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Posts Tagged ‘Robert Seethaler’

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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I had a not-so-good reading year in 2016. I read only 18 books. That is not not-so-good. That is bad. I left some of the books half-read. Not because they were not good, but because I was distracted or got into a reading slump. I could finish reading only 18.

That is the bad news. The good news is that I liked most of what I read. Actually loved most of them. That makes me very happy. That means, my list of favourites will contain most of the books I read 🙂 I don’t have to differentiate between them and choose some over others for arbitrary reasons. That is one of the great pleasures of reading less number of books. That makes me very happy.

So, without much further ado, here is the list of my favourite books from 2016, in no particular order.

Short Stories / Short Prose Pieces / Novellas

(1) A Game of Chess and other stories by Stefan Zweig

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My first proper book by Stefan Zweig. The title story was exceptional – it had some of the best passages I have read. There was also a beautiful description of the Riviera in another. Loved the whole book. I can’t wait to read another Stefan Zweig book.

(2) The Steppe by Anton Chekhov

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Chekhov’s love letter to the Russian Steppe. Also his longest story. My most favourite of his.

(3) A Dreary Story by Anton Chekhov

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One of Chekhov’s longer short stories. Loved it.

(4) The Walled City by Zeenat Mahal

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One of my favourite discoveries this year was author Zeenat Mahal (the nom de plume of Faiqa Mansab) and her novella The Walled City. It is a love story set in the beautiful city of Lahore and evokes the sights, sounds, smells, people and culture of the city so brilliantly. It also had one of my favourite passages :

“Saqib watched his work with forced detachment. He’d put his dreams to sleep on canvas after canvas, crystallized in a vice of color and form. Some had emerged as twisted nightmares, others as singed vestiges of shattered hopes.
     This painting was both.
     Like the woman, it had exacted much from him. He could almost feel the weight of the palette knife in his hands again, as he’d mixed and smeared, brushed and stroked in a frenzy of ecstasy or despair, until she’d emerged out of its blankness in the arms of another man, a faceless lover. But her almond shaped eyes that had held him captive for so long, gazed out at him, even now. He wasn’t just the painter; he was voyeur and conspirator, sinner and judge, plunderer and savior. The man in her arms didn’t matter, not to her, not to him.”

If you want to read ‘The Walled City‘ online, you can find it here.

Faiqa Mansab’s new book “This House of Clay and Water” is coming out in May. I can’t wait to read it.

(5) Strange Tales from the Make-Do Studio by Pu Songling

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There is a story plot which I have been fascinated by. In this story, a character from a book jumps out into the real world. (Or conversely a real world character jumps into a book or a painting). When I first heard this story, it gave me goosebumps. I discovered that Jasper Fforde has written this. Jodi Picoult has also written this. Then I discovered that Cornelia Funke has written this before them both. I was amazed to discover that Woody Allen wrote a story with this plot in the ’70s. (In his story Madame Bovary jumps out of the book into the real world and falls in love with the reader). Then I further discovered that Raymond Queneau wrote this in his book ‘The Flight of Icarus’. I thought this must be the earliest form of this story. I let it be. Imagine my surprise, when I discovered that Pu Songling had written similar stories. In the late 17th century! He seemed to be saying from the distant past – “Experimental writers from the 20th / 21st century – Take that! All these innovative plots that you think you invented (or copied from others without acknowledgement) – it has all been written and done and dusted.” Songling’s book is made up of ghost stories and stories of the supernatural written for grown-up mature readers. There are probably 500 stories of his. I probably read around 30 in this book. Many stories involve the main character, who is a scholar, who falls in love with a beautiful woman, but who turns out to be a ghost or a fox fairy or flower fairy. In many stories, the beautiful woman loves our scholar back, they get married and have children and live happily everafter 🙂 It is the kind of ghost story that I have never read before. This book deserves a proper review. Highly recommended.

(6) Contemplations by Franz Kafka

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I read ‘ The Metamorphosis‘ and many other stories by Kafka this year. My favourite was this one – his first ever published collection containing short one or two page prose pieces. Very beautiful.

Novels

(7) A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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A novel about an introverted, shy man whose life story it tells. Very beautiful. It got into many award shortlists. Wish it had won some.

(8) The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

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I got this book years back when it first came out. I finally read it. It is a retelling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet set in post Second World War America. The difference though is that our American Hamlet cannot speak and his parents rear dogs.  So, while we are expecting Hamletian madness to happen, we get one of the most beautiful dog novels ever written. Almondine is one of my most favourite dog characters ever and Easy is another favourite. There is a black pup (of which animal we never know) which our Hamlet’s dad saves from the flood. It refuses to eat or drink anything and the part of the story where it comes is beautiful and heartbreaking. I really should have written a proper review of this beautiful book.

(9) The Memory of Things by Gae Polisner

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This much awaited novel from one of my favourite writers is set in the aftermath of 9/11 and tells the story of ordinary people who show extraordinary courage. Gae Polisner says that the manuscript of her next novel has gone out already. I hope that novel comes out this year. We readers are always greedy!

(10) A True Novel by Minae Mizumura

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The longest novel of the year for me (862 pages). The longest novel I have ever read on the Kindle too. It has been called the Japanese Wuthering Heights. It was long and epic and I loved it.

Graphic Novels / Manga

(11) A Game of Thrones by George RR Martin (graphic novel – part 1)

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I got this because I was planning to watch the TV show. Before long the show took over. But till then, the graphic novel version of the book was good, very good.

(12) Barakamon (part 1) by Satsuki Yoshino

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A Manga comic about a young calligrapher who goes and lives in an island and his friendship with the islanders. Very charming! Can’t wait to read the next part!

Science

(13) The Universe in your Hand : A Journey through Space, Time and Beyond by Christophe Galfard

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Stephen Hawking’s former student gives his own version of the history of the universe. And I can confidently say that the student has excelled the master here. Galfard’s book is very readable. (Hawking’s book is unreadable after the first chapter – believe me, I tried). He uses storytelling techniques and science-fiction-movie-style narration to bring the most complex concepts alive. Probably the finest book on physics written for the general reader. One of the wonderful things that I learnt from this book was about the things we don’t know and which we will never know. This is a book that I will be reading again.

(14) The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg

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Weinberg’s book has been called the finest account of the Big Bang theory ever written. Weinberg being a Nobel Prize winner himself, this book has been well respected. I have wanted to read it for years. Finally got to read it. The initial few chapters are easy to follow. The book then gets more challenging. The thing I loved about the book though was reading Weinberg’s thoughts on physics and why it is important and why we should be doing it. Weinberg’s humility as a person and as a scientist shone through when he talked about the larger issues in science and his confidence as one of the great scientists of the 20th century shone through when he talked about the science we knew and could predict. It made me fall in love with him. I will be reading those parts of the book again.

(15) Mr Tompkins in paperback by George Gamov

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One of my friends has recommended this for years. I finally got around to reading it. It has two parts  – Mr.Tompkins in Wonderland and Mr.Tompkins Explores the Atom. Beautiful book on relativity, radioactivity, structure of the atom and quantum mechanics. It has one of the finest descriptions of radioactivity that I have ever read. The book also has a foreword by one of my favourite scientists Roger Penrose. That doubled my pleasure! Great book to gift to your young ones at home. I wish I had read this when I was in school.

Have you read any of these? Which are your favourite books from 2016?

Happy New Year! Hope you have a wonderful year filled with great books and beautiful reading moments 🙂

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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.

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‘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?

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