An international best seller that recalls the quiet power of John Williams' Stoner and Marilynne Robinson's Lila. Andreas Egger knows every path and peak of his mountain valley, the source of his sustenance, his livelihood - his home. Set in the mid-20th century and told with beauty and tenderness, Robert Seethaler's A Whole Life is a story of man's relationship with an ancient landscape, of the value of solitude, of the arrival of the modern world, and, above all, of the moments, great and small, that make us who we are.
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Beautifully translated from its original German in October 2015, A Whole Life feels like a reflection of a life with a meditative quality. It was the smallest of the finalists for the 2016 Man Booker International Prize, nominations for both its author and the translator, Charlotte Collins. I listened and read the modest novel and agree with the publisher's little blurb that author Seethaler has a way similar to the purity and simplicity of John Williams' Stoner:
"Like John Williams' Stoner or Denis Johnson's Train Dreams, A Whole Life is a tender book about finding dignity and beauty in solitude. An exquisite novel about a simple life, it has already demonstrated its power to move thousands of readers with a message of solace and truth. It looks at the moments, big and small, that make us what we are."
[I included the publisher's summary because I didn't see it included on this site.] Short, 3 1/2 hrs; less than 150 pages, but within, the whole life of Andreas Egger. Stoner remains probably my favorite novel for reasons I'm unable to articulate. Sometimes Montaigne's words explain most eloquently my feelings when my words fail me: "I can say no more than it was because he was he, and I was I." Williams' himself may have given the best description for Seethaler's A Whole Life by chance, when he attempted to describe his own novel, Stoner:"an escape into reality." Most readers feel the book is about *contentment,* *adapting;* that in spite of tribulations, Andreas Egger finds beauty and peace with his life in a little village in the shadow of the towering Austrian mountains. A powerful man of little words and a strong work ethic, Andreas is a survivor.
At the age of four, the boy is pawned off to relatives by an unmarried young mother that wants nothing to do with raising a child. He arrives in the remote little village at his Uncle's farm in a hay cart, a leather pouch hanging around his neck containing a small amount of money. The Uncle is a brutal man, he sees the young boy as another mouth to feed, but also another laborer. Young Andreas is ill-treated and suffers horrible beatings for the smallest infractions: a hiccup, a stutter, a spilled bowl of milk, one beating so severe the boy's leg is fractured and leaves him with a life-long limp. [When a gruff employer asks him what good is he with a limp on such a mountain?! Andreas tells him straightforwardly that his limp is exactly why he is better for the steep mountain.]
Andreas grows quickly into a large boy with great physical strength, invaluable to the Uncle. But the Uncle is more vicious than wise, and when the brawny young Andreas spills a bowl of soup, the Uncle commands him to soak the switch and meet him in the barn. Andreas meets him in the barn, but says, “If you hit me, I’ll kill you.” He sets off and finds a small piece of land he makes his home; enough for a shelter and a small vegetable garden, and he thinks proudly about one day holding open the gate for someone. His strength and tenacity become legendary in his village, but Andreas remains aloof.
The years go by in sentences The village at the foot of those soaring mountains stretches further across a landscape that lies in the path of historic avalanches. Tourists come for the skiing and climbing; industry and progress comes to the mountains -- and so does the war. Andreas adapts to each change the years bring; he marries; he goes to war; he sees men walk on the moon; and near the end of his life he takes a bus ride to the end of the vehicle's route.
I felt a heartbreaking sadness in this man whom others see as a contented adult who finds joy in mountain flowers, patching a hole in his cabin, contentment in his simple daily labors. I thought of the lines from Langston Hughes: "Hold fast to dreams. For if dreams die life is a broken-winged bird that cannot fly." And, I thought of the snarky and less poetic "Cows are contented." Europeans have a culture that seems to me more simple and authentic, so I have to take that into consideration. There is a peacefulness that I also feel when I escape the business that life throws at me, but sometimes there is a longing. Haven't we all experienced that wounded wing that might keep us momentarily grounded from loftier dreams? Andreas felt to me like a wounded gentle animal; a supposed beast that held captive for years then released into the wild, merely drops to his knees and looks vacantly out at the plains before him, craving the security and familiarity of his cage. At the end of his bus ride, Andreas stands up to go back to his little cabin and breaks into convulsive sobs. The bus driver puts his arms around the aging hulk and comforts him as if he were an inconsolable child. I wonder if within himself he held fast to that broken child.
"He did not suffer." Seethaler states. ...Much to think about. A little read that is gigantically beautiful and profound.