I got ‘A Whole Life’ by Robert Seethaler as a Christmas present from one of my favourite friends. I read it as soon as I got it, in one day, which rarely happens for me. It is a German book, it is around 150 pages, it has big font with wide spacing and it is a hardback – all things that I love. So, no wonder, I finished reading it in a day. I have been wanting to write about it for a while, but life distractions got in the way. Last week I saw it in the MAN Booker International Prize Longlist and I was very happy. I have rarely read a book before it appeared in any longlist. I normally read some of them after they do. So, this is a wonderful first for me. So, I thought that I should no longer delay writing my thoughts. So, here is what I think.
‘A Whole Life’ tells the story of Andreas Egger, since the time he was a child till the end of his life. He starts his life as an orphan who ends up in his uncle’s home in the valley. His uncle treats him as the unofficial servant of the family and makes him do all kinds of work so that he can get a proper meal. On the way, Egger picks up different kinds of skills, moves out of his uncle’s home and gets a job at a company, does all kinds of risky work, falls in love, gets married, goes to war – well you have to read the book to find out what happens to him. I think I have revealed more than necessary.
The thing I loved about Seethaler’s book was how it described life from the point of view of an introverted man – someone who is painfully shy, keeps to himself, whom everyone generally ignores, who likes learning things but does it slowly, who lives a rich interior life which others are hardly aware of. In some ways Seethaler’s hero made me remember the great introverted heroes of Patrick Suskind’s novels, ‘Perfume’ and ‘The Pigeon’. Egger has all kinds of experiences that the world throws at him and at times he seeks new ones that don’t come his way. And in the end he looks back and decides that he has lived an interesting life – it was satisfying and contented though he could have done without some of the sad moments. The book also made me remember Christa Wolf’s ‘August’ which has a similar plot, but the details are different – Wolf’s book is more like a short story while Seethaler’s book is more fleshed out.
There are many beautiful passages in the book, some of them about nature, some of them about life. I will share a few here so that you can get a taste of Seethaler’s gorgeous prose.
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 from 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 the mountain breathed.
Up here the ground was soft and the grass short and dark. Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marveled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung so tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to tall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.
I have other favourite passages, but they all seem to have spoilers and so I didn’t want to share them here.
I have to again say here that I was delighted to see Seethaler’s book in the MAN Booker International Prize longlist. German books normally haven’t done well in international prizes recently from what I have seen and I don’t know why this is the case. Because German literature is beautiful and I love it. I don’t know whether Seethaler’s book will win the prize (I think it is up against some tough competition with Nobel Prize winners Orhan Pamuk and Kenzaburo Oe to contend against), but I will be happy if it gets into the shortlist. That is a win for me. Here’s three cheers to Seethaler for writing this beautiful book and three cheers to contemporary German literature.
I know we are still in the first quarter of the year and it is early days yet, but I have a sneaky suspicion that Seethaler’s book will end up being one of my favourite books of the year.
Have you read ‘A Whole Life’? What do you think about it?