Apparently, if we are to believe the venerable Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Robert Seethaler’s slim latest work, A Whole Life, is “a novel for sadists.” Such a proclamation seems an extreme one for a book whose diminutive size and unpretentious premise fairly trumpet harmlessness. Nor does the title belie the content. A Whole Life is in fact just that: a compressed chronicle of one man’s entire life, from birth (nearly) to death. The facts that the man in question is a resident of a tiny Austrian alpine town, and that his life spans the first three tumultuous quarters of the twentieth century do not at first glance contradict the assumption that the reader will find little fodder here for her darker impulses. Or perhaps they do. What is it, really, that a reader looks for from an encounter with a foreign life, whether fictional or real? What impulses, dark or ennobling, attract us to a work of literature in the first place?
The novel’s first scene, which appears, as do occasional other episodes, outside the generally steady chronology of protagonist Andreas Egger’s life, involves an encounter with death. The tour-de force first sentence offers readers perhaps the first clue to the novel’s tone:
On a February morning in the year 1933 Andreas Egger lifted the dying goatherd Johannes Kalischka, known to all the valley dwellers as Horned Hannes, off his sodden and rather sour-smelling pallet to carry him down to the village along the three-kilometer mountain path that lay buried beneath a thick layer of snow.
Though its construction recalls the beginning of Kafka’s Metamorphosis (an echo brilliantly replicated by Charlotte Collins’ marvelously confident translation), it is rather the choice of words, heavy with filth and mortality, that signals the book’s interests as being far from pastoral in any idealized sense. Something close to a moral is also delivered in this first section—a sound authorial choice, as the lesson, if that is what it is, then hovers over the reading rather than end-stopping it. As the pair descends the mountain, the goatherd relates his understanding of death to Egger, now in his late thirties, thus:
People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat. I say death brings forth nothing at all! Death is the Cold Lady . . . She walks on the mountain and steals through the valley. She comes when she wants and takes what she needs. She has no face and no voice . . . She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole. And in the last patch of sky you see before they finally shovel the earth in over you she reappears and breathes on you. And all that’s left for you then is darkness. And the cold.
Egger, standing in for the reader, can only reply drily, “Jesus. That’s bad.”
Indeed, Egger’s simple life contains more that a modern reader, particularly an American one—to whom even the word “village” sounds quaint and undeniably European—would recognize as pain, or at best drudgery, than joy: his childhood mostly a series of beatings at the hand of the distant relative who is his guardian, ultimately resulting in a lifelong limp; his nascent marriage tragically ended by an avalanche; subsequent dogged celibacy; dangerous, back-breaking work for a company that brings progress to the farthest reaches of the alps by erecting cable cars; long imprisonment at the hand of the Russians in World War II; quiet loneliness on his return home to a village transformed by tourism and the steady onward march of modernity. Is it the romance of the unfamiliar, the pain of a distant and forgotten world, which we dip into briefly as voyeurs rather than as participants, that is attractive in this book?
There is something to be said for the idea that the very distance between reader and subject is the source of poetic allure, that this distance lends a feeling of truth to what we read. Yet it seems to me not only the illusion of distance, but also the illusion of closeness, and perhaps also the tension between these two illusions which has caused A Whole Life to garner acclaim not only on its home turf, where it can be somewhat more recognizably filed under Heimat-/Antiheimatliteratur (close in many ways to the English notion of the pastoral but carrying, with Heimat’s translation as homeland, a slightly more nationalistic weight), but also—a more difficult and in some ways more illuminating feat—in the English-speaking world. Though the brevity and compression of this tale suggests that its author’s aims are the very opposite of, for example, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s, whose 3,500-page chronicle of his own life has met with unparalleled enthusiasm in America, it is hard not to wonder if they share a certain sensibility that touches a nerve with the contemporary reading public.
The same family of words is mustered to describe this sensibility in every English-language review this book has inspired, and in some German ones as well: simple, quiet, calm, spare. Praised are Seethaler’s sensitivity to detail, his precision, his gentleness, the valuing of those things which might seem marginal, uninteresting, mundane. In other words, a focus on the ordinary, rather than the extraordinary, captured in a fittingly simple style. Thus the tension between closeness and distance: in a world utterly (and comfortingly) different from our own) we are met with a character whose actions and desires are so (comfortingly) simple as to provoke immediate recognition, and to carry an aura of wisdom. Andreas Egger’s is a world heavy with nouns and verbs; the subjective adjective hardly comes into it.
