A Pure Soul: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (2014)

I’m always urging my students to be governed by the principle of interpretive charity. I want them to take the text for what it is, not what it could or ought to be. I want them to be able to explain what makes the works they’re studying what they are. I exhort them not to smooth away the strangeness of the books we read. And although I believe our emotional responses to books matter a lot, I also think our primary task isn’t to grade them, to give them a thumbs up or thumbs down.

Usually I follow this advice here at the blog. Today I’m going to ignore it.

I can’t remember now where I first heard about Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben, translated by Charlotte Collins as A Whole Life. Probably on Twitter, where else do I hear anything these days? As an Albertan of Swiss heritage, mountains run deep in my blood, so a novel about a man who with one important exception spends his entire life in a remote valley in the Austrian Alps seemed like just my thing.

So obviously I snapped up the book when I came across it on a recent trip to Canada—it will be published in the US later this year—and I read it in a couple of sittings this weekend. (It’s really a novella, not even 150 pp in this generously spaced edition.) Although the ominous words “The International Bestseller” on the front cover put me on my guard, I started the book, as I do almost every book, prepared to like it.

That didn’t last long.

A Whole Life is an example of my least favourite genre: worthy middlebrow pap. I can only imagine Thomas Bernhard, probably the greatest Austrian writer since the war, author of plenty of books set in the Alps, fulminating against it, though he’d probably decide it wasn’t even worth his time. It’s possible this book will soon disappear into the oblivion it deserves. But I can imagine it becoming a “surprise hit,” “the most talked-about book of the season,” “a darling of book clubs everywhere.” I’m the sort of person who burns with rage in anticipation of things that might not happen. I’m ready for people to tell me how moving and beautiful and life affirming they found A Whole Life, how I simply have to read it. I’m ready for the book to be an undeserved success. Hey, haters gonna hate.

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A Whole Life is about Andreas Egger, who arrives as a small child at the beginning of the 20th century in the unnamed alpine valley that becomes his home. The boy is unceremoniously deposited with a small-minded, vicious farmer named Hubert Kranzstocker. Egger is the child of one of Kranzstocker’s sisters-in-law, whose dissolute life in the city (which is to say, her life in the city) has led ineluctably to her death by consumption. Egger never really becomes part of his adopted family, he’s more hired hand than anything, which is lucky for Kranzstocker, whose other children aren’t very good at farm work and have besides a worry tendency to be felled by childhood diseases. Egger, by contrast, is strong, so strong that he survives the beatings Kranzstocker metes out to him, even when Kranzstocker goes too far and breaks the boy’s leg, an injury that leaves him crippled.

Seethaler has no time for lingering—the point of his book seems to be that everything passes if you’re stoic enough—and so before long we’re following the adult Egger as he builds a small home for himself high up the mountain on a bit of grass too rocky to pasture any animals on. In short order he tentatively courts the new serving girl at the inn, marries her, and takes on more permanent work with Bittermann & Sons, a construction and blasting company recently arrived in the valley to build its first cable car.

We’re in the early 1930s now and the most interesting parts of the book are the descriptions of Egger and his mates at their dangerous work of modernization. Unfortunately, Seethaler isn’t really interested in cable cars as anything more than a symbol, so these descriptions are far too cursory. Nothing here to match, for example, Philip Roth’s description of the glove-making factory in American Pastoral. You won’t learn how to build a cable car from this book.

After a terrible accident destroys his brief domestic happiness, Egger has nothing but his work to console and occupy him. His wife’s death sends him into a kind of fugue state that might be one way of explaining why we never hear any reference to events in the world beyond the valley until one evening Egger enters his boarding house to find his landlady crying before a silent wireless set, which is strange because “at this hour [it] was usually blasting out brass-band music or Adolf Hitler’s furious tirades.” War has been declared; Egger tries to join up (we’ve no idea why) but is rejected because of his leg.

