A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler tr. Charlotte Collins

A Whole LifeDumped with an uncaring relative after his mother dies of consumption Andreas Eggers connects with the mountain more than with the family that barely tolerate him and when he is strong enough to resist the thrashings, will leave and make his own way as a labourer eventually earning sufficient to buy a plot of land up the mountain where he can build a cabin.

He arrived in the village as a small boy in the summer of 1902, brought by horse-drawn carriage from a town far beyond the mountains. When he was lifted out he stood there, speechless, eyes wide, gazing up in astonishment at the shimmering white peaks. He must have been about four-years-old at the time, perhaps a little younger or older. No one knew exactly, and no one was interested, least of all the farmer Hubert Kranzstocker, who reluctantly took receipt of little Egger and gave the carriage driver the measly tip of two groschen and a crust of hard bread.

A Whole Life is a melancholic yet soothing narrative of days and events that affect the life of Eggers, few of its turning points are initiated by himself – only when it becomes a matter of survival or principal. He is somewhat at the mercy of the mountain, the elements and whatever it is that confronts him. It is a gentle, unassuming novella of an unremarkable life, touchingly evocative yet unsentimental, a tribute to small wonders that make up a relatively uneventful life.

His early life stems from the moment of being left in the place of the family, his later life from having carried a dying man down the mountain, causing him to stop in at the inn, where the briefest touch of a woman becomes the catalyst for the next significant turning point in his life.

‘Another one?’ the young woman asked, and Egger nodded. She brought a fresh glass, and as she leaned forward to put it on the table she touched his upper arm with the fold of her blouse. The touch was barely perceptible, yet it left a subtle pain that seemed to sink deeper into his flesh with every passing second. He looked at her, and she smiled.
All his life Andreas Egger would look back on this moment, again and again; that brief smile that afternoon in front of the quietly crackling guesthouse stove.

Apart from a brief period at war and a longer spell as a prisoner of war in a Russian camp, his life is spent living off and around the mountain, a landscape he is at one with, in awe and wary of. It is all that he knows.

Seethaler describes Eggers, his life and environment in thoughtful, elegiac prose creating a man as much in harmony with his surroundings as is possible. He stands for those who observe change and the approach of the modern world from a distance, who accept who they are and where they have been placed and have only the occasional fleeting desire to move, but will do so when it is necessary.

He thought of the fact that, apart from trips to the Bitterman & Sons cable cars and chair lifts in the surrounding area, he had only left the neighbourhood on one single occasion: to go to war. He thought about how once, along this very road, back then little more than a deeply rutted track across the fields, he had come to the valley for the first time on the box of a horse-drawn carriage. And at that moment he was overcome with a longing so searing and profound he thought his heart would melt. Without looking back he got up and ran.

I loved this book, it reminded me a little of Julio Llamazares set in the Spanish Pyrenees The Yellow Rain, another novella with a strong connection to the village/environment, a kind of wistful resistance, imploring the reader to understand what it means to be human and so strongly connected to a place.

No surprise this novella became a bestseller in Germany and Austria and was shortlisted for the Man Booker International 2016, we are fortunate to have had it translated so beautifully by Charlotte Collins into English.

In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands again. But he was still here. And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down on one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone so badly after all.

Robert SeethalerBorn in Vienna, Austria, Robert Seethaler is an actor (most recently in Paulo Sorrentino’s Youth) and writer, he grew up in Germany and now lives in Berlin.  A Whole Life is his fifth novel and the first to be translated into English.

Charlotte Collins studied English at Cambridge University. She worked as an actor and radio journalist in both Germany and the UK before becoming a literary translator, and has also translated Robert Seethaler’s novel The Tobacconist.

Further Links: 

Irish Times ReviewOne man endures, one day at a time by Eileen Battersby

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A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

The Wall by Marlen Haushofer tr. Shaun Whiteside

The WallHaushofer’s novel begins on the 5th of November, the day the protagonist, a middle-aged woman, begins to write a report of what has occurred over the last two years, since she became isolated in a hunting lodge in the Austrian Alps, where she had been visiting her cousin Luise and Luise’s husband Hugo.

