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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18 thoughts on “A Pure Soul: Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (2014)

  1. I appreciate this articulate assessment. I have kept wondering about this (if you think Bernhard would have disapproved, that’s all I need to know). I try to refrain from writing negative reviews myself, I believe the approach you recommend to your students is best and, in the end, teaches one more about reading and writing. But of course, sometimes that is not possible. I for one am glad to have such a frank review in this case.

    Do you ever get up to the Calgary area (or hereabouts)? I would love to get together and talk books if you’re in the neighbourhood.

    • Well, I certainly could have just said nothing. But something about this book bugged me.
      Yes, I get up there every year for a couple of weeks (probably most of July this year) and would *love* to do that. We can go book shopping!

  2. This is certainly convincing! The book sounds dreadful. I’m a bit curious why this book in particular got you quite SO exercised: there’s lots of ‘pap’ out there, often not really aspiring to greatness. Is your reaction tied to the fear you expressed that the book will get undeserved adulation? I certainly hate it when books I think are stupid and bad get all the hype, and prize nominations, and the rest of it! That makes it much harder to shrug off mediocrity. I’d never heard of this one before your review (not that means anything much, given just how many books there are!). Or maybe part of the vexation is that this is a bad book about things you really take seriously — that is, it has the potential to be a great book, if it weren’t so cheap. I’m not objecting — I enjoy a good hate and have produced my share of them! I’m just curious. Sometimes in my own case I have felt I brought the hammer down too hard on a book that was actually pretty trivial. That said, why not hold every book to the highest standards we know?

    • Excellent questions. I’ve been wondering about this myself. Quite possibly I’ll regret having been so zealous. As you say, why expend the energy on something that doesn’t deserve it? I think you are right on all counts, though: I’m (doubtless overly) bothered by the undeserved adulation (don’t know if that will happen in the US but it was quite popular in German speaking Europe and the UK); I’m frustrated about the book’s cheap evasions re: history; and I’m probably displacing my anger at a bad professional situation on to this poor book (3 years of committee work sabotaged at the last minute by a formerly-close colleague…).
      The other thing is, I don’t actually read that many books I don’t like. My reading time is so limited I try to choose things I think I’ll like, and I’m getting better at finishing things that don’t work for me.
      In the end I think my main complaint with A Whole Life has to do with your phrase “not really aspiring to greatness.” That’s the problem: I think this book fancies itself something special.
      Thanks for helping me think this through a little more clearly! Good teacher!

      • I get really mad at bad George Eliot-inspired novels (as you may have noticed). Some things are too important to do badly! And like you, I get riled up at hype I think is undeserved. I’ve started to feel that way about Ferrante, even though I think her books are pretty good. They just aren’t THAT good!

  3. I’ve been a bit puzzled by the almost hostile reaction to this book in several reviews, including this one, so I feel compelled to engage, if that’s okay. I read A Whole Life in its French translation back in December, so I can’t speak to the English translation, nor is the novel fresh in my mind – nor, for that matter, despite my having liked the book quite a lot when I read it, has it stuck with me much, so make of that what you will.

    In my amateur reading, I may be way off the mark, hoping for more in the book than may be actually there, but I certainly don’t agree that Seethaler is “presenting him [Eggers] as an exemplar of a life well-lived.” In fact I sensed that he was doing if not the opposite, then something quite like it, with the title itself a clue as to how to approach the book. This is “a whole life”? This wretched Alpine village, these simple ruminations, the world’s events – even the war that swallows that world – like mere impingements compared to the powerful draw and force of one’s insular origins? Rather than a “flattening away of history,” is it not that Eggers lives almost outside of history, unconcerned with its implications – like, one might add, most of his fellow citizens in their relation to Nazism? I don’t see him as some everyman, but he is certainly some men, some people, who get pulled along by the world with a minimum of resistance and who end up having only the faintest idea of what has happened to them, or why. Seethaler manages to complicate Eggers by humanizing him. And this is non sequitur, but just to address one of your quibbles with the narrative elements, the “laconic” treatment of the six years in Russia made sense to me; most of the people in my life who went through that war didn’t talk about it much either (though I much liked your catching the mountain driver’s monitoring of the woman’s closed eyes – d’oh!).

    I also found it helpful to read Seethaler’s book framed by some related others, especially Swiss modernist C. F. Ramuz’s Alpine novels, such as Derborance, and fellow Austrian Franz Innerhofer’s Beautiful Days. In addition to the Alpine setting, Ramuz has a remarkably similar economy of language and sensitive focus on simple mountain people for whom local events may have more impact and significance than those of the distant world. As for Innerhofer, I wondered if Seethaler just might be consciously alluding to his book (Kranzstocker, for example, could have been lifted right out of it), perhaps even via his title. Andrea Eggers could almost represent the fleshing out of “a whole life” of a character like the protagonist of Innerhofer’s extraordinary novel, which spans only childhood and adolescence, a youth so terribly bleak as to make one wonder why one would want to go on (the book’s author elected not to). What would become of such a person if he did, unequipped with the same tools of resistance?

    I did not think Seethaler’s work was as strong as that of Ramuz or Innerhofer – and scarcely anyone anywhere is as simultaneously caustic and entertaining as the towering and singular Bernhard. But each of those writers sets an especially high bar, and I came away from A Whole Life appreciative of Seethaler’s portrait and thinking that he works a vein not dissimilar to those mined by Innerhofer and Bernhard. The book didn’t leave me with much of a desire to visit Austria, that’s for sure.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful response! This is the kind of engagement I dreamed of when starting the blog. You’ve certainly made me reconsider the book; not sure I’m sold, but it’s really helpful to have been given such useful ways of thinking about what Seethaler might be up to.

