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On Robert Seethaler’s Ein Ganzes Leben – A Whole Life (2013)

By Caroline

Ein ganzes LebenA Whole Life

I’ve heard a lot about Austrian author Robert Seethaler’s books, especially Der Trafikant, but only when I saw that his latest had been translated and longlisted for the Man Booker International Prize, did I finally feel like reading him. I’ve read so many raving reviews that I thought I’d love this. Unfortunately, I didn’t. When I went digging for German and Swiss reviews, I found out that he wasn’t so unanimously praised and that I was far from alone in being highly critical of this novel. That said, it’s not a bad book. It has beautiful passages but it felt oddly anachronistic and I couldn’t shake a feeling of déjà-vu” or rather “déjà-read”. I should have picked one of his other novels. I’ve read so many similar books by earlier authors that I couldn’t help but wonder “Why did he write this?”. Robert Walser, Meinrad Inglin, C.F. Ramuz, they all wrote similar stories but, in my opinion, much better. There’s even a recent crime novel that’s similar. Now, maybe it’s unfair to judge a book because of its lack of originality, but I had other problems. People wrote how beautiful it was, how soothing, calming, refreshing. The only thing I found soothing, calming, and refreshing was the moment when it was over and I realized – wow – am I grateful for my own life.

Our protagonist, Andreas Egger, is an orphan, has to live with an uncle who is cruel, even sadistic, beats him until he’s crippled. Later he falls in love but the woman is taken from him. After that he volunteers to go to war (we’re in 1940s) and is refused. Later he’s taken anyway and soon becomes a prisoner of war on the Russian Front. He comes home; things have changed. He works like a donkey. He’s always alone. He sees a buddy lose an arm. And so on and so fort. It takes a stronger reader than me to find much joy in something like this. I found it nightmarish.

I did like a few passages because the descriptions were amazing. I liked the way he captured the mountains. The book is set in the Alps, pre-electricity, pre-tourism, at first. I’ve seen the scary side of the Alps. I always feel like the mountains are alive, brooding and lying in waiting. Seethaler does evoke that. (But so do Inglin and Ramuz). I also liked a few really crazy moments like the beginning in which the main character carries an old man down the mountains (that doesn’t sound crazy but believe me— it is. I’m trying not to spoil this book too much).

In the NZZ, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, the critic Hannelore Schlaffer called this a book for sadists. Of course, that’s an exaggeration but I get what she means. I wish I had picked another of Seethaler’s books. They all sound wonderfully original. However, my biggest problem is that of all of his books, this is the one that was chosen for translation. Why? WWII? Again? Admittedly it’s just a short sequence but it’s important.

To some extent, I can see the appeal. Andreas Egger is a quiet man. Someone who doesn’t care for tourism and all the commodities a modern life brings. He’s modest and humble. You couldn’t find a character who is less narcissistic. All this is admirable but why did Seethaler have to turn this into such a biblical story? Couldn’t our humble protagonist have experienced more joy? Why was Seethaler so cruel to his character?

It may surprise you, but I’m tempted to pick another of Seethaler’s novels and I’m even convinced I will like it. Not every book is for everyone and this one wasn’t for me.

Those who loved this might enjoy Robert Schneider’s Schlafes Bruder – Brother of Sleep, which I found amazing. They might also enjoy this trio of Swiss writers, two of which write in German, one in French: Robert Walser, Meinrad Inglin, and C. F. Ramuz.

As I said, I have read many positive reviews of this book. Here are a few Lizzy, Vishy, and Stu.

Here’s the link to the NZZ review (in German)


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