But three years later even crippled men are being conscripted. Egger is sent to the Caucasus because of his expertise in mountain engineering. There he’s ordered to man a remote outpost where he never fires a shot, and which he leaves once his supplies are no longer replenished weekly, an ominous sign he rightly interprets as  an indication that things are not going well for his side. On the way back to the front, he’s captured by Soviet forces and spends several years as a POW.

Egger isn’t able to return home until 1951, but the years pass so briskly it doesn’t seem that much of a hardship. Here for example is Seethaler describing how nothing changes for Egger and his fellow prisoners once the war ends:

The work remained the same, the millet soup was thinner than ever, and the flies still circled unperturbed around the beams of the latrine.

A page and a half later we’re given this meager summary—laconic to the point of bathos—of these years: “It was almost another six years before Egger’s time in Russia came to an end.” His time in Russia: as if it were fated or preordained. Everything in this book is described in the same clipped, blasé manner. It’s just one damn thing after another.

Returning home, Egger finds things only a little changed. The mayor doesn’t display swastikas anymore, but he’s still the mayor. Franzstocker is still around, but older and frailer and he dies before long. Bittermann & Sons has gone belly up, but Egger makes do on a war pension until he stumbles into a new career guiding tourists, a new breed of people called into being by those cable cars (and postwar affluence). Egger has always loved the mountains, feels better when he’s on his feet all day, despite his limp. Sometimes the tourists are annoying or irritating, spoiled or sententious or smart alecky, but mostly they’re grateful for the beauty he shows him and besides we never have much sense of what Egger thinks other than that he apparently doesn’t think that much, not that he’s stupid, just not reflective.

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Egger keeps getting older. He misses his late wife, almost gets involved with an older female teacher but can’t. (Her response to his spurning of her advances is the only moment of true emotion in this book. Too bad she disappears after only five pages.) Television is the latest thing, but it doesn’t do much for Egger. He remembers only two moments: one (sadly undeveloped, and not quite strange enough to be really interesting) showing Grace Kelly getting off a plane, the other the moon landing.

Egger gets too old to guide anymore and retreats to a little hut high above the village. One night in February, sitting by candlelight at his little table, thinking about the coming snowmelt, Egger is

overcome by a feeling of warmth at the thought of his leg, that piece of rotten wood that had carried him through the world for so long [a puzzling image, since his leg is not actually a prosthetic]. At the same time he was no longer sure whether he was still thinking this, or was already dreaming. He heard a sound, very close to his ear: a gentle whisper, as if someone were speaking to a little child. “I suppose it is late,” he heard himself say, and it was as if his own words hovered in the air in front of him for a few moments before bursting in the light of the little moon in the window. He felt a bright pain in his chest, and watched as his body sank slowly forwards and his head came to rest with his cheek on the tabletop. He heard his own heart. And he listened to the silence when it stopped beating. Patiently he waited for the next heartbeat. And when none came, he let go and died.

A good death for a good man. That “patiently” says it all, characterizes everything Seethaler wants to say about Egger. Not that he’s passive or a spectator in his life. (All the language of observing the self in this passage, all that out of body stuff, is actually quite unusual in the book, though again I don’t think Seethaler does anything much with it.) Egger’s end isn’t the book’s, though. Seethaler gives us a little coda, a story from a few months earlier, when Egger suddenly decides to take the bus to the town at the bottom of the valley. Here too nothing happens: he’s a bit disoriented, unsure what he’s done or why he’s come. After wandering aimlessly around the square for a minute, he is helped by the driver back on to the bus that takes him home and it’s not until he’s in the thinner air again that he recovers. Arriving home, he heads not for his hut but for the trails. He’s filled with a blurred nameless memory, probably of the opening scene, which describes a failed wintertime rescue of a different old man, one we are invited to see that Egger has become, an old man who deliberately lost himself in the snow rather than suffer any more. Egger responds to this “fleeting recollection of something very long ago, little more than a blurred image”: “ ‘Not just yet,’ he said, quietly.” And in this way the story of a good, unassuming life gets prolonged beyond its end. A quietly triumphant conclusion to this quiet book.

