I am an enthusiastic admirer of Robert Seethaler’s fiction, having read all three of his novels translated into English – beginning with A Whole Life, the first to be published in the UK. There’s something very attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage, but which turns out to be rich and well-lived. Opening in 1933, A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger who leaves his Alpine home just once to go to war in Russia. Egger is painted as a simple soul: he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his valley and finds women impossible to fathom. Yet Egger is also a great romantic, arranging a message spelled out in fire on the mountainside before finally finding the courage to propose to his beloved Marie. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter-of-fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the 20th century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s experience. A simple life, then, but well-lived, and its ending is quite wonderful.
Very much darker than A Whole Life, The Tobacconist is set in Vienna, opening in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria. It follows seventeen-year-old Franz who begins the novel as a simple soul, a little over-indulged but with an eager questing mind, who ‘never really understood the business with the Jews’. Calling in a favour, Franz’s mother sets her son up with a job at a Viennese tobacconist. When he arrives, Otto tells him that the most important part of his job is to read the newspapers. Franz soon knows the regulars’ names and idiosyncrasies, cramming his head with the esoteric knowledge of a tobacconist’s accoutrements and anticipating his customers’ desires. When a frail man appears asking for Virginias, Otto tells Franz that this is Professor Sigmund Freud. Even a boy from the backwoods has heard of Freud and Franz decides to approach him for advice, first on how to get a girl, then on how to keep her. Initially a little impatient, Freud begins to look forward to Franz’s visits and his stories of the Bohemian girl who dances at a hole-in-the-wall club compèred by a Hitler impersonator. As with A Whole Life, the writing is plain and spare, studded with occasional vivid images. Seethaler shows us the city through the eyes of Franz who becomes increasingly appalled by what he sees, often poking pleasing fun at the pretensions of Viennese society. Such simple, sometimes slapstick comedy, throws the dreadful events unfolding throughout the city into stark relief.
In The Field, the third of his novels to be translated into English, Seethaler adopts the slightly risky device of telling the story of a small town through the voices of its dead. The novel is largely made up of the thoughts, memories and stories of those laid to rest in the unfarmable land that became part of Paulstadt’s cemetery thanks to a dubious deal between the mayor and the farmer, both now amongst its residents. Some of the dead remember their childhood, others the happiest day of their lives; some remember how they died, others who they loved. Slowly the story of the town emerges through their voices: the priest who burnt down the church with himself in it; the leisure centre, built on ground that collapsed killing three of the town’s citizens; the florist who lay dead in her shop for weeks before being found. As in life, some of the dead have a great deal to say, others very little, and some are notable by their absence. Each voice is distinct, some suffused with longing, others laced with humour. Seethaler brings to this novel the same understanding of the richness of everyday life that made A Whole Life so satisfying. Regret, sorrow, love, happiness, revenge, dishonesty, loneliness, misunderstanding, greed – all human life is here, so to speak.
Each of these very different novels is a thoroughly enjoyable, skilfully wrought piece of fiction filled with compassion and wit; all of them expertly translated by Charlotte Collins.
Reviewed by Susan Osborne
A WHOLE LIFE
by Robert Seethaler
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Published by Picador (2015, 2016, 2021)
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Susan Osborne has spent much of her life working with books first as a bookseller, then as a magazine reviews editor and reviewer. She blogs at www.alifeinbooks.co.uk posting new title previews and reviews three times a week. She lives with her partner in Bath.