      I’ve been thinking a lot about what you say about Eggers, that he’s someone who lives outside of history, someone for whom history can’t compete in the face of “the powerful draw and force of one’s insular origins,” as you nicely put it. What I can’t figure out, though, is what the relationship between character and narrator is supposed to be in this novel. So for example in relation to the whole Eastern Front business: I’d be more convinced by your reading if the novel had cued us more clearly that it was attached to or guided by Eggers’s subjectivity. (Such as it is, I guess; the point might be that he doesn’t have much of one.) Then I’d willing to take the novel’s reticence re: the war as Eggers’s own. But if anything it seems to me–and I confess I sold the novel so can’t go back and check–that the novel is mostly distancing itself from Eggers: that’s my I was so thrown by that turn to something like free indirect discourse that I quoted. Seethaler’s narration seemed neither well controlled nor poorly controlled in an interesting way.

      What *did* convince me was your discussion of the context Seethaler might have been writing in. I’ve got one of Ramuz’s books lying around here somewhere, but have never got around to it. And I’d never even heard of Innerhofer, so thanks for that tip. I am guessing, though, that those writers never sought to make the kind of grand, representative claims Seethaler is–I guess I am still stuck on the Eggers as Everyman, or at least “twentieth century European man” reading. I’m thinking of all the stuff about the coming of technology, whether it be the cable cars or the leisure industry or television or the moon landing. I guess I thought the novel was promoting an idea of authenticity that felt especially false to me in such an inauthentic seeming book.

      Still, I’m taken with your reading of the novel as about what a place can do to a person. Does the fact that Eggers is an orphan, and in some sense not even native to the valley complicate or confirm your reading?

      Have you read any of Seethaler’s other books? Curious whether this one is typical.

      Thanks again for reading and responding.

      • Thanks so much for your reply, and for tolerating my own poorly controlled thoughts about this book. I suppose I really must go back and re-read it; just to be clear, I’m not altogether convinced by my reading of the novel either. And I do remember, while reading it, having the same thought as you about Eggers’ time in Russia, that it seemed strange not to have more about that. Only afterwards did I connect it with the possibility of a reticence tied to not wanting to dwell on such hardships. But I really would have to go back and have a closer look.

        Eggers’ being an orphan – and being so savagely beaten – is in fact what made me think of Innerhofer’s novel, since I can’t imagine Seethaler being ignorant of it (it too concerns an orphan). Your comment about Eggers perhaps not having much of a subjectivity also strikes me, since in Innerhofer’s novel the acquisition of subjectivity seems a major thematic element, and is emphasized by tentative irruptions of first person narration as its young protagonist begins to be aware of his ability to chart his own path. Eggers, by contrast, seems someone who never quite gets there. He’s not an unsympathetic character – in fact, I think that’s one of the strengths of Seethaler’s book, this rendering of someone who keeps on despite lacking a strong sense of agency – but neither is he exactly a person one would want to emulate.

        Your comment about the disconnect between narrator and character intrigues me. That’s an aspect I’d really have to go back and examine, and I’m embarrassed that I didn’t much think even to question it in my reading. I’m reminded too of some of Jean Giono’s pastoral novels, which also have a third person narrator whose reliability one is scarcely conscious of needing to question, the narration almost seeming an organic aspect of the landscape. But I’m drifting into speculation, not very satisfyingly either.

        You also mention the “everyman” aspects and note the passage of world events and new technologies. I’ve read a few other novels that take a similar tack in having a country person view such changes at a remove, and also find it neither new nor especially interesting (unless it’s done comically, like Mel Brooks’ 2000 year old man).

        I have not read any of Seethaler’s other books, but I should, as I’m sure doing so might help answer some of these questions. Incidentally, if you’re not aware of it, the author makes a supporting appearance as a bearded mountaineer in Paolo Sorrentino’s recent film Youth – not that that helps understand the novel!

      • Certainly a key take-away from this illuminating conversation is that I absolutely must track down that Innerhofer novel. It really sounds as though Seethaler is in conscious dialogue with it. It’s been a long time since I’ve read it, but Bernahrd’s Ein Kind, the first of his memoirs/autobiographical volumes seems likely to have been an influence too, though it’s interesting (or sad, as the case may be) that Eggers has no one like Bernhard’s grandfather, no one to help him towards subjectivity, you might say.

        The Giono comment might be speculative but it’s also timely: I’ve been eyeing that new NYRB Classics edition of The Hill as a place to start with Giono, who I don’t know at all except as the author of “The Man Who Planted Trees,” the wonderful NFB animated film of which played frequently on television in my Canadian childhood.
        Speaking of films, I’d heard of the Sorrentino connection, though ever since my daughter was born five years ago I’ve basically had to give up on films.. no time for both them and books, and books won hands down…

  4. I do hope you find the Innferhofer novel, and I look forward to reading your thoughts about it. I found it to be one of the more memorable and powerful novels I’ve read in recent years. I’m not sure of the degree to which Seethaler may be in dialogue with it, but as I noted before, I am sure he was well aware of it.

    I suspect you will greatly appreciate Giono. It’s a little unfortunate that he’s perhaps best known on this side of the Atlantic for The Man Who Planted Trees (as much as I like that short work), as the novels I’ve read by him are really quite impressive. It’s been quite a few years since I’ve read anything by him, so I should remedy that.

    • Did you read the Innerhofer in German, or did you track down the translation? Looks like it’s from a while ago.
      Excited about Giono! Maybe a reading group is in order…

      • No worries about the comment – I’d just noted that I read the Innerhofer in English (I don’t read German at all), and wished you luck in finding the book, as it’s not readily available – but definitely worth finding.

        Yes, I’d very much like to co-host a reading of the Giono book! Can we make it for the last week May?

  5. Pingback: Jean Giono Readalong | Eiger, Mönch & Jungfrau

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