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Yet that very restraint seems to me nothing but self-satisfied bullshit. Take the book’s attitude towards history. I appreciate that it’s not constructed with the certainty of hindsight: this isn’t one of those historical novels where characters are always running into people or experiencing events that we’ve decided were significant. After all, what later generations decide to call history usually passes us by in the moment. So I’m willing to believe fascism passed Egger by. Well, I’m not, really–the almost total ellison of fascism is more than a little convenient. But what really gets me is the complete flattening away of history, the absence of any sense that what makes a life meaningful or what counts as suffering is historically inflected if not constructed. This absence makes the book so flat as to seem not even autistic, but catatonic. I can’t even tell if we’re meant to understand Egger as an average person, a representative man of the century. I think he’s supposed to be more than that, a kind of model we might aspire to if only we could make our own lives as simple as his. But it’s hard to know for sure because Egger is a total blank, not even interesting enough to be a cipher.

Seethaler’s narrative decisions are largely responsible for making Egger such a nonentity. We’re so seldom inside his head—so much so that I was drawn up short by this passage:

The weeks and months after the opening ceremony at the top station [the successful completion of the first cable car] were the happiest of Andreas Egger’s life. [The unnecessary use of his full name signals that what comes next might be free indirect discourse: we might be getting access to his interior life.] He saw himself as a small but not unimportant cog [that litotes doesn’t fit with his way of thinking and speaking—plus, a cog, get it? Just like he used in building the cable car!] in a gigantic machine called Progress, and sometimes, before falling asleep, he would picture himself sitting in the belly of this machine as it ploughed inexorably through forests and mountains, contributing, with the heat and sweat of his brow, to its ongoing advance. He had taken the words with the heat and sweat of his brow from a tattered magazine Marie has found under one of the benches in the inn, and from which she would sometimes read to him in the evenings.

That clumsy reference to “the heat and sweat of his brow,” that obstreperous explanation of how he came to use these words: this is the first time we’ve been led to believe that Egger himself is lending anything to the narration of the story. It feels unearned and unnecessary, a piece of authorial clumsiness that reminds me of the much later description of the day the schoolteacher rejected by Egger leaves the village:

One cold morning, before sunrise, she climbed aboard the post bus with two suitcases, sat down in the back seat, closed her eyes, and, as the driver later reported, didn’t open them again once throughout the journey.

Seethaler is so keen to make a point about the woman’s utter defeat—the possibility that those close eyes could indicate resistance never enters into the picture—that he’s willing to offer this implausible description: no one driving a bus down a mountain road would be looking at his passenger the whole time. The sentiment is uttered only for us; Seethaler doesn’t even try to make it organic to the story.

A Whole Life studiously rejects reflection—the closest we get is the dime-store existentialism of Egger’s sudden outburst to a tourist he’s had to rescue from near death, “Each one of us limps alone!” One night Egger awakes suddenly to find his window “clouded by hundreds of moths”: “For a moment Egger thought their appearance must be a sign, but he didn’t know what it was supposed to mean, so he closed his eyes and tried to go back to sleep.” I don’t think the book is poking even gentle fun at him here. It’s not that he’s dim, not that he’s missing out on some significant, even portentous moment. There’s really nothing to make of that evanescence.

In so steadily agreeing with Egger’s even-keeled banality, the book ends up presenting him as an exemplar of a life well lived. Early in his days on the cable car, Egger falls in with a would-be philosopher named Mattl. Mattl dies an absurd death—he falls asleep in a bath tub and catches pneumonia—and the foreman, who hardly knows him “cobble[s] together” a short funeral address, “which talked about the hard work on the mountain and Mattl’s pure soul.” The foreman is being disparaged here, but Seethaler ends up presenting exactly what he’s ironized, giving us a story of hard work on the mountains and Egger’s pure soul.

To paraphrase that peerless old New Yorker cartoon, I say A Whole Life is nothing but unearned redemption and I say the hell with it.

 

 

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