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Haunted by A Gentle Survivor [Review]

A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

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

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.

Summer Reading 2019: It’s A Wrap

Summer reading

Clearly I am a fan of taking things to the wire.

I finished book 13 from my #summer reading list with five minutes to spare before the end of the deadline. But if September 3 had come and gone and I still had a few pages left to read, I don’t imagine anything disastrous would have befallen me.

I’m pretty chuffed that I managed to read 13 books. . I know plenty of other bloggers reached the heights of 20 but that was never going to happen for me.

If I was being disingenuous I would also count the three books that I started but abandoned half way. But somehow saying that I read 14.5 books doesn’t have much of a ring about it!

My original summer reading list had 15 titles. They were all designed to take me on a virtual summer holiday around the world. The original list and the list of what I actually read are somewhat different however.

Passport Stamps Collected

I never did get to India and my journey to Asia wasn’t very successful but I did still manage to visit Wales (twice) ; Austria; Croatia; Canada; US; Jamaica; Australia, England (three times) and Rwanda.

The books from the list that I finished were :

Wales: Ghostbird by Carol Lovekin

USABreakfast at Tiffanys by Truman Capote

AustriaA Whole Life by Robert Seethaler

Croatia: Hotel Tito by  Ivana Simić Bodrožić.

Jamaica: The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Canada: The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny

AustraliaShell by Kristina Olsson

Journeys Abandoned

I got about half way through these books but it was a struggle. The Midwife was about the weakest.

FinlandThe Midwife by Katja Kettu. This was one of those novels that assumes readers are deeply interested in the historical background of the story. While a certain amount of that can be interesting and helpful, with this book it was confusing and dull.

IndonesiaTwilight in Djakarta by Mochtar Lubis. This started well, focusing on a desperately poor man who is eking out a living as a rubbish collector. But then the whole book got bogged down in a discussion about Communist. If I wanted to know that much about Marxist theory I cold just have bought a pool on political ideology.

Malaysia: Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. This was on the reading list for a MOOC course on historical fiction although I never got around to reading it at the time. It’s based on traditional beliefs about death and the afterlife held by the Chinese population of Malaysia. I enjoyed reading that element but then the book turned into some odd story about a girl who tries to solve a murder in the spirit world. Weird…

Unplanned Detours

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

When I put that summer reading I overlooked four books I had committed to review. This is what took me off course and kept me in the UK for longer than expected.

EnglandA Single Thread  by Tracy Chevalier

England : Sanditon by Jane Austen

England: Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield

Wales: The Jeweller by Carys Lewis

Rwanda: The Barefoot Woman by Scholastique Mukasonga. This was a replacement for one of the books I abandoned.

New Tickets Needed

These are the books I never got around to reading. All except for the Kate Duigan have been in my ‘owned but unread’ shelves for several years.

Summer Reading

IndiaA Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

South Africa: A Dry White Season by Andre Brink

New Zealand: Ships by Fiona Duigan

China: Frog Music by Mo Yan

GermanyAlone in Berlin by Hans Fallada

I might squeeze in one or two before the year is out. Given my lack of success with the two Asian authors on my summer reading list, I might try the Mo Yan. Have any of you read it? Would you recommend this book?

Summer holidays 2017: What books are in your luggage?

summer reading 17The summer holiday season is in full swing now (at least in the northern hemisphere). Apparently this weekend is the big getaway when multiple thousands of us Brits depart this isle in search of warmer climes and sunnier skies. Even our Prime Minister has packed her bags and departed for a walking holiday and the Downing Street cat has been moved into temporary accommodation next door with the Chancellor. Those choosing to holiday at home just hope it stays dry but if not, then they’ll encounter merely the odd sprinkling of rain rather than a deluge. Nothing more guaranteed to the take the veneer off that camping holiday than day after day of rain fall.

Whether the destination is a lazy beach holiday in the sun,  a trek through the mountains of Switzerland or a meander around French chateaux and vineyards, our national newspapers claim to have found exactly the right books to be your companions.  I enjoy reading those lists of  ‘summer holiday must reads’ and not simply to look smug at home many of them I’ve read (actually the answer this year is very few since I’ve been concentrating on reading books bought in past years so haven’t read much published in 2017). But I often get ideas for gifts to myself and for others when I see the recommendations.

So what do the professional reviewers/commentators think we should all be putting in our cases and backpacks?

The Daily Telegraph listed 15 titles in their ‘literary’ category.

  • Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout: A sort of follow up to her highly esteemed My Name is Lucy Barton
  • The Ministry of Utmost Happiness by Arundhati Roy: Her first novel for 20 years and it’s a scorcher apparently.
  • Transit by Rachel Cusak. Second in a trilogy that began with Outline, and is built almost entirely in the form of conversations.
  • The Underground Railroad by Colson Whithead: I thought this was doing the rounds last summer so odd to see it pop up again in 2017
  • House of Names by Colm Toibin: A retelling of an ancient Greek tale about Agamemnon’s sacrifice of his daughter Cassandra
  • Moonglow by Michael Chabon: The (fictionalised) deathbed memories of Chabon’s grandfather, an American-Jewish rocket scientist.
  • Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders: This revolves around the ghost of Abraham Lincoln’s son who died aged 11, and his neighbours in the graveyard. A very large cast of characters who all get their moment in the spotlight.
  • White Tears by Hari Kunzru: Two white boys, one an outsider, one a nerd, bond over their infatuation with black music.
  • Commonwealth by Ann Patchett: To call this “a novel of American domestic life”, a description I’ve seen in multiple places, does a disservice to Patchett’s talent.
  • Swing Time by Zadie Smith: Two female friends growing up on the same kind of housing estate in north west London where Smith herself spent her formative years.
  • The Lesser Bohemians by Eimear McBride: Expect the same kind of bewildering fragmentary narrative style as in her earlier A Girl is a Half Formed Thing.
  • The Traitor’s Niche by Ismael Kadare: the only translated book to feature in this list. Set in the Ottoman era, a world where everything is subordinated to the needs of the state.
  • The Power by Naomi Alderman: Winner of the Bailey’s Prize 2017
  • First Love by Gwendoline Riley:  A novella tracing the disintegration of a marriage
  • Night of Fire by Colin Thubron: Fire breaks out in a large house divided into flats. Each tenant gets to tell the story.
  • Reservoir 13 by John McGregor: Each of the 13 chapters covers a single year since a 13-year old girl goes missing when out walking with her family
  • The Idiot by Elif Batuman: A comic portrayal of  university life in the 90s
  • Conversations with Friends by Sally Rooney:  A debut work about four Dubliners in a strange relationship.

There’s a lot of overlap between this list and recommendations made in The Guardian‘s article where they asked some authors what they would recommend and in The Sunday Times list of 50 Beach Reads. Lincoln in the Bardo, House of Names and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness came up more than once.

How many of these have I read? OK I come clean – the answer is zero. I do have Commonwealth and Anything is Possible on my Goodreads wishlist and will now add two more as a result of these recommendations: Night of Fire and Reservoir 13. 

I do enjoy peeking behind the curtain to find out what authors will be packing alongside their flip flops and sun hats but the real fun for me comes when the newspaper approaches our politicians to ask either for their recommendations or the titles of books they’ll be taking on their own holidays. I can only imagine the angst such a request triggers because it comes laden with minefields for the unwary.  The ministers and Cabinet members will want to ensure their choices are suitably matched to the seriousness of our times so they’ll probably nominate something rather worthy about economic or social issues. Then they’ll think they need to mix that up with some choices that show they have the finger on the pulse so will pick one or two titles that ‘everyone is talking about’, probably from the top of the Sunday Times list. And just to show that they have a personality and are, deep down, just like you and me, they’ll finish off with something odd or witty. It wouldn’t surprise me to find some of these folks even get their public affairs advisers to put the list together so they don’t unwittingly trip up. What you never see is anyone brave enough to admit that they just want a darn good crime story or thriller. Where’s the harm in admitting that after a stressful few months, they simply want to chill out. I bet you that more than one of them sneaks an Ian Rankin or Jo Nesbo into their luggage.

How many of these ever so worthy titles they mention, actually get read? I now that’s something I’d love to know but we never get to find out. No newspaper ever seems to go back to these people and ask them for their reactions. I bet most of them come back with hardly a blob of suntan cream  blemishing their pristine pages.

What will I be taking on my holidays? No flitting off to the sun for me yet sadly – I’m still in recovery from my last round of surgery and not yet allowed to fly. But I’m hoping to make it to a cottage in Derbyshire in a few weeks and since I won’t be constrained by luggage weight restrictions I can pack in quite a few options. As always I won’t decide until the night before we leave – or given my procrastination, it might be in the last 30 minutes before we head off.

What are you packing with your sun dresses and shorts this year? Anything from the list of recommendations that takes your fancy?

 

 

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