This world and these concerns have indeed been captured admirably by Seethaler, but it is a mode he has always practiced. A Whole Life is his fifth book, and his first to be brought into English. His prose is, although simple, unquestionably elegant; much is done with little and a strong sense of place, feeling, and character evoked with a seeming minimum of effort. The sentences often achieve a sense of rhythm, and the book as a whole is shrewdly paced. Brief episodes of lyricism are tuned to the character and his surroundings, so as not to feel out of place or superfluous:
The sun was low, and even the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky. Right beside him a lone sycamore burned yellow; a little further off some cows were grazing, casting long, slim shadows that kept pace with them step for step across the meadow. A group of hikers was sitting beneath the canopy of a small calving shed. Egger could hear them talking and laughing amongst themselves, and their voices seemed to him both strange and agreeable. He thought of Marie’s voice and how much he had liked to listen to it. He tried to recall its melody and sound, but they eluded him. ‘If only I still had her voice, at least,’ he said to himself. Then he rolled slowly over to the next steel girder, climbed down and went in search of sandpaper.
This brief foray into feeling via observation, without any lapse into sentimentality, is one of the hallmarks of Seethaler’s style. A Whole Life is structured so that reflection and commentary, which often coincide with episodes told out of strict chronology, become more frequent as the book draws to its conclusion. This is one of the excellent tricks of Seethaler’s pacing: the satisfying hints of direction and meaning—always filtered through Egger’s simple perception, and therefore understated—are delivered at the point where it becomes clear to the reader that there will be little more to uncover, narratively at least, about the path of his life.
And here the question of what we seek from literature once again arises. Although A Whole Life has been praised for simplicity, quietness, calmness, sparseness, sensitivity to detail, precision, and gentleness, these cannot necessarily be considered universally positive terms. Rather, they bespeak certain common desires of the contemporary reading community: a hunger for the neatly contained, a confirmation of the worth of those things we all have access to—simple materials, simple language. A wish to see ourselves reflected in what we read, while also feeling we have encountered something outside the realm of our immediate experience. Most of all, perhaps, a longing for peace from our reading, an almost Zen-inflected search for wisdom. Is it heartening or troubling that these elements are so valued in our contemporary moment?
Those whose primary literary values are other than the above may well find A Whole Life less than fulfilling. Those readers, for example, who prize language that does not simply achieve elegance and accuracy, but pushes its own limits or strives for musicality will be disappointed. So too will fans of formal innovation, story junkies, and those who take pleasure in a Benjaminian sort of untidiness—the sense that a text has not provided an answer, but rather questions that can be approached again and again—find themselves wishing for more. At the end of this book, a life story has been told, and perhaps certain lessons can be learned from it. The book’s current popularity suggests that the lessons have been internalized perhaps too well: in praising it readers show that they too have been satisfied with something modest, that they, like Egger, agree that it is enough.
To some degree the book’s success in the English-speaking world must also be attributed to the fact that its style is familiar, rather than alienating or challenging, as some translated literature may be expected to be—regardless whether one sees this as an asset or a distraction. This is turn can be attributed to Charlotte Collins’ attentive and (for once this adjective may be more than mere cliché) seamless translation. Reproducing simple prose, where every word must be chosen for maximum impact without losing its lightness and grace, is in some ways more challenging than mimicking a more elaborate or idiosyncratic author’s style, and Charlotte Collins has hewn brilliantly to language and syntax that fit the milieu; she somehow manages to make the prose feel homey and familiar even when describing a world—complete with slightly antiquated or countrified speech patterns, and farm or mountaineering terminology—that is unfamiliar to British and American readers. Hers is a truly praiseworthy accomplishment, and even for this reason alone the book deserves the attention it has gotten—both in the press and in being named a finalist for the Man Booker International prize.
Following the success of this book, Seethaler’s 2012 book Der Trafikant will be published later this year, again, happily, in Charlotte Collins’ translation, under the English title The Tobacconist. Like the rest of Seethaler’s œuvre, The Tobacconist is a book with a slightly more dramatic premise and more narrative drive than A Whole Life, yet his body of work is united by an interest in characters that live on the margins: washed-up musicians, runaways, gas station attendants. Common too to all Seethaler’s books is the outsider’s search for, or unexpected encounter with love—usually a kind of love portrayed as upsetting and confusing, but ultimately transformative in a positive sense, and (undoubtedly) rather charming to the reader. This trope is also visible in A Whole Life: Egger’s enduring love for his lost wife has been noted as a crucial driving force behind his incessant labor. “He is sustained by the love he once experienced,” Eileen Battersby concludes in a review she penned for The Irish Times. Yet the core of this book seems to me to be more subtle than she suggests, and therefore more interesting, even if not earth-shattering. Seethaler ultimately succeeds in fixing something that is very difficult to grasp, particularly in literature, where the scrutiny on “meaning” is particularly intense: life as worthy and precious regardless of the content it is filled with. This is what life is, the book seems to say: it is simply living, breathing, eating, moving—the things that we all share and never stop doing until the day we die. This is perfectly expressed in the eponymous line, which is delivered to Egger by his boss with the same deadpan lack of sentimentality as Horned Hannes’ opening monologue on death: “You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is. Now leave me in peace!” No other phrase, perhaps, could so succinctly encapsulate a book that in so few pages encompasses Egger’s history and his reader’s vainglory.
Anne Posten translates literature from German and teaches writing at Queens College, CUNY.