Marlen Haushofer: Die Mansarde (The Loft)
The unnamed narrator of this novel is married to a fifty-two year old man called Hubert (the same name as the late husband of Annette in Die Tapetentür (The Jib Door)). They have two children – the fifteen-year old Ilse, who lives at home, and the twenty-one year old Ferdinand who lives in rented accommodation. His paternal grandmother left all her money to Ferdinand (and none to Ilse) and her house to Hubert, thus enabling Ferdinand to live on his own. He still visits regularly but enjoys the independence of living alone.
The couple have few friends – mainly acquaintances, in fact – and have not been to the cinema for seven months, as the narrator does not like the large faces staring down at her from the screen. Nor do they go to restaurants. Indeed, they say that everyone is a stranger for them. If they do go out it is for a walk, to go to the Arsenal and primarily to the Museum of Military History. The reason for this is Hubert is something of an obsessive reader of books about battles fought by German-speaking nations and frequently feels that he could have done a better job than the general commanding. Though they do regularly meet up with Ferdinand, they seem to have virtually no contact with Ilse, even though she lives in the same house as them. Part of this may be because both of them were only children and, indeed, did not get on too well with their own parents.
Our narrator, however, does not share Hubert’s interest. She used to be a book illustrator and, though she no longer works at it, as Hubert does not want his wife to work, she is still a keen drawer and painter. The loft of the title is where she goes to paint and draw. It is her private preserve. Hubert rarely comes up and when he does it is only by invitation, something that is very rare. She passes many hours drawing. She prefers to draw animals, though only insects, birds, fish and reptiles, but not mammals and not humans. She struggles with birds. While she feels that she does a good job, she often feels that the bird she paints is unique, i.e. is not exactly like other birds of that species.
Something happened in our narrator’s past which has left her somewhat fearful. What we do know is that her parents both died young (of tuberculosis) and she was brought up by her aunt and her grandfather, both now dead. Both Hubert and she each have one distant relative whom they have no contact with, except the occasional card.
A key event in her life happened sometime after Ferdinand was born. For no apparent reason, she suddenly became deaf. Doctors could find no physiological cause for her deafness and attributed it to psychosomatic reasons. It was decided that she would live in her late father-in-law’s country hut, on her own, cared for only by a man called The Hunter. (The hut and ambience are very reminiscent of the lodge in Die Wand (The Wall).) While there she kept a diary, which she thought she had destroyed.
One day, in the present, she receives a large envelope. Inside it are some of the pages of this diary. She will continue to receive them on a daily basis. She does not tell Hubert but, in the evening, while Hubert is watching TV or reading, she goes up to the loft to read them. She wonders who is sending them and, more particularly, why. She soon works it out and, eventually, we find out as well. At the hut, she communicates with the Hunter only by each writing on scraps of paper. Being both cut off from the world – neither she nor Hubert seem eager for her to return and Ferdinand is being looked after by Hubert’s mother – and being deaf, she lives in a little world of her own. She spends some time reading about the rise and fall of the Roman Empire and realises that she is far more interested in the Roman Empire than in her husband or son. We follow her activities such as walking, doing some illustrations for books, doing crossword puzzles, meeting a man who lives nearby whom she calls only X and her eventual recovery and return to Hubert and Ferdinand.
In the present time, she also struggles with people. She has two people she meets regularly, yet she seems quite fearful of them. The first is the Baroness, a dominating woman. They got to know each other in the air-raid shelter during the war. It is the narrator who visits the Baroness, a regular visit which she does not relish. Die Baronin war wenigstens ein Schrecken, an den ich mich gewöhnt hatte. Besser jeder alte Schrecken als das Neue, Unbekannte. [The Baroness was at least a horror that I was used to. Better that old horror than a new, unknown one.] The Baroness tells the narrator that men are to blame for everything. She has never forgiven her husband for being killed in the war without forewarning her. The other woman, known only as The Dear Lady, she met in the maternity hospital when she was giving birth to Ilse. The Dear Lady seems very nice but the narrator feels patronised. The Dear Lady always visits her.
Indeed, all her relationships can be seen as difficult and even troublesome. Even of Hubert, she says Für mich ist er richtig. Er ist da und doch nicht ganz da, und er kommt mir nie zu nahe. [He is right for me. He is there and yet not quite there and he never comes to close to me.] She even adds Ich weiß wenig über Hubert, und das wenige ist schon zuviel. [I know little about Hubert and the little that I do know is too much]
As in Haushofer’s other books, the female protagonist, while on the face of it apparently quite normal, is really cut off from the world. Indeed, she lives in her own little world, with its own little rules but it is a world in which she is not particularly happy. There is an element of fear that she struggles with and finds it difficult to cope with, even if this fear is not always rational. Outwardly conventional – seemingly happily married with two children and a bourgeois house and household – inwardly there is this strong feeling that the world and she do not coincide. I hate to call it Kafkaesque but there is certainly an element of her fellow Austrian in this work. Overall, there is no question that, like her other major works, this is a first-class very twentieth century novel about angst and not fitting in with the word around you. Fortunately, it is still in print in the UK and readily available in the US.
First published in German 1969 by Claassen
First English translation 2008 by Serbian Classics Press
Translated by Amanda Prantera