You’d think that the novella would be a more popular form among American readers. Our level of distraction means that attention spans are too obliterated for serious novels in the 400-page range, and everybody knows that we refuse, have always refused, to buy short-story collections. So you’d think that the novella would be a pleasing medium, a nice compromise to make with ourselves. Nothing, of course, is compromised in the form itself. Heart of Darkness, The Stranger, Death in Venice, The Member of the Wedding, Notes from Underground, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich — the list of vigorous shorties is a tall one.
At only 150 pages, German writer Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is a whole book, a bantam beauty of extraordinary subtleness, a touching homage to personal composure, to the cultivation of one’s own silent spaces amid the brutal noise of being. Andreas Egger lives his solitary life on a mountain somewhere in Germany in the middle decades of the twentieth century. Orphaned young, he is brought up by a sadistic uncle, a farmer who beats him savagely enough to break his leg, saddling Egger with an unfixable limp. Egger grows, works, gets strong, buys his own mountainside plot, weds a village maiden who soon dies in a landslide, goes to war, suffers for eight years in a Soviet POW camp, returns to his mountain, works more, walks and thinks, misses his dead wife, feels alternately disgusted and grateful, and dies as simply as he’s lived.
That’s the entire story, the whole life of the title, expertly folded into the yardage most writers take just to clear their throats. The story unspools as a series of set pieces threaded together by contemplation: a horse-drawn hearse buckles in a ditch, the dead woman’s hand dangling from the casket; Egger writes his marriage proposal in fire on the mountainside; a falling tree severs a worker’s arm, “its fingers still gripping the hatchet”; Egger and a schoolteacher, in their seventies, fail at lovemaking and feel quietly humiliated — “People are often alone in this world,” she tells him, and they remain alone afterward. Egger’s eight years in a Russian camp, “this ice-bound, wounded world” north of the Black Sea, are dispatched in ten deft pages.
One needn’t have a view of the whole world in order to form a whole worldview. Excepting his time at war, Egger never encounters life beyond his mountainside and the valley beneath it. And yet Seethaler’s episodic, meditative armature makes a coherent vision of one man’s Weltanschauung. If most of the novelistic furniture has gone missing from this house — the dutifully detailed back story of emotional wreckage, the conveniently complex interiority, the handy psychological motives, etc. — its absence does nothing to impede the melancholy slap of this book, its dignified sadness in the face of such trampling loss. You can all too readily imagine an editor or agent trying to goad Seethaler into fleshing out, filling in, building up, and you can imagine it getting pummeled by the platitudes of your average MFA workshop: “I don’t feel a connection to anyone in this story” and “I need to know more about these characters to like them.” A Whole Life can’t be had by such musty formulae; it has the earned intransigence of art that proclaims itself unable to be anything other than what it demonstrably is.
Andreas Egger is not another version of the noble savage, nor is he a vista through which we apprehend divine manifestation in nature, a manifestation vital to certain strands of the Romantic worldview. “What is it we probers of Nature are seeking?” Goethe asks. “Out there the God whom within we hear speaking!” Seethaler’s conception of nature is closer to Hardy’s than Goethe’s, a nature indifferent at best and malignant at worst. Snow “seemed softly to swallow the landscape” and “the silence was absolute . . . the silence of the mountains that he knew so well, but which still had the capacity to fill his heart with fear.” The climate is an “eternal cold,” one “that gnaws the bones. And the soul.” Nature, says Emerson, forces upon you “the tyranny of the present” — something savage or something serene, it is a present that will not be shunned. Here, “the mountains breathe,” and not only that: they quake and consume. The landslide of snow and rock that kills Marie, Egger’s new wife, and decimates his home, sounds “as if something deep inside the mountain were splitting with a sigh” before the “deep, swelling rumble” rushes in and wrecks him.
