by Julie Winter
Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s Ein ganzes Leben, translated into English by Charlotte Collins as A Whole Life, illustrates well the notion that everyone’s life is a novel. Here we have the story of a quiet and simple man, Andreas Egger, born somewhere around 1898
and living out most of his life in a small village located in a valley in the mountains. Egger has no clear memory of his mother, a father is never mentioned; he is raised by a cruel distant relation, has little formal education but is strong and healthy, finds no manual labor beneath him, experiences a great love, spends years as a Russian prisoner of war, and in general leads what most would find to be a severe, difficult life. Yet this is not a depressing novel; the reader is quickly caught up in Egger’s solitary, but not desperate existence. The story is in the telling of it, another truism adroitly illustrated by this novel. The sparse, understated style made me want to read more to find out how Egger deals with the unkind blows he receives. We see that in spite of harsh conditions, Egger lives his life without self-pity; we come to like and admire him and ultimately to reflect on how we deal with adversity in our own lives.
Each phase of Egger’s life is given equal attention; the novel progresses without hurrying through his childhood, young adulthood, middle age, and old age. The pace is slow and methodical, without being weighty or boring. It is surprising to discover what a short novel it is, given the depth of coverage of Egger’s life. We know it is inevitable that we will be accompanying the protagonist all the way until the end of his life. Indeed, Death, in the form of the Cold Lady, frames the novel. The story opens with Egger trying to bring the sick old goatherd Johannes Kalischka, known to the townspeople as “Horned Hannes,” down from the mountain, carrying him on his back. The goatherd does not want to go, wants instead to stay on his mountain, in spite of his fear of encountering the Cold Lady. He prevails by escaping from Egger during the hike down the mountain; Egger tries to catch up with him but is unable to in the deep snow and presciently shouts out after him, “No one has ever outrun Death!”
The rhythm of this passage about the Cold Lady, spoken by the goatherd, underscores the inevitability of Death:
She walks on the mountain and steals through the valley. She comes when she wants and takes what she needs. She has no face and no voice. The Cold Lady comes and takes and goes. That’s all. She seizes you as she passes and takes you with her and sticks you in some hole. And in the last patch of sky you see before they finally shovel the earth in over you she reappears and breathes on you. And all that’s left for you then is darkness. And the cold.
The Cold Lady does indeed return at the end of the novel, which describes Egger’s own undramatic death. She is present throughout the telling of the story in a natural, organic way; the reader intuits that the protagonist will accept his own death, when his time comes, and that he will live life simply, but fully, until then.
Egger never wallows—neither in his grief, nor in the haunting beauty of his surroundings. But this is not to say that he doesn’t feel the full gamut of human emotions, including earth-shattering sorrow. In fact, he suffers greatly, but resigns himself to accepting things the way they are, knowing well his own circumstances and limitations.
Egger’s severe childhood helps explain his approach to life as an adult. Brutally treated by the head of the family, Hubert Kranzstocker, a cruel and grotesque man, the child Egger was used as hard labor; no tenderness for him shown by the family with the exception of the grandmother who occasionally put her hand on his head and said “God bless you.” When she died, a horrific scene is described wherein the coffin is accidentally opened due to an incident involving a vicious dog attacking a horse, and the grandmother’s withered hand flops out. Yet the child Egger sees in this that she is waving goodbye to him. This is an example of how he simply takes life as it comes him, even sees something good in hard blows. The gruesome details in this and other passages keep the reader focused on the stark realities of this difficult life. Nothing is sugarcoated.
The firm Bittermann & Sons, as a symbol of progress and modern technology coming to the village, is a main theme throughout the novel. The company plans to build a cable car up the mountain; later they will build ski lifts that turn the village into a modern, bustling resort. It brings along hundreds of workers, building materials, loud machinery, and the electricity needed to run the cable car. The townspeople cheer when the company arrives, but Egger feels a sadness that he can’t quite understand. True to his nature, he feels deeply but does not dwell on it and ultimately joins in the cheering. Later Egger works for this company, becoming a valuable, though underpaid, employee. There is social criticism here, but it is not the focus of the novel. Again and again we see that life brings adversity, things change, often not for the better, but Egger will live with acceptance.
The style captivates, mesmerizes; the translator has superbly recreated the mood and rhythm of the original. The word I want to use in describing Collins’ rendering is “warmth”—the translation has a vibrancy and warmth to it that makes it immediately resonate in English. It brings to fore the great depth in the simplicity of the story, the eerily beautiful and ever-present mountain, that seems to have a life of its own, and the quiet acceptance of the protagonist, moving—and inspirational.