A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
This small book makes a huge impact. It has been a bestseller in its original German language publication (selling some 150,000 copies) and readers can now join in this thoroughly deserved enthusiasm in English translation.
Andreas Egger is born in 1898, though his exact birth date is unknown: he was left orphaned at a young age and sent to live with a farmer uncle and his family in a village nestled in the Austrian Alps. His early years are difficult, and include routine beatings by his reluctant guardian, one of which is so severe that it leaves him to walk with a limp. But as a young man, he is able to quit this situation and make his own way, eventually meeting a woman with whom he falls in love, before he leaves the village to serve in World War II. Set against the backdrop of an awesome natural world, this is a life lived modestly, often in solitude, and in consternation at the changes taking place around him as his village transitions from provincial enclave to tourist destination during the later years of the twentieth century.
A Whole Life offers a simple story. In a sense, not much seems to happen in the life of this ordinary man, but at the same time so much does. As it is for all of us, Egger’s existence is given shape by the mundane events and relationships on the personal scale (family, love, work, loss) as they intersect with the larger incidents of wide-ranging impact (war, natural calamity, technological change). A comparison to John Williams’s wonderful Stoner may seem inevitable here but is not at all off the mark: Seethaler too uses a seemingly unremarkable character as a way of explaining what it is like to be in the world, and beautifully articulates the profound pleasure and special privilege of being alive. A quiet delight.
Alison Huber is Readings’ Head Book Buyer.