The Wall, Marlen Haushofer & Leon Boesch Sylvaner
by Kim Kent
A month ago
A while ago, almost a long time ago now, I read a novel that I quite loved about a woman living (mostly) alone in the countryside of a distant country: a place that shimmered through seasons and existed because of the narrator’s precise care, which was not care for anyone else particularly, but rather through the care she gave herself. I loved it so much that I told many people to read it, and continue to tell many people to read it, some of whom have; and some of whom have also loved it, though probably not all of them. Recently, I read another novel that I quite loved that was about a different woman living alone, though in this novel it was because the woman was the last woman on earth, and I loved it for new reasons, but also because of the way it shimmered across seasons and had about it a certain fragrance that left a haunting impression on me. So much so that I told more people about this second novel, some of whom were the same people I told about the first novel, and those people who had dutifully read the first novel, and liked it, replied: Oh, it’s the novel she’s reading in the first novel you loved and told us to read. And after each of these encounters (there were three, specific, but also overlapping instances) I nodded, despite having absolutely no memory of this novel being in that novel, but of course I did, or I felt I knew something of it, because it was a conversation I’d been having in my head for quite some time.
For a time after this occurred, I was afraid my absence of memory meant that I was a terrible reader: an idiot perhaps, who couldn’t even remember something they loved, and perhaps this is true in some ways, but perhaps it is also true that reading sometimes means giving yourself up entirely “to the buzzing, hot stillness” of the language, and what you take from a book isn’t always the detail but the impression it makes on you. To read Marlen Haushofer’s The Wall is like “gradually being absorbed” into a conversation, which is a strange thing to say about a novel that has only one human character, but what unfolds is much larger than any specific moment (though my copy is sufficiently dogeared and underlined), it’s about ways of seeing, infinite and finite as they are. It is also about solitude, and to some extent freedom, and care and the beneficiaries of that care. There is much more to say about The Wall but, like the near end of summer, I feel a sense of unease about saying too much. I suppose I want you to begin reading with a sense of premonition: we know that time passes, but how little we know about really being here in the meantime. It’s a novel that gives you time to think, perhaps about other novels you’ve read, or perhaps about how, or if, you can separate your old self from your new self after you’ve digested it. It’s a dense novel that’s full of silence: a novel that challenges you to see, or that is my hope. Either way, there is something inside The Wall already waiting for you.
There are certain novels that leave you longing, and others that leave you haunted, and still others that leave you with in-definite sorts of feelings. The Wall produced in me a “fine, steady” thirst, almost as if I was thirsting after the entire month of August. I don’t really think of any wine as gulpeable— and it would be disastrous to run out too soon— but this Domaine Léon Boesch skin-contact Sylvaner is a wine that might provoke such a need in you. It’s the color of sunshine you might spend hours lying in “trying to store it up for the long cold spell,” an orange wine that moves athletically around your mouth, gaining familiarity with each sip, and tastes like “the fragrance of summer” in a particular place: a pasture in “gentle motion,” “wild thyme and a host of herbs I didn’t know; which smelt just as good as thyme, but different” and the lingering sense of fresh cut grass soon to go to hay. It’s a wine, like this novel, that I’d like to abandon myself entirely to, or, at the very least, one I’m sure to remember for a very long time.
Marlen Haushofer was an Austrian writer, born in 1920 and died in 1970. She is most famous for her novel The Wall, which was recently reissued by New Directions press and translated by Shaun Whiteside. She is also the author of an autobiographical novel Nowhere Ending Sky that I would very much like to read. The first novel I mention in these notes is Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett who wrote an introduction to this edition of Haushofer’s novel, which I’ve yet to read for the simple fact that I was too excited, and perhaps too nervous to start.
Domaine Léon Boesch is a biodynamic winery in Alsace, France. Nestled into a valley, it looks a bit like how I imagine the villages in The Wall looked, but that is neither here nor there since it is very much there and thrumming with life. Specifically, lively wines grown, harvested, and vinified by their family of six (and the occasional helper). All wines are hand or foot pressed, and free run into the cellar for aging in old oak barrels.