The population of the village triples after the war, and Egger works as a tourist guide, but quickly he finds these intruders “increasingly hard to tolerate.” For the tourists who have thronged to the valley after the construction of the cable car, nature is the rumored balm they’ve come searching for. Egger cannot share their postcard conception of the wild. “People were evidently looking for something in the mountains that they believed they had lost a long time ago. He never worked out what exactly this was” as he watches them “stumbling . . . after some obscure, insatiable longing,” though it’s not the longing they stumble after. The longing lives within; what they stumble after is the appeasement of that longing, the satisfaction of half-formed yearnings. If Egger achieves the peace of his selfhood, it’s because he’s dismissed yearning altogether. His only ambitions are the quietude in which he can remember Marie and, like Nick Adams after a different war, the grunt work that will keep him from remembering too much.
Self-exiled, Egger is also self-fulfilled and so cannot be numbered among what Rilke names die Fortgeworfenen, those castaways with no place in the accepted social order. Instead, Egger is a hulking, limping embodiment of Goethe’s notion of “renunciation”: not a fed-up surrender to one’s fate, a submission to circumstance, but a cool-headed acceptance of the good and bad in tandem, a disciplined understanding that the world peddles both disaster and advantage, an understanding that’s kin to Keatsian negative capability. Egger has no articulated moral program, no preoccupation with moral maturity, but he knows right from wrong and behaves with considerable goodness toward others. The first we see of him, he has an infirm goatherd strapped to his back, toting him down a rock-ribbed mountain path in winter, trying to get him medical help. No one called him to attempt this rescue. He called himself.
Seethaler’s is an insistently sensuous realm: the warm feel of newborn piglets, their scent of “earth, milk, and pig muck,” or Marie’s hair smelling of “soap, hay, and . . . a little of roast pork.” There’s the scent of “dry moss and resin,” of “horse piss” and “lumps of cheese” and “primroses and leopard’s bane.” The pure physicality of Seethaler’s storytelling necessarily derives from the pure physicality of place. “Something’s stirring in the bones,” Egger thinks of spring, and that something’s stirring in the prose, too, in its verdant reticence. This reticence of prose is born of Egger’s own skeptical stance on language: “Talking meant attracting attention, which was never a good thing.” The cable car building crews and tourists are everywhere: “the rattling of the engines, the noise that suddenly filled the valley. Nobody knew when it would go away . . . or whether it ever would.” The only silence Egger can count on, he knows, is the silence that awaits in his grave.
Death is both an omnipresent reality and a mystery. A dying goatherd tells Egger: “People say death brings forth new life, but people are stupider than the stupidest nanny goat. I say death brings forth nothing at all! Death is the Cold Lady.” Children die from diphtheria, workers from falls, women and men from age — one old woman “lost consciousness while baking bread, toppled forwards and suffocated with her face in the dough.” In the Soviet camp, “after a few weeks Egger stopped counting the dead” because “death belonged to life like mold to bread.” One cable car worker tells Egger, “It’s a messy business, dying,” and when Egger replies that more merciless cold will come after death, the worker says: “Rubbish. There won’t be anything, no cold and certainly no soul. Dead is dead and that’s that. There’s nothing after that — no God, either. Because if there were a God, his heavenly kingdom wouldn’t be so bloody far away!”
Unswervingly tactile, Seethaler’s tale also rubs against the mysteries of spirit, as it must. This is a land where, for most, punishment by God means more than metaphor, more than myth, a land where people dwell among the occult, believe in ghosts and “bloodsucking forest demons,” feel presences for which they cannot account, and navigate their lives by signs, though the signs are often inscrutable. After moths appear on a windowpane, Egger “thought their appearance must be a sign, but he didn’t know what it was supposed to mean.” After the landslide kills Marie, “he wanted to understand” but “he knew there was nothing to understand.”
Loyally translated by Charlotte Collins, A Whole Life is a lovely whisper of a book, proceeding with an understated, mythical gravitas, pulsing with its own coiled possibilities, its anticipant calm, the heavy hush of its unfolding. If you are a reader who weeps with books, you will weep with this one.