It’s a both a joy and a worry when a second novel appears on the horizon following one quite so spectacularly good as Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Will it measure up or be a disappointment? What I hadn’t considered was that The Tobacconist would exceed my expectations. Very much darker than the A Whole Life which celebrated a simple life well lived, The Tobacconist is set in Vienna, opening in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria.
For the son of a fisherman, Franz is a rather spoilt seventeen-year-old, his hands too soft for the hard labour of the salt mines where most young men work. The hefty cheque his mother gets every month from her wealthy lover has kept them both comfortable until the lover is struck on the head by a bolt of lightning while swimming in the local lake. Calling in a favour, Franz’s mother sets him up with a job at a Viennese tobacconist and packs him off on the train. When Franz arrives, Otto tells him that the most important part of his job is to read the newspapers. Soon, Franz knows the regulars’ names and idiosyncrasies, cramming his head with the esoteric knowledge of a tobacconists’ accoutrements and anticipating his customers’ desires. When a frail man appears asking for Virginias, Otto tells Franz that this is Professor Sigmund Freud. Even a boy from the Austrian backwoods has heard of Freud and soon, registering a yawning chasm in his life, Franz decides to approach him for advice, first on how to get a girl, then on how to keep her. Initially a little impatient, Freud begins to look forward to Franz’s visits and his stories of the Bohemian girl who dances at a hole-in-the-wall club compèred by a Hitler impersonator. Played out against a backdrop of political disenchantment, rife anti-Semitism and the arrival of the Gestapo which soon has the city in its grip, Seethaler’s novel follows Franz from his country bumpkin arrival into a manhood marked by bravery.
Franz begins this novel as a simple soul, a little over-indulged but with an eager questing mind, who ‘never really understood the business with the Jews’. As his character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see. Often plain and clipped, the writing is studded with vivid images: Vienna ‘seethed like the vegetable stew on Mother’s stove’; Otto intends to run his shop ‘until the good Lord rolls down my shutters’. Seethaler pokes some pleasing fun at the pretensions of Viennese society and there are some particularly amusing passages about Freud who at one point, no longer able to tolerate the laments of a vast Viennese matron, tells her ‘with his most piercing stare “stop eating cakes!”‘. Such simple, sometimes slapstick comedy, throws the dreadful events unfolding throughout the city into stark relief. It’s a triumph, one of the best books I’ve read this year. Seethaler has written two other novels, apparently. Let’s hope that Charlotte Collins who translated both A Whole Life and The Tobacconist so expertly, is busy working on one of them right now.