Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Robert Seethaler, A Whole Life, trans. Charlotte Collins, Picador, 2014

The blurb on the back of Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life likens Andreas Egger to John Williams’ Stoner, but he’s completely different. Stoner is an extremely depressing book because the title character is a victim in every sense of the word. Stoner is at the mercy of an academic system that has no care for intellectual values and commitment to his students. He is bullied by the colleague who self-promotes and politics his way to the role of department chair. Stoner marries the wrong woman, and having grown up in a small town in Ohio, he adopts middle-American morality that keeps him tied to her for life. And he doesn’t have the social ability to confront, or better, escape his oppressor. He may not be integrated into the university, but he is in it, a part of that world, and he cannot get away from his circumstances. Stoner is trapped. Andreas Egger in A Whole Life is not.

We all fall in love with Andreas Egger because he is joyous and expresses wonder at the world. Stoner is perhaps a little too close to my own life for comfort, so I find him depressing. By contrast, there’s a part of me wants to be Egger. No matter how brutal and unfair the world into which he is born, Egger has in him a love of life, a habit of looking out into the universe and seeing its magic. Even as he is violently beaten by a step father, or sent to the farthest outpost of a Russian POW camp in an environment that makes the climatic conditions in the Austrian Alps of his hometown seem tropical by comparison, he finds solace and welcomes acceptance of his situation. Likewise, Andreas Egger doesn’t care what anyone else thinks of him. Egger never suffers for the sake of social mores, and he certainly doesn’t adhere to any conventions. Egger is the best worker hired by the company who builds the first cable car on the mountain, he toils in the fields, has calluses and scars all over his hands, his gammy leg is like a piece of wood he carries around with him for a lifetime, he is put in a box by the Russians, but he doesn’t really care what others think of him. The experience that lasts the longest in his mind is one of the shortest in his life: his love for Marie, a young woman who works at the local pub. And through all this, he has very little money, usually one pair of pants and at most a cup and a plate as his worldly possessions. As a young man he buys a plot of land that is so high up the mountain vegetation can’t grow. It is lost not long after he buys it by an avalanche that also kills his beloved Marie and their child. But Egger thinks “things had not gone so badly after all.”

We fall in love with Egger for the expanse of his heart and his mind, even though he leaves the village only twice in his life: once to go to war and the second time on a bus at the end of his life, just for the sake of leaving. The vastness of the universe through Andreas Egger’s eyes is shown in his understanding and harmony with the natural environment. He can bear the ice cold because it is as if he has always been out in the cold, he can toil for hours because he has a sense of self to match, and when he looks to the stars at the end of a day, he thinks that life is filled with infinite possibility. The promise is in the stars.

There are some magical moments in Egger’s life. As is often the case with a character who doesn’t leave his small community, wonder comes to him. A worker loses an arm that he must bury, a man’s body is preserved in ice for forty years, and when the body reappears it is like a freak in a sideshow. The coming of television is exquisitely handled by Seethaler. In the middle of his violent stepfather’s funeral, Egger hears a child’s laughter.

“One of the windows was ajar and flickering brightly. The landlord’s little son was sitting in the room in front of an enormous television set, his face right up against the screen. The reflection of the images danced across his forehead; he was clutching the antenna with one hand and slapping his thighs with the other as he laughed. He was laughing to hard that through the curtain of rain Egger could make out the glistening drops of spittle spraying against the box.”

He thinks about stopping, but quietly decides to continue the procession. When Egger proposes to Marie, he organizes for her name to be written in fire across the mountain that is his home. In one of the most tender and yet tense moments in the book, Egger comes face to face with a Red Army soldier.  The two soldiers, in the snow, no one and nothing else between them, their mutual respect and simultaneous disinterest in each other reveals the triumph of human nature over war. There is no question of what to do with the enemy; they let each other live.

Lastly, given my blog about the joys of spare writing, it’s worth saying that this is a novel of 148 pages that sees the unfolding of an entire lifetime. And it’s a lifetime that is full and rich, complicated by heartbreak and persecution, as much as by love and joy. I read the book in English, so I say with some reservation, that the economy of language is the necessary mirror for Andreas Eger’s reluctance to speak. One of the people he meets on his journey tells Egger that those who talk don’t listen. And it's as though this book asks us to listen, just for a brief time, to its wisdom.

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