Saturday, August 20, 2016

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, translated by Charlotte Collins

It is always interesting to see what books inflame the European imagination. This novel by the Austrian writer Robert Seethaler took Germany by storm, and was released in translation last year in the United States and Canada. It really is the story of Andreas Egger’s whole life, though it runs less than one hundred and fifty pages.

The orphan Andreas Egger was given to a mean old relative, Hubert Kranzstocker, who crippled him in youth. Egger hardly ever spoke, but when he was eighteen he refused to be beaten by the old man, “If you hit me, I’ll kill you,” he said in the time-honored way of abused youth everywhere.

There is more, much more, but Andreas died in that village where he grew up. One February night the Cold Lady came for him. He did not resist. She looked like his wife, who was killed years before in an avalanche that also destroyed his house, his future child, and his dreams.

Perhaps the metronome quality of the writing is what draws readers to this work. It is patient, unheroic, daily. Moments of grief and joy are told with the same tone of ordinariness that describe winning a job, losing a job, working a job. The step-by-step inevitability of the end calms us. Egger still had plans—greatly diminished plans—when the Cold Lady came for him:
“…buy a couple of candles, seal the draughty crack in the window frame, dig a ditch in front of the hut, knee-deep and at least thirty centimeters wide, to divert meltwater…He was overcome by a feeling of warmth at the thought of his leg, that piece of rotten wood that had carried him through the world for so long.”
He did not suffer.

A life does not have to be loud to be meaningful. Egger was a strong and useful member of his society, and though he lived alone, he was not particularly lonely. “He had all he needed, and that was enough.” He talked to himself when he wanted to share a thought, and it gave him pleasure. Sometimes he laughed to himself…laughed until his eyes filled with tears.

This novel has a very European feel to it, so unlike the kind of large and spectacular and verbose novels we have tended to lionize in America. And the language is so European, capitalizing at least partially on the setting: "Sometimes he would pass his old plot of land. Over the years scree had accumulated on the spot where once his house had stood, forming a sort of embankment. In summer white poppies glowed between the lumps of stone, and in winter the children jumped over it on their skis."

I’ve looked everywhere I can think of to find interviews with Seethaler, and found one in German on youTube, which didn’t help me much. Picador promises us one on their website, but I couldn't find one. Seethaler is fifty years old, has written four previous novels, and occasionally works as an actor. The translation by Charlotte Collins seems particularly excellent to me.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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