Some kind of unwitnessed catastrophic event occurs, creating an invisible wall between that which lives and that which doesn’t.

As I started reading and then discovered what The WallWake Elizabeth Knox was, I recalled Elizabeth Knox’s Wake, where a similar event occurs, though rather than one woman as we observe in Marlen Haushofer’s modern classic The Wall, with Knox we followed what happened to a group of survivors adding elements of fantasy and horror that suspend belief  allowing the reader to interpret it more as the form of entertainment it was written to be.

In The Wall, Luise and Hugo walk to the nearby Alpine village one evening, putting them on the deathly side of the catastrophic event. Sending their dog Lynx home before them, he becomes one of the important and constant companions of this lone woman, who will learn what it takes to survive.

Eventually she realises she is living in the forest completely alone, she is joined by a cow she names Bella whom she hopes is pregnant, an old cat who will also give birth, and she finds a sack of potatoes she can plant and some beans which she will also use to create a crop. She is grateful to Hugo for his forethought.

“At the time everyone was talking about nuclear wars and their consequences, and this led Hugo to keep a little store of food and other important things in his hunting-lodge.”

The book recalls the days, the months, the seasons, the work she creates for herself, the relationship between her and the animals, her nurturing of them and attempt to protect them from the harsh elements of the environment and their interactions with her, that remind her of her duty to survive.

Lynx prodded me with his muzzle and pushed me sideways. Maybe he didn’t like the flood, maybe he also felt that I was miles away and wanted to attract some attention. As always on such occasions I followed him in the end. He knew much better than I did what was good for me.

It is written in a stream of conscious style that never becomes monotonous, despite the monotony of her days, she must live in the present to survive and that depends very much on caring for the needs of the animal life that support her. She must deal with her own mental turbulence and anguish, discovering that her manual labours and constant activity, though tiring, keep her from the dangers of over thinking and decline.

By cutting timber, in fact, I missed a very fine Indian summer. I didn’t see the landscape at all, obsessed as I was by the thought of stacking up a big enough supply of wood.  Once the last log had been stored under the verandah I had a stretch and decided to treat myself a little. It’s strange, in fact, how slight my pleasure is every time I complete a task. Once it’s out of the way I forget it,  and think about new things to do. Even at that time I didn’t allow myself much time to recover. That’s how it always was: while I was slaving away I dreamt about how I would quietly and peacefully rest on the bench, but as soon as I finally sat down on the bench I grew restless, and started looking out for new work to do. I don’t think this was due to any particular industriousness, since by nature I’m rather lethargic,  but was probably through self-protection, for what would I have done otherwise but remember and brood? That was exactly what I mustn’t do, so what was there to do but more work? I didn’t even have to look for work, it turned up insistently of its own accord.

EndlessI was also reminded of Claire Fuller’s Our Endless Numbered Days, another book of survival in the European forest lands, a novel that contains distractions other than just survival, it being about a daughter whose father has taken her off to survive in the forest.

Marlen Haushofer’s protagonist has no zombies or deranged father’s to contend with, purely one woman’s survival and existence alongside a select few animals.

I found it utterly compelling and could not put it down. It is a brilliant novel that strips away the noise and manic obsessions of society placing one woman in a basic situation that will exhibit humanity’s natural feminine instinct to nurture, to protect, to achieve and survive while intermittently falling prey to the melancholic tendencies of mind that threaten to derail us. It does this without the use of fantastical elements apart from the existence of the wall itself, making it feel realistic and believable.

Marlen Haushofer wrote the book in the early 1960’s and it wasn’t published until 1968, two years before her premature death at the age of 49. The book was resurrected 15 years later when discovered by the feminist and anti-nuclear movements and has since been translated into 18 languages and made into a major motion picture by the Director Julian Pölsler. Deserving of being categorised as a modern classic.

The Wall is a muted critique of consumerism and a delicate poem in praise of nature, a challenge to violence and patriarchy, an encomium to peace and life-giving femininity, a meditation on time, an observation on the differences and similarities between animals and humans, and a timeless minor masterpiece. Jerry Whyte , Film critic on Julian Pölsler’s film adaptation

Wall Movie

Highly recommended and thank you to Vishy (click here for his review) for recommending it to me.