It would be hard to find a book on my shelves with a less exciting title than A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler. The synopsis didn’t sound promising either. Which is why this novella remained on those shelves unread for two years.
But all assumptions this would be a dull book were swept aside after only five pages. Although nothing of any great magnitude happens throughout the 160 pages, this tale of a quiet, unassuming man who lives a simple life in an alpine valley, captivated and bewitched me.
A Whole Life is exactly what it says on the cover: the tale of the entire life of one man.
That man is Andreas Egger. His life is unremarkable. He never achieves greatness. He can’t boast of sporting prowess or exceptional intelligence. Nor can he point to awards or inventions. He’s just a dependable man, a hard worker who simply wants to get on with life as quietly as possible.
He was a good worker, didn’t ask for much, barely spoke, and tolerated the heat of the sun in the fields as well as the biting cold in the forest. He took on any kind of work and did it reliably and without grumbling.
Andreas arrives in an Austrian mountain village as a four year old boy. He dies more than 70 years later, only once having left the valley when called up towards the end of the 2nd World War.
Life does not prove kind to this man.
Andreas has no clear memory of his mother, never mentions any father. The relative who gives him a home beats him so extensively, he’s left with a permanent link. But somehow Andreas, slow of speech and awkward in his movements, survives.
He grows strong, stronger than any other man in his village. He finds love only to lose it after a pitifully short time; escapes death in avalanches and storms while working as a cable car mechanic and endures hell as a Russian prisoner of war.
When he returns to his valley he makes his home in a sparsely furnished one room shed embedded into the hillside. To earn a living he reinvents himself as a guide for tourists on walking holidays.
Sometimes it was a little lonely up there, but he didn’t regard his loneliness as a deficiency. He had no one but he all he needed and that was enough.
Despite all the hardships, Andreas never descends into self pity or recriminations. Never rages against his ill-fortune. He’s not without hopes and desires but doesn’t fret about what might have been.
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.
Andreas simply accepts his lot and endures whatever life throws at him. One day at a time.
Amazed By Life
The Whole Life gives us a tender portrait of an unassuming man endowed with more capacity for forbearance than most individuals. Seethaler’s narrative voice is equally calm and measured throughout, drawing us ever deeper into Andreas’ inner thoughts as we follow every twist and turn of this man’s life.
The other villagers view him as an odd figure, “an old man who lived in a dugout, talked to himself, and crouched in a freezing cold mountain stream to wash every morning.”
But though his needs are simple, Andreas is not a simple man in the sense of lacking in intelligence. He delights in the beauty of the landscape around him. He marvels at the changes in the world around him; the arrival of electricity in the valley, man’s landing on the Moon. He accepts them all in the spirit of “silent amazement” and wonder, with which he views his own life:
He had never felt compelled to believe in God, and he wasn’t afraid of death. He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.”
This is an evocative, tender novella, lacking in sentimentality yet deeply moving in its portrayal of a quiet soul.
Fast Facts: A Whole Life
Robert Seethaler was born in Vienna but grew up in Germany.
A Whole Life, translated by Charlotte Collins, was his fifth novel but the first to be translated into English. It was published in 2015 and went on to be shortlisted for 2017 Booker International Prize and the 2017 International Dublin Literary Award
I read this as part of my booksofsummer reading list.