There’s something very attractive about a slim novel which encapsulates the life of an ordinary person, someone whose life might well be judged narrow by those who stride across the world’s stage. Mary Costello’s very fine Academy Street springs to mind – I’m still trying to work out why it failed to appear on the Baileys longlist, let alone be shortlisted. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life is in a similar vein: Andreas Egger leaves his Austrian alpine home just once to go to war in Russia where he remained for nine years as a prisoner-of-war. It’s barely one hundred and sixty pages, but Seethaler’s novel reveals a life far richer than you might expect.
It opens in 1933 with an almost fairytale-like passage in which Egger tenderly lifts Horned Hans, a dying goat-herd, from his sodden pallet, strapping him to his back and carrying him down from the mountain. When Egger stumbles, Horned Hans unfastens himself and runs off into the snow, leaving the shaken Egger to try to collect himself at the Golden Goat where a lovely young serving woman brushes his shoulder. Egger first arrived in the valley when he was four years old. His uncle was resentful at the sudden appearance of his sister’s illegitimate child, but Egger was strong, more than earning his straw mattress and keep despite the injury inflicted during one overly enthusiastic beating. Aged twenty-nine, Egger used what little he’d saved to buy a small plot and a barn, just enough for him and the lovely Marie when she joined him. Realising it may not be long before they needed a more secure income, Egger found work with Bittermann & Sons, an engineering firm building the cable car runs that had become so popular with the burgeoning tourist trade. All looked set fair until nature intervened.
Egger is painted as a simple soul – he’s stolidly practical, feels adrift even a few miles away from his Austrian valley and finds women impossible to fathom – yet he is a great romantic, arranging a message spelled out in fire on the mountainside before finally finding the courage to propose to his beloved Marie. Seethaler’s style is wonderfully clipped and matter of fact, punctuated by the occasional philosophical reflection or lyrical descriptive passage: ‘the distant mountaintops stood out so clearly that it was as if someone had just finished painting them onto the sky’ vividly summons up crystal clear alpine views. The tumult of change which swept through so many Alpine regions in the twentieth century, marking the pristine landscape with gondolas and ski lifts but bringing prosperity, is strikingly captured through Egger’s eyes and experience. A simple life, then, but well lived: ‘He had survived his childhood, a war and an avalanche… …He couldn’t remember where he had come from, and ultimately he didn’t know where he would go. But he could look back without regret on the time in between, his life, with a full-throated laugh and utter amazement.’ Who can say better than that?