A Whole Life

a whole life

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler arrives on the Man Booker International Prize long list in a rather unusual position. Seethaler himself is largely unknown, but his novel had been a best seller in Germany (presumably it was also a best seller in his native Austria as well, but that somehow sounds less impressive) and already seems to be something of a commercial success here (I base this on Waterstones’ promotion, and the fact that someone in my book group has already suggested it as our next book). In all this, it has something in common with another German-language novel from last year, Look Who’s Back, though I think it’s fair to say Seethaler is not trying to be funny.

A Whole Life is the story of Andreas Egger, a taciturn, morose individual who lives in a small village in the mountains:

“As a child Andreas Egger had never shouted or cheered. He didn’t even really talk until his first year at school.”

To be fair, Egger’s childhood is nothing to shout (or cheer) about: when his mother dies the “about four years old” Egger is sent to live with a relative who regularly beats him with a hazel rod. One particular beating leaves him with a broken thigh, and, although it is set, the injury causes him to limp thereafter. Despite his limp, Egger is strong:

“He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.”

Soon he gets a job with a company building the infrastructure needed to run cable cars across the mountains. Egger’s story is also that of the twentieth century and the cable cars represent the arrival of technology in the rural setting. Despite Egger’s employment, they are portrayed rather negatively in the novel, with the phrase “a scar through the forest” being used more than once. They are also possibly complicit in the saddest event in Egger’s life (which I won’t mention, there being such little plot in this novel it would seem a shame to reveal one of the most affecting scenes). When war breaks out, the company begin to make armaments instead; Egger, meanwhile, uses his expertise on the Eastern Front, spending eight years in a Russian prisoner of war camp as a result. When Egger returns from the prison camp, he finds a new occupation as a mountain guide: now tourism, rather than farming, provides the village’s income.

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Unsurprisingly, given the novel’s title, it begins and ends with death. It opens with Egger’s attempt to rescue a goatherd from a snowstorm in the mountains. Suddenly the goatherd runs away from him and into the storm:

“Stop, you stupid fool! No one has ever outrun Death!”

At the end, the memory returns to him:

“’Not just yet,’ he said quietly; and winter settled over the valley.”

Egger feels his own life is “without regret” and there is a temptation to think of this book as an account of a simple life from simpler times; one rooted in place, finding contentment in the ordinary. However, this seems a very superficial reading: there is little evidence, for example, that Eggers is content, though it might be true to say that he lacks the imagination to be miserable. When, in later life, he has a chance of companionship with the school teacher, Anna, he rejects it:

“He wasn’t able to overcome his inhibitions. He had lain there motionless, as if nailed to the spot…”

When he hears Anna crying, he leaves. Surely there should be something to regret about a life lived almost entirely alone?

His positive qualities as a worker also need more closely examined as they seem to largely consist of working hard for little reward and not complaining. Seethaler does not disguise his working conditions: at one point, felling pines in the forest, a work-mate loses an arm due to “bad luck”. And, of course, there’s the eight year of his life he spends imprisoned thanks to a madman’s war (though they take up only a few pages of the novel).

Perhaps, then, I underestimate Seethaler when I say he isn’t trying to be funny: Egger’s lack of regrets seems to be a very dark joke indeed, as does the fact that some readers are under the impression that the novel contains ‘wisdom’, presumably referring to such aphorisms as “It’ll sort itself out, like everything in life” and “The old die making way for the new. That’s how it is and how it’ll always be!” Even the novel’s length seems a joke at Egger’s expense.

Whether A Whole Life will make it onto the short list is difficult to say. I suspect it will be a book which warms some and leaves others cold, as befitting a novel where its unremarkable ordinariness is both its selling point and flaw.

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17 Responses to “A Whole Life”

  1. Man Booker International Prize 2016 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life […]

  2. Pat Says:

    Hi I read this last year in French after Actes Sud published it, A simple book I enjoyed but I certainly would not have expected to see it as a favourite here. https://patpalbooks.wordpress.com/2015/11/11/robert-seethaler-a-whole-life/

    Pat

    • 1streading Says:

      Thanks – I had a quick look at your review. You’re right, the novel shows how much life has changed, though in my eyes most of these changes seem for the better!

