A Whole Life
Set against a pastoral landscape, Seethaler's writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Thomas Hardy's novels. Charlotte Collins skilfully captures the bleak yet beautiful atmosphere through her translation. The narrative is not linear, so although it is at times difficult to keep track of the timeline, this technique suits the feel of the novel (navigating through ambiguity in times of change).
I was struck by Andreas Egger as a character. Robert Seethaler expertly depicts real emotion through him, and the result is extremely moving. Through Egger, we see the result of real trauma and the impact of a tragic event. Naturally a lone wolf, we follow Egger as he withdraws further into solitude, seemingly abhorrent of human contact. As modernity permeates his village, Andreas Egger pushes back with his vision of how things should be and does not allow himself to be swept up in the transformation. In this Egger is stoic, which I can admire. But at the same time there is something desperately sad about how lonely he appears. And whilst he does not seem dissatisfied with his life, he seems far from fulfilled, which adds to the bleak and desolate landscape.
'A Whole Life' is deceptive in its simplicity. It has received obvious comparisons with Stoner with its pared down description of the life of a single, fairly solitary man, and the comparative inanity of his life; I think it could equally be compared to Hemingway, not only for its sparse language, but its gritty, old fashioned portrayal of masculinity. Andreas Egger is definitely someone you would want on your side: strong, dependable, not drawn from his path by shallow (sinful?) distractions. As such, Seethaler draws attention to the kind of labour that is often unrecognised. Egger helps to build and maintain the cable car that arrives in his village, providing a service for the influx of tourists, this work also drawing attention to the easily forgotten suffering of the workers, epitomised by one labourer losing his arm in an accident. Egger is also clearly a man of conscience, demonstrated by his romantic proposal to his future wife, and his attempted rescue of the old man at the start. He seems content with the life he has made for himself, literally moving hermit-like through various homes around the valley, without disturbing anyone.
This simplicity is often frustrating, however. Called up to fight in the Second World War, Egger offers no real commentary on the conflict, something I would have found especially interesting from a German author. In fact, the war, and Egger’s confinement, is brushed over relatively quickly; there is no indication that Egger feels any injustice at being kept prisoner long after the cessation of hostilities. Although this is arguably exemplary of Egger’s quiet dignity, it is perhaps reflective more of a suppression of emotion, that he is unable to comprehend the suffering he has witnessed outside of his own village. We’re not sure what Egger thinks about most things – perhaps he thinks nothing, perhaps he doesn’t even know about them. Indeed, the fact that Egger only leaves the village one other time in his entire life seems to suggest an isolated, enclosed existence, one that which few would aspire, despite Egger’s numerous characteristics that are undoubtedly admirable. This makes his watching of the moon landings doubly poignant, reminiscent of science-fiction.
Seethaler seems to point towards the overall simplicity and insignificance of the life of an individual, someone who may not have altered the course of history, but undoubtedly lived a life, existed. The portrayal of Egger’s life in the Alps balances the influence of humankind with the unstoppable constancy of nature, that no matter how far we may advance technologically, some things will never change. We are reminded, however, of what Egger misses out on, not only after he has died, but even during his own lifetime.