Review of “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler, trans. Charlotte Collins

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

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A Whole Life, by Robert Seethaler, trans. Charlotte Collins (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016)

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.

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Announcing the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award Shortlist!

August 21, 2017—The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Starting in 2015, the Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction). This year’s judges are Elizabeth Harris, Jim Hicks, and Olivia Sears.

The award-winning book and translator for 2017 will receive a $5,000 cash prize, and the award will be announced during ALTA’s annual conference, ALTA40: Reflections/Refractions, held this year at the Radisson Blu Minneapolis Downtown in Minneapolis, MN from October 5-8, 2017. If you can’t join us in person, follow our Twitter (@LitTranslate) and Facebook (www.facebook.com/literarytranslators) for the announcement of the winners!

The 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award Shortlist (in alphabetical order by title):

Distant Light
By Antonio Moresco
Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
(Archipelago Books)

Eva Sleeps
By Francesca Melandri
Translated from the Italian by Katherine Gregor
(Europa Editions)

Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy
By Sergio Luzzatto
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
(Metropolitan Books)

We Want Everything
By Nanni Balestrini
Translated from the Italian by Matt Holden
(Verso Books)

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IPTA 2017 Shortlist: Distant Light

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Starting in 2015, the Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction). This year’s judges are Elizabeth Harris, Jim Hicks, and Olivia Sears.

Distant Light
By Antonio Moresco
Translated from the Italian by Richard Dixon
(Archipelago Books)

Distant Light, translated by Richard Dixon, is the first full-length work to appear in English by Antonio Moresco, one of Italy’s most revered contemporary writers and author of the magnificent trilogy, L’increato (“The Uncreated”). In Distant Light, we find an isolated narrator mysteriously living in an abandoned village, and talking to the plants and the creatures around him: “‘But why are you always so angry,’ ” he asks the wasp that stings him. “‘Why do you drop headfirst into the pulp of unpicked fruit that’s rotting on the trees in this unearthly place?’ ” Each night, the narrator sees a small light on the mountain above his stone house, leading him, finally, to search for the light’s source: a child living alone in the woods and seemingly of another time. It is a secretive novel, fable-like, yet insistently modern as well, a fascinating book filled with questions, a contemplation of solitude and our ties to the natural world and to the living and the dead. Dixon’s translation captures the cadences of Moresco’s prose and his lush, vivid imagery, while also successfully navigating between the narrative’s tangible world and its challenging, metaphysical reflections.

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IPTA 2017 Shortlist: Eva Sleeps

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Starting in 2015, the Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction). This year’s judges are Elizabeth Harris, Jim Hicks, and Olivia Sears.

Eva Sleeps
By Francesca Melandri
Translated from the Italian by Katherine Gregor
(Europa Editions)

A bestseller in Italy, Francesca Melandri’s debut novel Eva Sleeps, translated by Katherine Gregor, is set against the stark and dramatic Dolomite mountains and southern Alps in the now-autonomous region of northern Italy known as Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol. The region’s name alone hints at its tortured history following annexation by Italy during World War I: in addition to the Fascist “Italianization” program that outlawed German language and separatist revolts, marked by sabotage and bombings, South Tyrol has also seen a constant flow of southern Italian immigrants into the region, stoking regional and cultural prejudice. Melandri’s novel follows a single family through the course of the twentieth century. Focusing on Gerda and her daughter Eva, its story explores the power of prejudice and sexual taboo to constrain women, along with the attempts of strong women to wrest back control over their lives. Gregor’s translation negotiates the constant dramatic switches in narrative voice with agility and beautifully captures the many tones of various time periods woven through the novel, from remote mountain village dialogues during the early twentieth-century to the contemporary banter of a crowded train compartment.

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IPTA 2017 Shortlist: Primo Levi’s Resistance

The American Literary Translators Association (ALTA) is delighted to announce the shortlist for the 2017 Italian Prose in Translation Award. Starting in 2015, the Italian Prose in Translation Award (IPTA) recognizes the importance of contemporary Italian prose (fiction and literary non-fiction) and promotes the translation of Italian works into English. This prize is awarded annually to a translator of a recent work of Italian prose (fiction or literary non-fiction). This year’s judges are Elizabeth Harris, Jim Hicks, and Olivia Sears.

Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy
By Sergio Luzzatto
Translated from the Italian by Frederika Randall
(Metropolitan Books)

Primo Levi’s Resistance: Rebels and Collaborators in Occupied Italy—by the historian Sergio Luzzatto, translated into English by Frederika Randall—tells for the first time the story of the days preceding Primo Levi’s capture and subsequent deportation to Auschwitz. In taking on this tale, Luzzatto is also compelled to reveal what, in his Periodic Table, Levi memorably described as an “ugly secret [that] weighed on us, in every one of our minds: the same secret that had exposed us to capture, and just a few days before had extinguished all our will to resist, even to live.” Mining the depths of this illuminating episode (from a period when, in Italy, World War II became a civil war as well as a war of liberation), Luzzatto’s history shows the complexity of the choices as well as the sometimes random events that determined the fates of both antifascist partisans and the defenders of Mussolini’s Italian Social Republic. As Luzzatto follows both sides, the voice and gravitas of Primo Levi act as his spiritual guide, and, in its final pages, the book’s refrain is borrowed from Cesare Pavese: “Every war is a civil war: every man who falls resembles another who lives, and calls on him to explain.” This ultimately impossible work of explanation is in effect Luzzatto’s great achievement; in English, he is aided at every step by Frederika Randall, first through her preface, which provides historical background essential for the Anglophone reader, and then by her admirably clear, concise, and cogent phrasing.

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