  3. JacquiWine Says:

    Interesting. Up until this weekend I’d heard nothing but positive reports of this book, but then I read Caroline’s review (she wasn’t too keen on it either). I actually have a copy, so I’m quite tempted to read it fairly soon just to see how I take to it.

    • 1streading Says:

      I’d be really interested to hear what you think – it’s a short book so it won’t delay your other reading plans much!

      • JacquiWine Says:

        Just dropping back with some very belated comments on this novella as I read it a couple of months ago.

        Like you, I had a few problems with it. To tell you the truth, I really disliked the opening sections on Egger’s childhood, but I kind of warmed to the novella (and the central character) towards the end. That said, a piece of literature it’s fairly slight, so much so that I still feel a bit puzzled by the book’s success. (It’s brevity and conciseness?)

        A very close friend (a compassionate reader whose opinions I respect a great deal) loved it. She’s been away for most of the last couple of months, so once she gets back I’m going to ask her about it in the hope of discovering what she liked. I know she found it very moving, but I’d like to understand why.

      • 1streading Says:

        Yes, like you I just didn’t understand why some people love the book so much. It’s not a terrible book, but doesn’t seem to me deserving of some of the praise which it’s received – I’m a little worried it’s down to some kind of misguided idealism where a life completely isolated, and with little control of your destiny, is fine as long as you have a beautiful mountain to look at!

      • JacquiWine Says:

        That’s an interesting (and somewhat worrying) thought. The landscape is clearly very beautiful, but it doesn’t seem enough to constitute a fulfilling life. I suspect some readers liked what the book was trying to say about the value of an ordinary, solitary life. I felt sorry for the central character and he had my sympathy, especially in the second half of the story. That said, the book still felt rather thin and lacking in insight. I’m curious to hear another perspective from my friend.

  4. Caroline Says:

    The longer I think about this, the less I like it. I’m not sure why you call Seethaker largely unknown. He writes one bestselling novel after the other. You meant in the English speaking world? All of his other books would have been worthier of translation, I think. I was glad to see that some German language newspapers really didn’t like the, going as far as calling it a book for sadists.

    • 1streading Says:

      I meant in English – in the context of translation Prizes, which often divide between those few foreign language authors well known in the English-speaking world and books which sell limited numbers and are often hard to come by!
      Like you, my dislike of it has increased rather than mellowed – I love the ‘book for sadists’ quote!

  5. 2016 Man Booker International Longlist | ANZ LitLovers LitBlog Says:

    […] Grant’s at 1st Reading […]

  6. Man Booker International Prize Shortlist | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Seethaler (Austria) Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life […]

  7. Hill | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Jungfrau, as a result of a discussion surrounding the latter’s dislike of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life, suggested reading Jean Giono’s Hill, recently published by New York Review of Books in a new […]

  8. Claire 'Word by Word' Says:

    A great review and an interesting discussion! It’s certainly a rather melancholic, elegiac novella and I even go so far as to call it a tribute to those who never go anywhere, nor have the desire to, people who are often derided (don’t own a passport – have never left their own country etc) but Seethaler gives this character who has a strong affinity to his adopted mountainous home, a worthiness, and shows him to be as naturally connected to that place as the snow is to the mountain. Definitely appeals to a certain type of reader though.

    • 1streading Says:

      Sadly, I was not that reader. Felt the years he spent away were rather glossed over for one thing. I liked the time when he was working – felt that really showed ordinary life – but later he seemed to simply avoid others.

  9. A Simple Heart | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] story, as its title suggests, has echoes of recent bestseller, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Felicite leads a simple life, one in which she becomes increasingly solitary, yet is never shown […]

  10. War and Turpentine | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] living a very ordinary life. For some this is a reason for rejoicing (see also Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life) but I feel, instead, despair at a life stunted by lack of opportunity. (It also, as with […]

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