Posted by: Lisa Hill | January 15, 2018

A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins #BookReview

A Whole Life is an unusual book to be an international bestseller.  It’s a very quiet book, a kind of elegy for a very quiet, solitary man.  I’ve seen it compared somewhere to Stoner by John Williams but although their principal characters share the same stoicism there isn’t the same sense of a life subordinate to self-sacrifice.  Stoner, a college professor, gives up the love of his life because in America at that time divorce would have destroyed not only his career but also hers – and that sacrifice would change them both in ways that would harm their love.  But (without in any way diminishing the integrity of either character), it seems to me that in A Whole Life Andreas Eggar is more of an Everyman.  He leads a much more humble life, he has very few choices, and he loses the love of his life through a natural disaster not through any noble self-sacrifice.  Seethaler’s novella is more about the quiet heroism of an ordinary man just getting by in a world that doesn’t care about him at all.  He represents any man who somehow survives an awful childhood without having his spirit broken, who plods through schooling that’s irrelevant to his needs and then drifts through low-paid casual work, and who serves his country in a war he doesn’t understand and is then punished for being on the losing side.  And he doesn’t even have the joys of family life because of the way fate served him.

A Whole Life starts in 1933, a date that many of us associate with Hitler’s rise to power, but the remote mountains of Austria are far away from the shrieking demagogue.  The village where Eggars arrived as a child in 1902 was still farming by hand with axe and scythe, and cars and tractors have not yet replaced the horse and cart.  The story begins with a curious episode that juxtaposes Death and Love on a day that Eggars will never forget.  He was rescuing a near-comatose goatherd from a lonely death on the mountain when the goatherd got up off the stretcher and ran away from the Cold Lady of Death, never to be seen again.  Afterwards, taking a restorative drink at the inn, Andreas then sees a lovely young woman:

All his life Andreas Eggar would look back on this moment, again and again: that brief  smile that afternoon in front of the  quietly crackling guesthouse stove. (p.8)

Episodes from the past fill in the backstory but don’t seem to disrupt the chronology because even though progress comes to the valley there is a pervading sense of timelessness.  The calm, measured prose reports on joy and tragedy with equal poise, rendered exquisitely in this translation by Charlotte Collins.  Things are like this, it seems to say.  They always were, and they always will be.    So we learn that after a brutal childhood at the hands of his uncle, Andreas left home with little skill or education, and a limp.  But he is immensely strong, and he has a quiet, stubborn confidence in himself.  He gets by with labouring jobs, sleeping rough in barns and sheds because he likes his own company.  He is self-sufficient because his needs are few, and the story of how he gets the money to woo and wed his sweetheart is as poignant as anything you may read in contemporary fiction.

Tragedy strikes, and Eggars is on his own again when the war reaches their hamlet.  The book records his mild surprise when he is eventually conscripted when he had previously failed the medical, but does not labour the point.  The reader understands what Andreas does not: that Germany is losing the war.

Of all the pages in this melancholy book, the story of Andreas’ time as a Russian prisoner of war is the most grim.

Helmut Moidaschl was the first in a long line of people Egger saw die in Voroshilovgrad.  The very night they arrived he was seized with a heavy fever, and his screams, stifled by the shreds of his blanket, filled the barracks for hours.  The next morning they found him lying dead in a corner, half-naked, doubled over, both fists pressed against his temples.

After a few weeks, Egger stopped counting the dead.  They were buried in a little birch wood behind the camp.  Death belonged to life like mould to bread.  Death was a fever.  It was a crack in the wall of the barracks and the winter wind whistling through.  (p.86)

He spends six years in Russia, and comes back to a different world.  His old employer had gone bankrupt just after the war.  There are new buildings, there are shiny new cars, and day-trippers and holiday makers throng to the ski-slopes.  He accepts all these changes with silent amazement and takes on work as a guide.  He has an opportunity to meet with his hateful old uncle, and acquits himself with dignity.  He makes no complaints.

But he is always alone, and silent, and private.  He makes no mark upon the world.

Author: Robert Seethaler
Title: A Whole Life
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Publisher: Picador, 2015, first published as
Ein ganzes Leben in 2014.
ISBN: 9781447281894
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Whole Life


Responses

  1. One of my favourite books of recent years. I don’t now if you’ve read Seethaler’s The Tobacconist but if not it’s well worth seeking out.

    Like

    • Thank you for the recommendation:) My library has it, (and also an eAudiobook, whatever that might be when it’s on the kitchen table), so I have reserved it and just have to wait for it to come in.
      I hope it doesn’t come in straight away, I have too many other books on loan at the moment!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I hope you enjoy it. I’ll now read pretty much anything translated by Charlotte Collins!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m glad to see you liked it. It is a quiet little book, one in which the great events take place elsewhere. I was attracted to it as soon as I heard about. I’m surprised when people say they dislike it though as I find little in it to dislike.

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  3. Along with Jonathan and Susan I really enjoyed this book. I was surprised to see that so many reviewers disliked it.

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  4. Hi Melissa and Jonathan, thanks for dropping by:)
    I suppose there are always going to be people who won’t value a ‘quiet’ book, and maybe some readers of this one are looking for some earth-shattering revelation about the meaning of life.
    On further reflection, it seems to me that there is also another significance to this book… in the context of much German literature wrestling with guilt and remorse, repentance and restitution, and more recently the east-west divide and reunification, here is a book that says to us, there were people who were – as Jonathan says – oblivious to it all, had no idea it was happening, and yet because of a nationality they are barely aware of are still held to account. I don’t think Eggars is meant to represent those people we do not believe who said they didn’t know what was being done in their name under the Nazis even though they lived and worked next to Jewish people and saw them beaten up on the streets and then disappear out of the cities, they knew, and their denials make them even more contemptible. But I think he does perhaps symbolise simple people in remote places far away from these events and really didn’t know anything about it.

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    • These were the questions I was thinking of as I read your review, particularly as it is recent (2014). But on the whole I think the Germans are doing a better job “wrestling with their remorse” than say the Americans with Viet Nam (and it will be a long time before we do as well, wrestling with the frontier wars).

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      • Absolutely… I think there are many ways in which modern Germany leads the world and this is one of them.

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  5. Our book group read this book a couple of years ago, when it first came out. It is a beautiful book and I loved it. My husband just finished it a couple weeks ago and he too enjoyed it.

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    • That’s interesting… what did your group think about The Lady of Death? (It was such an arresting beginning!!)

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      • To be honest I don’t remember. Too long ago. Just remember we thought it was beautifully written. It is a book I wouldn’t mind revisiting.

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  6. I read this today, and it will linger with me for awhile – thanks for the review. I think what made Andres content even though his life was full of trials, was that he experienced love with Marie. He always had that memory with him.

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    • Yes, I think you’re right. The memory of love can be sustaining for a very long time.

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  7. It captured a world caught with in amber so well as it was about to disappear into the abyss

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    • Yes, that’s true….
      I’ve just brought home The Tobacconist from the library and must now find time to read it!

      Liked by 1 person

  8. […] Tobacconist to me after I read Robert Seethaler’s debut novel A Whole Life.  (See my review).  I reserved it at my library and it came in promptly – too promptly, in a way, (though I […]

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  9. […] I was really sorry to turn the last page.  It reminded me a little of Stoner by John Williams and Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life in the way that it portrays an ordinary, unobtrusive man who isn’t really ordinary at […]

    Like


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