A Brief Review of Walls in Literature


1. Funny Walls
When I was at school, we had a teacher called Mr Wall. When he wasn’t listening, we’d tell this joke:
(Kid mimes holding a phone.)
‘Is Mr Wall there, please?’
‘Is Mrs Wall there, please?’
‘Are there any walls there?’
‘You’d better get out because the ceiling’s about to fall down.’
This is the only joke in existence about a wall. Because walls aren’t funny.

In literature, there’s also one single funny wall and it’s in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The Mechanicals, a set of poor players, put on a production of Pyramus and Thisbe. Tom Snout plays the wall that keeps the lovers apart.
In this same interlude it doth befall
That I, one Snout by name, present a wall.
The comic possibilities of someone pretending to be a wall were lost neither on William Shakespeare nor the many thousands of English teachers obliged to stage a version of the play.
And such a wall, as I would have you think,
That had in it a crannied hole, or chink,
Through which the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe,
Did whisper often very secretly.
As a schoolboy, I saw a production about which I remember nothing other than the Wall, as played by Snout, farting in the face of Pyramus, as played by Bottom (also funny). It was a light-bulb moment: maybe Shakespeare could be something other than a dead man teachers use to bore kids.

2. Scary Walls
Gothic writing, according to Angela Carter, “retains a singular moral function–that of provoking unease.” As the genre moved from the haunted ruins of Italian castles to more domestic settings, writers like Edgar Allan Poe employed bricks and mortar to do just this. A number of his stories rely on walls. Consider “The Cask of Amontillado,” for instance. Montresor, a nasty sort, takes revenge on Fortunato for an unreported slight. The unfortunate Fortunato falls for the trick of being invited to a private wine-tasting ceremony (wouldn’t we all?), only to be first chained up and then walled away in the catacombs underneath Montresor’s palazzo. In “The Black Cat,” the protagonist’s wife, accidentally axed in the head, is walled up behind a house’s interior wall. In “The Tell Tale Heart,” it is beneath a floorboard, rather than behind a wall, that a corpse is hidden.

H.P. Lovecraft, the spiritual descendant of Poe, came up with “The Rats in the Walls,” a short story featuring rats in the walls of an ancestral home. The scurrying sound, enough to drive anyone to distraction, leads the protagonist to discover the entrance to a subterranean city in which his family have raised generations of human cattle. To eat. Unlike the character in Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator is driven mad by what lies behind the walls, rather than what covers them.

In these examples, walls screen past indiscretions. What you can’t see can’t hurt you. They obscure dark history, but only for so long, as in Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher.” Walls in literature, as well as history, have a tendency to collapse.

3. Prison Walls
We may suppose that walls are erected to keep a threat, be that a metaphorical secret or a literal danger, apart and out of sight. In Jorge Luis Borges’s “The House of Asterion,” it initially appears that the reverse is true. We’re introduced to a character of royal blood, Asterion. He tells us how he spends his days roaming the corridors of his infinite house. There are no locked doors, only endless passageways. His world is walls.

The story ends:
Would you believe it, Ariadne? The Minotaur scarcely defended himself.
The house is the Labyrinth, Asterion is the Minotaur. His walls are those of a jail. The reader understands that it sucks to be the Minotaur, especially as he gets killed and, who knows, maybe he’s not so much of a monster after all but, as my father used to say, it’s better to be safe than sorry. The Minotaur looks bad, after all.

Harvard University is transformed into a prison in Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. Prisons need walls, for, as in the story of the Minotaur, wardens tend to prefer prisoners on their side of the perimeter.

The Wall in Atwood’s story has “ugly new floodlights mounted on metal posts above it, and barbed wire along the bottom and broken glass set in concrete along the top.” Not a structure you’d fancy climbing and mildly reminiscent of English lower league football stadia.

You don’t need to have studied high-school English to mark the significance of a university converted to a prison. Citizens of Gilead are forced to attend ritual viewings of the dissidents that are hanged on the Wall.

4. Office Walls
There’s a chance that you’ve spent at least a portion of your working life gazing blankly at an office wall. In Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener,” Bartleby, the Wall Street worker who prefers not to, spends hours staring at a “dead” brick wall through his office window. The narrator describes these periods as “dead wall reveries.” When Bartleby is finally admitted to jail, he is found with “his face towards a high wall.”

Clearly, there’s something significant going on here. Bartleby begins the story walled off from his colleagues, his job the only thing with which he is able to form a connection. When even this fades, he stares at walls, symbols of urban separation in Melville’s story of capitalism’s forced individualism.

5. Biblical Walls
Let down by works of fiction, I look to The Bible because I remember that it’s full of good stories and also walls. The Walls of Jericho, felled by marching and horn blowing, is one of the most famous moments, found in Joshua 6:1–27.
Therefore he said unto Judah, Let us build these cities, and make about them walls, and towers, gates, and bars, while the land is yet before us; because we have sought the Lord our God, we have sought him, and he hath given us rest on every side. So they built and prospered. (2 Chronicles 14:7)
God loves walls. At least, according to the Old Testament, he does. I’ve been to cathedrals with fantastic walls and it’s a sin to doubt His judgment. Yet, like the notion of eternal grace in a place called Heaven, I still feel this nagging doubt. The Old Testament, like the modern world, may contain walls, but it also contains smiting.

