I really don’t want to write about A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler (trans. Charlotte Collins 2015). I’m afraid I won’t do justice to it – or that thinking too hard about this exquisite book will somehow spoil it. Fundamentally, it’s a life story – in just 150 pages. A boy grows up in a remote Alpine valley. The boy becomes a man, he finds love, he loses love, he goes to war, he comes back, the seasons and the years roll by, the valley and it’s people change as cable cars creep up the mountain and tourists ski down, he watches men walk on the moon and Grace Kelly descend from an aeroplane, the sun rises, the snow falls. The old man ends his days “looking out of the window at the mountains with the shadows of clouds passing silently across them”. Gifts for the writer-reader? The whole book is a gift! (1) The hero is a loner; different in some gentle, non-specific way. He doesn’t go on a quest, his is not a dramatic character arc. He hardly talks – and when he does it doesn’t always make sense – but, within a few pages, we care deeply about him. I’m still trying to work out how the author achieves this with so little exposition and so few words. (2) There is no Message; no big pulling-it-all-together speech, no special climactic moment of synecdoche. And it doesn’t matter. The reader can take from this story what she wishes. (3) There is hardship and tragedy in this book but its hero never weeps or curses God or walks bowed down by grief. His sorrow is palpable, his pain raw – but these feelings are portrayed with skill, great subtlety and respect for reader and subject. (4) The storyline – the boy-to-old-man thing – is enhanced by two elegant loops in time; the rescue and reappearance of a strange goatherd, and the disturbing, deeply ambiguous motif of the Cold Lady. A masterclass in restrained perfection. (5) The images of the mountains that surround Egger’s life are quietly subliminal. This is from near the end of the book: “The shadows of the night slowly retreated … the sun was … pouring it’s light over the mountaintops, so soft and beautiful that had he not been so tired and confused he could have laughed for sheer happiness.” #amreading
Hannah Hulme Hunter
Writer of literary historical fiction set in the Great War (First World War). Revising my first book, writing the next, seeking representation. Mountaineer, gardener, traveller, off-road runner. Africa, modern history, coffee, roses, and unrealistic romance. NHS midwife in a former life.