Some years ago, Robert Seethaler published a novel entitled Der Trafikant about the shy owner of a kiosk in Vienna where Sigmund Freud regularly bought his cigars. Asking Freud for help with his courtship of the waitress Anezka, it becomes apparent that the famous psychoanalyst knows as little about women as the hapless kiosk owner. This tragic-comedy skilfully balances the private and the political with both Freud’s and the kiosk owner’s inability to understand Anezka mirrored in their inability to clearly foresee the dangers of the rise of Nazism in Austria in the 1930s.
While Der Trafikant garnered some attention, it was the author’s follow-up, A Whole Life, which turned out to be a runaway success, spending weeks on Germany’s bestseller lists, becoming the first of his five novels translated into English and recently getting longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. Unfortunately, for this book Seethaler ditched the gentle comedy and, to its detriment, stuck with the tragedy. Set in the dramatic landscape of the Alps, the slim volume tells the story of farm labourer, Andreas Egger, wrestling with the elements and life’s existential questions of love and death.
Born out of wedlock and orphaned as a small child, Eggers is fostered by his abusive uncle until he is strong enough to stand up against him. As an adult he works as a farm labourer, then as a worker building cable cars. He shyly courts and marries the waitress of the local inn who is not long after killed in an avalanche. He goes to war and spends eight years in a POW camp in Russia before seeing out the end of his days as a tour guide. Throughout all of it, Eggers remains “strong but slow. He thought slowly, spoke slowly and walked slowly; yet every thought, every word and every step left a mark precisely where, in his opinion, such marks were supposed to be.”
He is a man who has fallen out of time, a walking anachronism in a century marked by technological progress (the cable car!) and political upheaval. Only once is there a glimpse in among all that seriousness of the playfulness that characterized his earlier novel: Eggers watches TV in the local inn for the very first time and feels he is witnessing an apparition of a spirit which turns out to be Grace Kelly at her wedding to Prince Rainer of Monaco. For most of the novel, though, his is a story of quiet dignity against the odds, of seven decades of a hard but decent life crammed into a mere 145 pages, told in a laconic voice that achieves occasional passages of simple and delicate beauty.
And yet, the character of Eggers is also the reason why The Whole Life ultimately fails as a novel. Eggers is not just slow, he is virtually sleepwalking through his life. Like a boxer assuming the rope-a-dope tactic, he is pummelled by tragedy and misfortune, yet without ever attempting a counter-attack. He is meant to be inarticulate and not prone to extended inner conflict, but Seethaler rarely rises to the challenge of creating passages in which actions illuminate the inner turmoil of the character. Instead, Eggers remains someone to whom things simply happen, with the one exception of standing up to his violent uncle when he grew strong enough to hit back.
He never strives for more, is never discontent with his place in the world and most importantly is never put in a position of moral ambiguity that might test the readers’ sympathy for him. For example, he gets conscripted into the “Wehrmacht” in 1942 and sent to the Russian front. There, he conveniently never needs to really fight, never kills, never witnesses any atrocities.
In Seethaler’s sanitised version of a hardscrabble existence, the readers’ relationship with his character is never tested by his actions. The implicit affirmation of the status quo, packaged as rustic old-fashioned decency, veers dangerously close to outright kitsch and is like a soothing balm in uncertain times which might go a long way to explaining the surprise commercial success of A Whole Life.
Robert Seethaler. A Whole Life (translated from German by Charlotte Collins). Picador