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Archive for the ‘Austrian Literature’ Category

I loved Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s first novel ‘A Whole Life. I decided to read his next book ‘The Tobacconist‘ for German Literature Month hosted by Caroline from Beauty is a Sleeping Cat and Lizzy from Lizzy’s Literary Life.

Franz lives with his mother in a small village in the middle of the mountains. Franz is seventeen years old. It is the 1930s. One day his family’s benefactor dies. Franz’ mother decides to send him to Vienna to an old’s friend’s place to work. This old friend is a tobacconist called Otto Trsnyek. Franz goes to work there as an apprentice. The tobacconist teaches him the finer points of the business and also tells him that most of the time he has to just keep quiet, read the newspaper and keep himself abreast of worldly affairs, and pay attention and learn when a customer arrives. All kinds of customers visit the shop. One day an elderly gentleman visits the shop. The tobacconist gets up with respect and calls him ‘Professor’. In the Vienna of that time, there can be only one Professor, of course. It is our famous Sigmund Freud. Soon a beautiful friendship develops between Franz and Freud. What happens after this, the experiences that Franz has as he grows up from a teenager into a young man, what impact Freud has on Franz’ life, and how the great historical events of the time impact individuals’ lives is told in the rest of the story.

I loved the different relationships depicted in the story – between Franz and his mother, between Franz and Otto Trsnyek the tobacconist, the warm friendship between Franz and Freud and the beautiful relationship between Franz and a young woman called Anezka. I loved all the main characters. One of my favourite scenes in the story was at the beginning when Otto Trsnyek inducts Franz into the life of a tobacconist and describes to him the importance of reading newspapers and the magic of cigars. I also loved the conversations between Franz and Freud. Freud comes through as a cool person with a wonderful sense of humour, which is not at all how I imagined him. The way in which the historical events of the time impacted normal people, and how some of them resisted the bad things that happened is beautifully depicted in the book.

I enjoyed reading ‘The Tobacconist‘. There is one more book of Seethaler which is available in English translation. I want to read that now.

I’ll leave you with some of my favourite passages from the book.

Franz : “Where I come from, people might understand a bit about the timber industry and how to get summer visitors to part with their money. They don’t understand the first thing about love.”
Freud : “That’s not unusual. Nobody understands anything about love.”
Franz : “Not even you?”
Freud : “Especially not me!”
Franz : “But why is everybody always falling in love all over the place, then?”
Freud : “Young man, you don’t have to understand water in order to jump in head first.”

“The professor swallowed. ‘A Hoyo de Monterrey,’ he said, huskily. Franz nodded. ‘Harvested by brave men on the sunny, fertile banks of the San Juan y Martínez River and tenderly hand-rolled by their beautiful women.’ Freud gently palpated the cigar along its entire length and squeezed it lightly between thumb and forefinger. ‘An aromatic habano that is light in taste, yet persuades through great elegance and complexity,’ said Franz, with a naturalness that gave no hint of the many painstaking hours it had cost him to learn the descriptions on the cigar box by heart. He took a silver-plated cigar cutter from the pocket of his trousers and handed it to the professor. ‘A habano should be cut precisely on the line — here, where cap and wrapper join.’ Freud cut off the end and lit the Hoyo with a match as long as his finger. In doing so he held the flame about a centimetre away from the tip and drew on the cigar until the flame reached it. Then he turned it slowly between his fingers and blew softly on the embers. He leaned back with a faint smile and gazed at the bluish smoke curling up and away in the clear winter air.”

“Sometimes a quiet rustling reached him from the shop. Mice, perhaps, thought Franz, or rats. Or the events of the previous day, already turned into memories and rustling out of the newspapers. It’s pretty odd, actually, he thought, the way the newspapers trumpet all their truths in big fat letters only to write them small again in the next edition, or contradict them. The morning edition’s truth is practically the evening edition’s lie; though as far as memory’s concerned it doesn’t really make much difference. Because it’s not usually the truth that people remember; it’s just whatever’s yelled loudly enough or printed big enough. And eventually, thought Franz, when one of these rustlings of memory has lasted long enough, it becomes history.”

“Those who knew nothing had no worries, thought Franz, but if it was hard enough painstakingly to acquire knowledge, it was even harder, if not practically impossible, to forget what you had once known.”

“…it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity — or, best of all, all three at once — can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

Have you read ‘The Tobacconist‘? What do you think about it?

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