Saturday 2 August 2014

Robert Seethaler: Ein ganzes Leben

Sometimes I have the good fortune and privilege to follow a book from an early point, and Robert Seethaler's Ein ganzes Leben is one of them. Earlier this year I was helping a literary scout with her enquiries and Hanser Berlin sent me the manuscript, their top title for this coming autumn. They also asked me to translate a sample from the book to send out to foreign publishers. I'm pleased to say that translation rights have sold to various countries including the UK, although sadly for me I won't be translating the whole thing. Then last month I spent a couple of hours with Seethaler himself for my Tagesspiegel column, which is now online.

Since about April, then, I've been raving about this gentle, beautifully written and constructed story, and now I'm allowed to broadcast my enthusiasm publicly. It's simple, really: a lonely man’s life in the mountains from the turn of the century to the 1970s. The short novel captures an entire life in the form of its memorable scenes – some are major events, some are tiny fragments of memory. Unusually for German-language books, history happens between the lines and the focus is on how the protagonist copes with what life throws at him.
It opens with a dramatic scene in which Andreas Egger tries to carry a reclusive goatherd down the mountains to the village in driving snow. The old man is close to dying and talks about death as the ‘Cold Lady’ but he frees himself from Egger’s back and runs off into the snow. Egger can’t follow him because he has a limp and can’t move fast. When he gets to the village, though, the new maid at the inn brushes against his arm with her sleeve – one of the moments he will never forget. The date is February 1933 – days after Hitler took power in Germany, but the rest of the world seems far away and unimportant.

We learn that Eggers has always been a man of few words. He arrived in the village in 1902 at the age of around four, sent to an uncle with a few banknotes in a purse after his mother died elsewhere. Heidi it ain’t, though, because the uncle is a brutal farmer who whips Eggers at the slightest provocation. His loveless childhood progresses, with a couple of years learning to read at school between hard work on the farm, until the time when he stands up to his uncle and is thrown out, a day after his 18th birthday. From then on he lives here and there around the village and works as a labourer. By 29 he has saved enough to buy a small plot of land, and then he meets Marie, the maid. Theirs is a touching, tongue-tied romance, and Eggers gets a job with the new cable-car company so that he can offer her a home.
Things aren't that simple, of course, and Eggers loses Marie. Life goes on. In 1942 he is drafted and sent to the Caucasus. After a few weeks abandoned by his superiors in a freezing tent, he surrenders to the Russians and spends eight years in a POW camp. On one occasion he finds a piece of paper and a pencil and spends all night writing a letter to Marie, which he then buries in the ground. Back in the village, he finds a makeshift home. Progress has moved on significantly while he was away, and we see Eggers – who doesn’t own a television – entranced by the sight of Grace Kelly and later the moon landing. Tiny events in his life make a lasting impression. He starts working as a mountain guide for tourists, and suddenly finds himself confronted with people whose lives are very different from his own. 

As he grows older, Eggers moves out of the village again and into the mountains. He has stopped working and lives frugally in a former stable, washing in the nearby stream and using candles for light. We are easily reminded of the old goatherd from the beginning of the book. Shortly before he dies, he sees the ‘Cold Lady’ – and she has Marie’s face. 

The joy of the story is in the telling, in its intricate presentation of tiny details. There are wonderful naturalistic descriptions of the mountain landscape that reminded me of D.H. Lawrence, and which I could imagine on the big screen. Seethaler captures his protagonist’s sentiments without wasting words. But the narrative is also punctuated by death stories. For many of the characters, we find out little about their lives but all about their deaths and their funerals. The first sets a disturbing pattern – the only woman who showed young Egger affection, his great-aunt, falls over forward while making bread and suffocates in the dough. At her funeral, a mad dog makes the horses pulling the coffin rear and kick out, and the dog has to be killed with a spade. 

I also very much admire the structure, with occasional glances into the future and the two framing episodes at beginning and end. Seethaler has a very light hand and has captured a simple life in a fairly simple format, but his book has a great deal to offer for literary readers. 
It’s quite an ambitious feat to capture a whole life in less than 160 pages, and Seethaler has managed it admirably. This is the kind of book that makes you quietly fall in love with it. If you don't read German you'll be pleased to hear that his previous novel Der Trafikant, set in 1930s Vienna and featuring a certain Dr. Freud as a minor character, will also be available in English at some point soonish. If you do read German, please go out and buy this book today.   

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