Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (2014, trans. Charlotte Collins 2015) 149 pages

After the traumas of The Blind Owl yesterday, lets all recuperate in a beautiful Austrian village😊 But that’s not to say that A Whole Life is a comfort read; it’s exactly what the title says – the tale of one man’s whole life, containing tragedy and joy.

Andreas Egger arrives in the village as a young orphan, at the start of the twentieth century. His uncle doesn’t really want him and he is bullied violently by him until he gets old enough to demand it stop, but not before his leg has been broken and badly reset, leaving him with a lifelong limp.

Nonetheless he is a strong and valued manual labourer in the village, later working for the cable car company, shinning up and down the mountains. Egger is a loner but not lonely; ultimately he is a man of the valley, mountains and meadow of his village.

“Sometimes on mild summer nights, he would spread a blanket somewhere on a freshly mown meadow, lie on his back and look up at the starry sky. Then he would think about his future, which extended infinitely before him, precisely because he expected nothing of it. And sometimes, if he lay there long enough, he had the impression that beneath his back the earth was softly rising and falling, and in moments like these he knew that the mountains breathed.”

From this small village Egger witnesses the many and rapid changes of the twentieth century. He participates in some – his only protracted period of time away is when he is a prisoner of war – but mostly he just observes. There are the major upheavals:

“The mayor was no longer a Nazi these days, geraniums hung outside the windows again instead of swastikas”

And also the social shifts, such as the quiet village becoming beset by tourists:

 “He had already been so long in the world: he had seen it change and seem to spin faster with every passing year, and he felt like a remnant from some long buried time, a thorny weed still stretching up, for as long as it possibly could, towards the sun.”

Egger also experiences some major changes in his personal life, but to avoid spoilers I won’t give details. I’ve seen A Whole Life compared to Stoner and while I do love Stoner I think this is quite different. Although both are about male, twentieth-century, somewhat isolated lives, I didn’t find this nearly so sad.

“Drops of water trembled on the tips of the blades, making the whole meadow glitter as if studded with glass beads. Egger marvelled at these tiny, trembling drops that clung tenaciously to the blades of grass, only to fall at last and seep into the earth or dissolve to nothing in the air.”

A beautifully written novella which demonstrates how a life can look quiet and small from the outside but be entirely rich and fulfilling. Above all, it’s about walking your own path.

“And in the mornings after the first snowmelt, when he walked across the dew-soaked meadow outside his hut and lay down onto one of the flat rocks scattered there, the cool stone at his back and the first warm rays of sun on his face, he felt that many things had not gone badly after all.”

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31 thoughts on “Novella a Day in May 2019 #16

  1. I think I’m one of a handful of readers who found this book somewhat disappointing following all the buzz at the time its publication. It just felt a bit slight (or lacking in depth) to me in spite of the emotions portrayed. I’m very much in the minority, though – so many other readers loved it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thankfully the buzz passed me by – I find so many books over-hyped these days! I did really enjoy this and didn’t find it slight, but I do think that’s the challenge of novellas – to not leave the reader feeling it should have been longer to say what it needed to.

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  2. I plan to read this one soon; I’ve taken much too long to get around to it. And in a fortunate coincidence I read a review of Stoner just this week, another one that’s been on my radar for ever, which convinced me that I should read that too. I hadn’t connected these two books before that. It will be interesting to compare them.

    (I am loving this month of novella posts – brilliant!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The writing sounds lovely from the quotes – I love the idea of geraniums replacing swastikas, and mountains breathing. But I’m not sure this one will make my shortlist – I also have never read Stoner although it’s been on my Kindle for years. Somehow these “story of a life” books never appeal greatly to me, unless the life is full of drama…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can see a story of an uneventful life is something you have to be in the right mood for… they’re so good though FF! Are you sure I can’t tempt you to dip your toe in with a wee novella and build up to Stoner? Go on…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Pingback: My Twenty Books of Summer – A Corner of Cornwall

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