Quartet Books £12
Review: Nowhere Ending Sky, By Marien Haushofer
Growing up to realise that reality can fail the beauty of imagination
Saturday 15 June 2013
The pleasingly rhythmic title of this novel comes from the central character's view, aged two, of the sky from inside a rain butt: "A deep blue alleyway that ends nowhere." Her name is Meta, she is growing up in rural Austria in the 1920s, and she has been placed in the rain butt as a punishment. This is an ideal place to begin her quest to observe the world. "The world is one big muddle that she has somehow to put in order." But it is not at all easy: Meta must battle against her own childish enthusiasm ("things can't stand up to too much love, so how can you express what you feel without destroying them?"), and against adults, whose views of the world are faded and obscured by experience.
Nowhere Ending Sky is largely plotless but full of incident. It is the story of a child growing and learning: learning not just facts but also how adults move in the world. Meta encounters aunts and uncles, workers and visitors, though her most direct influences are her parents, with their contrasting approaches. Her mother is orderly, her father more mischievous. When he tries a crossword puzzle, he invents words to fill in the answers he doesn't know. "A strange, secret world emerges under the touch of Father's slim brown fingers – a utopian construction that Mama later gets to work on furiously with an India rubber and brings back to the status of an ordinary, tidy crossword puzzle."
Despite the setting, there is only the faintest hint of history here: the Nazis are a shadow on the horizon. Instead, the details of Meta's story are those of all our younger lives: new school, pets, the surprise of a sibling. She discovers, painfully and repeatedly, how reality fails to live up to the beauty of her imagination, and the novelist's experience of this shows as Meta struggles to put a story she has dreamed up into writing. "All the things that were so vivid and radiant in her head have turned flat and grey on the paper. All she has really done is to murder a lovely living story with her pencil."
In fact, one of Marlen Haushofer's strengths is her uncanny ability not to reduce things when putting them into words. There is an ebullience, elegance and restless excitement to Meta's story, which means the real struggle to render faithfully is the reviewer's. Until recently, the only Haushofer novel available in English was her feminist dystopian classic, The Wall (reissued this month). The novelist Amanda Prantera has translated two more of her novels – first The Loft and now Nowhere Ending Sky – and we must hope that she continues to bring her lightness of touch to Haushofer's work.
As Meta grows through the story, she loses innocence and offers a face to the world as she clutches her true feelings to herself. "Big people always hide more than they reveal with their words. The truth is only to be found in those little gaps between sentences, where silence falls." Returning from school, Meta is horrified by the recognition that "there is no going back to Mama's lap". As the book ends, the tone is simultaneously of hope and loss, bringing to mind the final lines of Larkin's "High Windows" which so strongly resemble Haushofer's title: "And beyond it, the deep blue air, that shows/ Nothing, and is nowhere, and is endless."
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