6.Great Walls
Franz Kafka wrote about walls, most famously castle walls and bedroom walls, but in “The Great Wall of China,” written in 1917 but not published until 1931, he describes an elderly mason looking back at the piecemeal construction of the Great Wall.

Each team of builders is allocated 500 meters of wall to build over five years. When finished, they are transferred to a different region to do the same again. As they journey to their new project, they see other sections of the wall, built by other teams. This proves, therefore, the success of the project, despite there being “gaps which have never been built in at all.”

The “invaders from the North,” against whom the wall is protecting China, never invade.
When children are naughty, we hold up these pictures in front of them, and they immediately burst into tears and run into our arms.
It doesn’t matter, the construction occupies the people. And the building of the wall illustrates the power and wisdom of the Emperor, for such a huge undertaking cannot be anything but impressive.
Unity! Unity! Shoulder to shoulder, a coordinated movement of the people, their blood no longer confined in the limited circulation of the body but rolling sweetly and yet still returning through the infinite extent of China.
Fear of invasion, suggests Kafka, is a more powerful form of control than bricks and mortar.

7. Your Neighbor’s Wall
Robert Frost is no fan of walls. Or, at least, the poet-persona in “Mending Wall” isn’t. The verse describes a springtime meeting between neighbors, during which they repair the wall that divides their property. The speaker is happy for the structure to fall down.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was likely to give offence.
The neighbor isn’t persuaded. Described as “like an old-stone savage armed,” he “will not go behind his father’s saying:”
Good fences make good neighbors.
He builds a wall because we always build walls. There may be nothing to wall in or wall out, but that doesn’t matter: the wall is all.

Image courtesy of the author.

A Sense of Levitation: On Reading W.G. Sebald

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At the end of May 2015, during the first stirrings of the summer, I drove out to Bromley with my son, Dylan, in search of something to read. For some five miles, the road runs through the grey monotony of London’s southernmost suburbs, past stone-clad, semi-detached family homes, beneath drooping silver elms planted kerbside generations ago, past The Crooked Billet, now a Harvester family restaurant, once the site of wartime disaster. The large structure stands in a car park that is never more than half-full of hatchbacks, and, on a sandwich board perched half-on and half-off the path leading up the front door, the all-you-can-eat salad buffet is celebrated in garish lettering. On November 19th, 1944, the original Crooked Billet pub was destroyed when a V2 rocket struck. 27 drinkers died. I imagine them as elderly men in drab colours, leaning against the bar, knocking spent tobacco from their pipes, finishing off the dregs of Kentish pints, blinking obliviously as the silver rocket explodes. The Harvester restaurant, taking its name from its destroyed predecessor, now hosts families attracted by the promise of cheap burgers and the surf ‘n’ turf special, all sure to hold their faces above the sneeze screen at the salad bar, the Perspex roof sheltering the tired lettuce and dumb-cut onion. I once asked a teenage waiter, whose purple acne rose above his collar and across his Adam’s apple, if he knew any detail of the rocket attack. He narrowed his eyes as if I were mocking him. He cleared his throat, shook his head, took my drinks order.

W.G. Sebald was born in the same year that the V2 rocket struck this South London pub. In 1929, his father joined the Reichswehr. It was Ernest Röhm’s desire to merge his Sturmabteilung (SA) with the smaller Reichswehr, its troop numbers limited by the Treaty of Versailles, that provoked the Night of the Long Knives (1934), during which the Nazi regime murdered Röhm, the leadership of the SA, and many other political figures considered a threat to Adolf Hitler’s newly gained power. Arriving in Bromley, I parked the car, a silver Ford Escort, in the South Street car park. A row of tired trees screened the lot from the adjoining road. Having forgotten to bring change, I attempted to pay for the parking ticket using my mobile phone. A bright poster, stuck to the side of the silver parking meter, promised easy electronic payment through a variety of online media. I attempted to download the iOS app, but forgot my password. I was given three chances before my account was locked. There is an absence of technology in Sebald’s work. He wrote in a world coming to terms with the Internet. His first “novel,” After Nature, was published in 1988. His last, Austerlitz, in 2001, the year of his death. Sebald described the impact of dogs on his writing:
But I never liked doing things systematically. Not even my Ph.D. research was done systematically. It was done in a random, haphazard fashion. The more I got on, the more I felt that, really, one can find something only in that way — in the same way in which, say, a dog runs through a field. If you look at a dog following the advice of his nose, he traverses a patch of land in a completely unplottable manner. And he invariably finds what he is looking for. I think that, as I’ve always had dogs, I’ve learned from them how to do this.
His books are as strange as his analogy, as charming too. Ostensibly, they are a mixture of fiction, recollection, anecdote, and factual writing. Can we trust Sebald’s words? It doesn’t matter. The fragmented motifs, repeated images, are scattered throughout the texts and sweep you along to a conclusion, at which there magically appears sense to the whole. Verily, the field has been thoroughly sniffed out. I imagine it’s something like listening to a piece of classical music, if I were to listen to classical music. I didn’t sniff my way to Bromley Waterstones, one of the few bookshops in this, the largest of London boroughs. I used Google Maps. From the car park, we walked up South Street and turned right at the larger Tweedy Road. I thought of the album released the previous year by Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and his son. It’s an album written for Tweedy’s wife, suffering from lymphoma. I can only listen to it when happy. I don’t want my three year old to ask why Daddy is crying, not least because I would struggle to answer the question. On Tweedy Road is the old council building, a cut-price version of Wren’s Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich. There is a stone cupola over the entrance porch. The brickwork, stone quoins and window dressings stick like a fishbone in Bromley’s throat. Its appearance is out of keeping with the corporate iron and glass of the town centre’s commercial units. I try to corral Dylan to stand on the stone steps, thinking of taking a picture. He refuses, pointing to the black grill tight and padlocked across the front doors. This was once the town hall, opened in 1906. It is derelict now, put up for sale 10 years ago. Its listing states that it could be easily converted into a conference centre or split into a series of apartment units. It was Dylan who pointed out Sebald’s name in the fiction section of Bromley Waterstones. That morning, I’d seen Sebald’s name in a review of The Adventures of Sir Thomas Browne in the 21st Century.

