Living Houses. ‘Post-fantastic’ variations on a literary topos in Cortázar, Vian, Aichinger and Ballard

Usually, houses are not ‘alive,’ they are ‘lived in.’ As a space for human habitation they are “a receptacle to shelter chattels and living beings” (Aristotle), and denote an ‘enclosed’ area shielding an interior from a potentially inimical exterior (Heidegger; Baecker). Out of the vastness of the world, its walls carve out the space of the private and thus open up a “space of security” separated from the external “space of threat” (Bollnow), a place of “shelter” that evokes “images of protected intimacy” (Bachelard).

However, literary history offers prominent counterexamples in which the protective function of the house reverts into its opposite. Narratives of the uncanny undermine the idea of intimacy and security: They demonstrate how the supposedly protected and protecting space of the house is radically unsettled―often by depicting the house as haunted by a ghost, possessed, or in some other way animate. From the 19th century on, the haunted house not only becomes a common setting for fantastic fiction; as a (bourgeois) continuation of the old gothic novel motif of the haunted castle, the uncanny house also increasingly establishes itself as a popular model of fantastic literature. The narrative texts from the middle of the 20th century, which this project examines, address the topos of the uncannily animated house of fantastic literature but breathe an entirely different life into them. The seemingly organic housing in Boris Vians’ L‘Écume des jours (1947) withers away in a slow process of decay, which results in the shrinking of the rooms, eventually forcing its inhabitants to abandon the premises. Similarly, in Julio Cortázar’s “Casa tomada” (1946) and Ilse Aichinger’s “Wo ich wohne” (1955), the houses actively intervene in the unfolding of the plot by changing their size and position, respectively. In the fictional world outlined by J. G. Ballard in “The Thousand Dreams of Stellavista” (1962), “psychotropic houses” even represent the current architectural standard.

Like their predecessors in the fantastic tradition, the houses depicted by Cortázar, Vian, Aichinger, and Ballard evince a life of their own that contradicts the rules of reason. In contrast to the “hackneyed model of the haunted house” (Cortázar), however, there is nothing ‘fantastic’ about them in the sense of the supernatural, at most something odd or unusual. They do not make the reader shiver or doubt but explore an extended and disconcerting understanding of reality that programmatically “turns against furnishing oneself thoughtlessly in the habitual” (Eggers). Analogous to Cortázar’s understanding of the fantastic as a “working hypothesis,” I propose the ‘post-fantastic’ as both a collective and a search term capable of covering all those narrative designs that, on the one hand, overtly build on the foundations of the traditional fantastic, but, on the other hand, modify its worn out models by exhibiting and reflecting on their own literary filiation by means of metafictional and self-referential strategies. For what ‘comes to life’ here in the end, I argue, is nothing but the ‘architecture’ of the (fantastic) narrative itself.

ZfL-Promotionsstipendium 2017–2021
Head researcher(s): Lena Abraham
Associate Researcher(s): Lena Abraham


Lena Abraham, Kira Jürjens, Edith Anna Kunz, Elias Zimmermann (ed./eds.)

Fenster – Korridor – Treppe
Architektonische Wahrnehmungsdispositive in der Literatur und in den Künsten

Aisthesis Verlag, Bielefeld 2019, 220 pages
ISBN 978-3-8498-1317-8

Lena Abraham

  • Die Unheimlichkeit des Erzählens in dieser Zeit. Zu Ilse Aichingers poetischer Standortbestimmung in “Wo ich wohne” (1963), in: Peter Weiss Jahrbuch für Literatur, Kunst und Politik im 20. und 21. Jahrhundert 30 (2021), focus: Antworten auf die sogenannte “Krise des Erzählens” um 1960, ed. by Arnd Beise, Michael Hofmann (forthcoming 2021)
  • Fenster, in: Birgit Erdle, Annegret Pelz (eds.): Ilse Aichinger Wörterbuch, anlässlich des 100. Geburtstags Ilse Aichingers. Göttingen: Wallstein 2021, 99–102 (in print)
  • Review of: David Klein: Medienphantastik. Phantastische Literatur im Zeichen medialer Selbstreflexion bei Jorge Luis Borges und Julio Cortázar, Tübingen: Narr 2015, in: Romanische Forschungen 133.1 (2021), 114–119 (forthcoming 2021)
  • Del andrógino al siamés. Mito, cuerpo y arquitectura en “Laura y Julio” (2006) de Juan José Millás, in: Berit Callsen, Angelika Groß (eds.): Cuerpos en oposición, cuerpos en composición. Representaciones de corporalidad en la literatura y cultura hispánicas actuales. Madrid, Frankfurt a.M.: Iberoamericana Vervuert 2020, 91–107
  • Narrar (sobre) abismos. De puentes y poéticas en “Rayuela” de Julio Cortázar y ‘El túnel’ de Ernesto Sábato, in: Romanische Forschungen 132.2 (2020), 174–192
  • Sábatos Sartre oder Die bedeutsame Funktion der Architektur in Sábatos “El túnel,” in: Lena Abraham, Kira Jürjens, Edith A. Kunz, Elias Zimmermann (eds.): Fenster – Korridor - Treppe. Architektonische Wahrnehmungsdispositive in der Literatur und in den Künsten. Bielefeld: Aisthesis 2019, 19–34
  • “Schloss – Nest – Glashaus. Erzählen als natürliche Erneuerung in Adalbert Stifters “Die Narrenburg” (1842/44), in: Gerhard Neumann, Julia Weber (eds.): Lebens- und Liebesarchitekturen. Erzählen am Leitfaden der Architektur. Freiburg i.Br.: Rombach 2016, 241–265


16 Nov 2018 · 11.00 am

Lena Abraham: Del andrógino al siamés. Mito, cuerpo y arquitectura en »Laura y Julio« (2006) de Juan José Millás

Universität Osnabrück

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27 Apr 2018 · 5.25 pm

Lena Abraham: Poetics of Pending in F. Hernández's »The Balcony«

University of Glasgow

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Workshop at the FU Berlin
06 Jul 2017 · 9.30 am

Das Eigenleben der Dinge. Beseelung und Belebtheit bei Felisberto Hernández

FU Berlin, Habelschwerdter Allee 45 / Fabeckstraße 23-25, Holzlaube, Raum 2.2051

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Media Response

17 Jun 2020
Fenster – Korridor – Treppen. Architektonische Wahrnehmungsdispositive in der Literatur und in den Künsten

Review by Ross Lipton, in: Monatshefte Vol. 112, 1 (2020), 150152

02 Jan 2020
Fenster – Korridor – Treppe. Architektonische Wahrnehmungsdispositive in der Literatur und in den Künsten

Review by Susanne Hauser, in: Zeitschrift für Germanistik, New series XXX (2020), 277–279