Book Review: A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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(translated from German by Charlotte Collins)

‘Andreas Egger knows every path and peak of his mountain valley, the source of his sustenance, his livelihood – his home. His story is that of his relationship with an ancient landscape, of the value of solitude, the arrival of the modern world, and above all, the moments, great and small that make us who we are.’

A Whole Life does exactly what the jacket cover promises – and what a beautifully illustrated cover it is. A Whole Life tells the remarkable life of Andreas Egger, from memories of his childhood to his last days. The story unfolds as a continuous narrative (i.e. without chapters), from the viewpoint of Andreas Egger in the third person. At 150 pages it is a novella, and can be digested in a few precious hours.

I adore this book. The impact that it had on me is rather like Stoner, by John Williams; hugely satisfied and deeply moved. Somehow it was a privilege to read. It is an account of an ordinary man, achieving some extraordinary things, in his unfussy, simple way. A Whole Life leaves you with a profound sense of solitude and remoteness, at odds with the speed of today’s world. The writing is beautiful and I can only assume it is close to the original, but Collins’ translation is delicious. The writing is sparse, pared down, but also poetic because there is a steady rhythm in the language. This is particularly when conveying a sense of place, the mountains – it is simply breathtaking.

There is no greater illustration of the craft of writing than Andreas Egger’s death,

“I suppose it is late,” he heard himself say… He felt a bright pain in his chest, and watched as his body sank slowly forwards and his head came to rest with his cheek on the tablecloth. He heard his own heart. And he listened to the silence when it stopped beating. Patiently he waited for the next heartbeat. And when none came, he let go and died.

The characterisation of Andreas Egger is excellent. In such a short piece, you have a real sense of the man. He is as solid and as deep as the mountains. You suffer with him, as the story moves back and forth in time, through significant changes. His bitter childhood, with his cruel Uncle, his love and marriage, and then his work with the Cable Car company. He suffers, but he is no victim. He adapts and survives. You want Andreas Egger on your side, or even to have someone like him in your life.

As Andreas Egger nears the end of his life, you have the sense that he has had his fill of life. He takes a bus journey shortly before he dies, and the bus driver asks him,

“Where do you want to go?”

“I don’t know,” he replies.

A Whole Life is a glorious book, and I highly recommend it.

 

A Whole Life  is part of my Reading Challenge for 2016, and is ‘a book that you can read in an afternoon.’

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