Thomas Browne is a figure that appears in Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. He was a rural doctor and essayist in the 17th century. He invented the words “medical,” “precarious,” “insecurity,” and “hallucination.” In his writing, Browne asks questions such as ‘Did Jesus laugh?’ I’d mistakenly thought Sebald to be spelt ‘Sibald.’ I’m unsure why. Perhaps I had in mind the character Siward from Macbeth. Unable to find any of Sibald’s books, I was inured to the inevitability of disappointment. Dylan, thick hands full with his Peep Inside The Zoo not yet paid for but quickly granted as it meant ignoring books with rockets or rifles on their covers, said,



I traced my finger across book spines. Definitely no Sibald.


Dylan nodded to a book that sat facing forward, at his eye-level, positioned above a “bookseller’s selection” index card. Sebald’s books are full of such happy coincidences. This one was Austerlitz, the winner of many literary prizes, and, as with all of the man’s books, difficult to describe in a single sentence. I pulled out The Rings of Saturn and ushered my son away. Wikipedia describes this 1995 novel as “the account by a nameless narrator…on a walking tour of Suffolk.” And, when insisting friends read it, I compare its structure to clicking through a series of Wikipedia links. Sebald discusses the cultivation of silkworm, he discusses the Boxer Rebellion, he discusses Thomas Browne, he describes searching for Thomas Browne’s skull. He describes eating fish and chips in an empty coastal hotel. It’s compelling in a way that clicking through Wikipedia hyperlinks is not. It’s literary in a way that most “serious” novels aren’t, for Sebald feels no obligation to impress upon the reader his literary ability. Robert McCrum calls Sebald “a wonderful vindication of literary culture in all its subtle and entrancing complexity.” “JimtheRim,” on Amazon, gives the book a one star review, stating “I’ve never read such self-important words. It’s for pseuds. The bok is an intangible mess of nonsense.” Whatever anyone else thinks, I enjoy the time spent with Sebald, a man who insisted upon being called Max because he worried that “Winfried” sounded too much like a woman’s name.

My son fell asleep as I drove us home from Bromley. Peep Inside the Zoo fell from his fingers. Its heavy cardboard banged into the footwell and the sound made me start. It began to rain, the drops drumming against the car’s roof. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading The Rings of Saturn, a couple of days later, that I Googled Sebald and read of his life. He died aged 57. His car, a Peugeot 306, collided with a lorry while negotiating a left-hand bend. His daughter, Anna, was a passenger. She survived the crash with minor injuries. Her father did not. The Norfolk coroner reported that Sebald probably died from an aneurysm before his car struck the oncoming lorry. I felt a strange dissonance on reading all this. Did I remember his death being reported? Had I read of it subsequently? I think the reason for the almost uncanny (unheimlich in German, meaning “un-homely”) sensation is that I’d never read a book so full of life as The Rings of Saturn. It felt a cosmic injustice that a writer who’d invested so much soul in his writing should die so young. Thomas Browne, living in the 17th century, when doctors (such as Browne himself) were as likely to kill you as heal you, lived until 77. I am reminded of Abraham Lincoln, whose death, some say, was aided by the unsterilized fingers of “surgeons” attempting to extract the assassin’s bullet from the president’s brain. I clicked from Wikipedia to Amazon and I bought the rest of W.G. Sebald’s novels. Much as when Netflix releases an entire series of episodes at once, I am resisting the temptation to read Sebald’s books all the way through, pausing only to eat, sleep, and visit the toilet. As long as there remains a sentence, a word, unread Sebald must remain alive. To me, at least. In The Rings of Saturn, Sebald describes how the reader of Browne “is overcome by a sense of levitation.” The same can be said of the reader of Sebald.