people around her. That what they are doing are no more than actions, a playing of roles, and that by doing this all participants avoid addressing something true or meaningful between them. The narrator speaks without attachment to any of the members of her family or her acquaintances except, perhaps, when speaking about her dead father-in-law, the original Ferdinand, who seems to be the only person she genuinely cares for. This strange lack of affection seems mirrored in the only activity she undertakes with any seriousness: “My aim is to draw a bird that is not the only bird in the world. By this I mean that anyone looking at it must grasp this fact straight away. To date I have never achieved this and I doubt I ever shall.” It seems that she sees herself as the only bird in the world, and no matter how she tries she shall never feel like she is a part of something. 

The reason for this strange detachment is hidden, though the narrator hints at a lonely childhood and an unsettling event in her own history shortly after Ferdinand was born. At some point she became inexplicably deaf, and because of this deafness her husband Hubert sent her away, to live by herself in the woods with only an unpleasant gamekeeper for company. This terrible event in her history is brought back into focus by the strange delivery of extracts of her diary from that period which appear in her letterbox daily, unsettling her routine. Each day she takes herself to her loft, a place which is her own, and reads these extracts, burning them after reading them in the hope of their destruction. Through her confrontation of her diary entries, coupled with her musings on her day to day life, a palpable sense of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ are created, in which ‘before’ was childlike and suffused with love and ‘after’ was nothing more than dead routine, an empty shell-like existence without meaning or feeling.

Haushofer presents a stifling picture of this woman’s daily existence. Living without sympathy and hiding from a terrible event in her own history which neither she nor those around her can seem to confront. It is hard not to see this story as a metaphor for the annexation of Austria, the Anschluss, during the war, the sense of isolation and ongoing guilt. The sudden, unexpected deafness. the unpleasant gamekeeper and a strange man in the woods who shouts terrible things at her because she can’t hear them. Meanwhile her husband Hubert, her son Ferdinand about whom she seems to care intensely, are left in the clutches of her mother-in-law, a soulless woman who never approved of their marriage (representing Europe, perhaps?). Once you start to see this connection, it crops up everywhere in the little, seemingly unimportant, details of her musings. Like here, when she reflects upon her dark dreams:

“Ten years ago, for example, I dreamed I was in a wide open landscape like a park in which big glass tanks were arranged, full of water. In them say mermaids and mermen playing on harps and flutes. I couldn’t hear through the glass what they were playing but I knew it was the true music, not destined for the human ear. Their scaly tails shone like mother of pearl, and their long flowing hair floated on the surface of the water. They were beautiful. I stood and watched them in breathless rapture, but then suddenly I knew I wasn’t meant to be there with those creatures. It grew dark and a voice said: ‘They have abandoned us; it is the end of the world.’”

Whether or not The Loft is a metaphor for the war, it is an interesting meditation on the strangeness of human existence and the danger of hiding from a truth that seems to define us. At times the narrator can be frustrating, as her avoidance of the truth in her life seems measured and deliberate and it is hard to understand how she can want to live that way. Yet there is a sense that somehow this is the only way that she can live. As she explains: “But what are you to do when you aren’t dead but only dead-apparent? The obvious answer is just to reoccupy the place you left vacant, but this doesn’t really work either.”

Fortunately there remains a sense of redemption, a long slow and painful recovery that is taken in small, almost meaningless steps. And whilst the story is told in a seemingly pedestrian manner, and whilst there is as much time spent hiding from and avoiding the truth as uncovering it, this is a remarkably powerful work that could too easily, on superficial reading, be dismissed as a slow, domestic drama. But it is far more than this, and I find myself impressed (again) by Haushofer’s skill in weaving such an intense and difficult subject-matter into the story of a woman doing her domestic chores and drawing little pictures of birds trying not to seem lonely in a loft.

The Loft receives a drawn-out 9 out of 10 Biis. 

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