Marlen Haushofer: Die Tapetentür (The Jib Door)
I have to admit that when I saw the title of this novel, I had no idea what a Tapetentür or jib door was. It turns out that it is one of those doors in stately homes or palaces which are used as a service entrance or access to a storage area but which are disguised in such a way that they do not look like a door. The use in this book becomes clear towards the end of the book. As an aside, I wonder what the Viennese psychiatrists would make of the titles of three of Haushofer’s best-known novels, namely The Jib Door, The Wall and The Loft?
The novel is about Annette, a thirty-year old librarian who lives in Vienna. She was married to Hubert for a year but he died. She can barely remember his face or the date he died. She is currently dating Alexander but she is getting a bit tired of him. He is always late for appointments with her, though this is not necessarily a bad thing, as it gives her more time to be on her own. When he does come, he talks incessantly about himself and, in particular, about how indispensable he is at the institute where he works. So when he arrives – late again – at the restaurant where they are to meet and tells her that he bas been sent on exchange programme for six months with an institute in Paris, she is certainly not disappointed. Indeed, she is rather glad.
The novel is told in the form of her diary entries and in a third person narrative. In the early part of the book, she thinks about her job as a librarian and the people she meets in the library. She thinks about her father who left twenty-three years ago and went off to South America. She thinks about love. Many of us are in love with love, she thinks, while for others it is just something that they have to do, though they would rather be fixing cars or collecting stamps. The former, of course, are primarily women and the latter primarily men. She has had other boyfriends in the past but one day they disappeared (she uses that word) and she breathed a sigh of relief when they did.
Annette enjoys being on her own. She likes nothing better than going to the café in the morning, having a coffee and croissant, talking to no-one except the waiter, and enjoying a quite smoke while reading the paper. She has a friend, Martha, a little bit younger than her. Martha used to be pretty and vivacious. She is now married with three children, living in a two-bedroom flat. When Annette goes and visits her, she looks haggard and tired. Martha does not envy her. Indeed, she is generally content with her life. When she is offered a better-paid job, she turns it down, because the boss is more hands-on in this new job and she is happy in her current job, as she is entirely independent.
However, gradually, she starts having niggling doubts about being on her own. She has as friends a couple and she is quite surprised to see how attentive the man is to his wife who, in Annette’s eyes, is quite an ordinary woman. Early in the book, we learned that her father had left her mother when Annette was a child and gone to South America. Her mother had died not long after and Annette had been brought up by an aunt and uncle. The aunt had since died. She had received a letter about her father’s death and has to go to the lawyer’s office to sort out what is a very meagre inheritance. The lawyer is Gregor Xanther. She does not take to him.
Gregor seems to find reasons for summoning her back to his office to sign papers and so on. Gradually, we find out that they have a relationship. Gregor, we learn, has also been married before but declines to talk about the marriage. However, they do later come across his ex-wife with her new husband at the theatre. The meeting does not go well. Without her telling us too much about it, Gregor and Annette become closer and, eventually, she gets pregnant. She moves into his flat, letting her friend Meta take over her flat, despite the fact that Meta states that she does not like Gregor. The period of Annette’s pregnancy shows, not surprisingly, a huge change in Annette. She realises that it is impossible to be a mother and be free. She is not, as she states on more than one occasion, the woman she used to be. She becomes more dependent on Gregor, more needy. He is often out late at work. She gets worried. There is one key passage lasting many pages when he has warned her that he will be very late, as he has to entertain clients, and she sits and waits for him, agonising about whether he is having an affair, when he will come back, how she can occupy herself without him. She also finds, unlike with her other men, that she does not feel maternal towards him.
Quite a few of her diary entries are about the differences between men and women and in particular between her and Gregor. Women do not like men’s jokes. Gregor sees their flat as a place to sleep and to invite guests to, while, for her, it is a place of refuge. Moreover, he keeps it immaculately tidy. It does not seem to her lived in. Gregor seems to live only in the present and never seems to reminisce about the past, as she does. Gregor is very focussed on what he is doing at the time. She mentions a couple of examples of this. One morning, he is leaving for work. She kisses him goodbye and then rushes to he window to see him leave, hoping that he will wave to her. But he is already focussed on getting to work and does not wave. She is very disappointed. A couple of times she has bumped into him at a restaurant at lunch-time – he tends to try different restaurants – but found him a very different person from the Gregor she knows at home and she is indeed uncomfortable with this Gregor. There is one telling remark she makes about what she calls the awkwardness of men (she uses the lovely German word Tolpatschigkeit), which she claims hides etwas Entsetzliches und Unmenschliches, ein Nichtinteressiertsein am organischen Leben [something terrible and inhuman, lack of interest in the organic life]. In particular, as she says, women love differently from men.
This a first-class novel from Haushofer, about the psychology of a woman and the different psychological make-up of men and women. Whether you agree with her assessment or not – and it is clear that sometimes she is merely talking abut Annette and Gregor and sometimes generalising about men and women – her candid views, the way Annette changes as she passes thirty, the way Annette varies in her views, sometimes welcoming solitude, sometimes being concerned at being alone and, of course, the big change in Annette when she becomes pregnant and moves in with Gregor make very much for a fascinating novel about a subject which will continue to be one that preoccupies novelists for many years to come.
First published in German 1957 by Paul Zsolnay Verlag
First English translation 1998 by Ariadne Press
Translated by Jerome Carlton Samuelson