Lines and Circles: On Marlen Haushofer’s “The Wall” and Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”

Lines and Circles: On Marlen Haushofer’s “The Wall” and Esther Kinsky’s “Grove”

AN OLD tells of a hypothetical traveler lost in a forest who must decide what to do next. The narrator opines that such a person “should not wander turning this way and that, nor, worse still, stop in one place, but should always walk in as straight a line as they can.” By doing so, the storyteller says, “even if [the wayward traveler is] not going exactly where they wish, at least they will eventually arrive somewhere where they will probably be better off than in the middle of a forest.” As it turns out, our storyteller is a philosopher—the first “modern” one, by many accounts—named René Descartes, and his story is really an analogy from his 1637 text Discourse on Method . In fact, as Jacques Derrida, Robert Pogue Harrison, and others have explored, it's the analogy he chooses for “method” itself—a word that is as much concerned with what to do as with how to decide what to do in the first place. It's a word that comes from two Greek ones, meta and hodos , which together mean to be “on a path.” It is fitting that a natural wilderness is Descartes's chosen metaphor for the necessity of deciding upon “next steps,” and it's probably not pure coincidence that two works of modern German have taken up a similar metaphorical framework to tell stories that, in many respects, begin where Descartes's leaves off. The novels in question are masterfully narrated from the perspectives of unnamed female protagonists who, in different but interestingly resonant ways, suddenly find themselves on the outside of an old, familiar world and inside a new one. This is literally the case in The Wall [ Die Wand ], penned by Austrian writer Marlen Haushofer in the 1960s and published last year by New Directions press in an English translation by Shaun Whiteside. The story begins when the narrator, while visiting her cousin in the mountains of Upper Austria, awakens to discover that an invisible, impenetrable barrier has inexplicably appeared overnight in a random configuration around the surrounding landscape, confining […]

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