Translated from German by Charlotte Collins
A Whole Life is an Austrian novella, 149 pages long in my Picador paperback, which has been a quiet international bestseller. Published in English translation in 2015, it was shortlisted for the International Booker 2016. Interesting titbit: author Robert Seethaler is also a sometime actor who has appeared on TV as well as on the big screen, notably playing a small role in legendary director Paolo Sorrentino’s film Youth.
I read A Whole Life to review in time for German Literature Month, hosted annually by Lizzy’s Literary Life and Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat (week 1 focuses on books from, or set in, Austria), as well as Novellas in November, co-hosted by Cathy at 746Books and Bookish Beck (this week focuses on contemporary novellas).
The book centres on Andreas Egger, a man of few words, who is not inclined towards an excess of introspection. He is first introduced to us in 1902 as a small child, orphaned on the death of his mother, who is sent to live on a remote farm in the beautiful but harsh Austrian alps with his abusive uncle, the wonderfully named Hubert Kranzstocker, and his family.
“So now here Egger stood, gazing at the mountains in wonder. This was the only image he retained of his early childhood, and he carried it with him throughout his life. There were no memories of the time before, and at some point in the years that followed, his early years on the Kranzstocker farm also dissolved in the mists of the past.”
A childhood beating from his uncle leaves him with a disability, a permanent limp and a crooked right leg. As the parent of a child with a disability, following a stroke in utero. I found it heartening to read of Eggers’ hardiness, and handiness. He wields a scythe and a pitchfork with ease, and gives his body over to physical, outdoor work.
“Sometimes, on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that mountains breathed.”
Egger experiences a period of happy domesticity, which sadly comes to an abrupt end. Later, during WWI, Egger is permitted to enlist in the army three years after his first attempt, and despite his physical impairment, and is sent off to the Eastern front, to Russia, and spends a long time as a prisoner of war. He eventually succeeds in returning to his mountain home, which increasingly draws the attention of beauty-seeking tourists.
The book is not fast-paced, focusing as it does on the course of a simple but often very hard life. Egger’s life story has been described elsewhere as ordinary, but it is really quite extraordinary. He experiences adversity, loneliness and tragedy, but he doesn’t waste time on what-ifs or on berating himself or others for failing to have done things differently. He is not a bitter man, and he finds pleasure and acceptance in the outside world throughout his life.
Egger’s dependence on the vagaries of the implacable but spell-binding natural environment evokes a not wholly unpleasant awareness of the insignificance of the individual when set against the immutability of the natural world and the transitory efforts of people to tame it and bend it to their will. Egger appears to hold and take comfort in a somewhat fatalistic, vaguely Buddhist-like acceptance of the co-existence of suffering and beauty, and the sense that any belief in personal control over life events is in large part illusory.
Although an apparently straightforward story, the book is quietly accepting of our scars, both physical and emotional. The result is strangely uplifting rather than depressing, and thankfully this work is never sentimental, while skilfully dealing – in few pages – with big ideas such as the possibility of finding meaning without pursuing external validation, what constitutes a full life, and what defines home.