Tag Archives: The Tobacconist

Books of the Year 2016: Part Four

Cover imageThis final books of the year post leapfrogs from August to October. Not sure what happened in September but I suspect it may have something to do with riding the Central European railways for several weeks. October’s reading made up for it starting with Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth, to which I had been looking forward a little warily after a few disappointments with Patchett’s novels in recent years. It’s the story of a family, one which increasingly extends itself as marriages multiply and children are born. Patchett is an expert in show not tell: as her novel crisscrosses the years, from the opening christening in 1964 when a gatecrasher helps change the family’s history to the present day, stories are told and re-told – sometimes with illuminating differences. With its pleasingly rounded characters, meticulously constructed structure and thoroughly absorbing storytelling all underpinned with a gentle but wry humour, Commonwealth is a wonderful novel whose ending completes a beautifully executed circle.

I had similar reservations about Donal Ryan’s third novel. Both his previous books had been praised to the skies which raised my expectations too high to be met, I suspect. Perhaps it’s because I’d learnt my lesson that this time around they were exceeded. Written in gorgeously lyrical prose, All We Shall Know tells the story of Melody Shee’s pregnancy and the unexpected friendship she finds with a young Traveller woman. The story is structured in brief chapters, Cover imageeach one covering a week of Melody’s pregnancy in which she lets slip details of her life. Ryan’s writing is clear and clean yet often poetic and his ear for dialect is superb – characteristics familiar from his previous novels – but what stood out in this one was his story telling. For me, it’s his best novel yet.

Expectations were sky-high for Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist A Whole Life, which told the tale of one man’s life lived almost exclusively in an Austrian alpine village, was one of my books of last year. Beginning in 1937 in the months before Germany annexed Austria, The Tobacconist is very much darker, following the progress of a young man from his country bumpkin arrival in Vienna where he takes up an apprenticeship. As Franz’s character develops, Seethaler shows us Vienna through eyes which become increasingly appalled by what they see, often using simple slapstick comedy to throw the dreadful events unfolding into stark relief. Plain, clipped writing is studded with vivid images, all beautifully translated by Charlotte Collins who did such a fine job on A Whole Life.

Cover imageThis year is rounded off with a November favourite: Linda Grant’s The Dark Circle which celebrates the introduction of the NHS through the stories of a set of patients suffering from tuberculosis in a rather posh sanatorium, all of them hopeful that the new treatment rumoured to be on its way to Britain will save them. Grant portrays a subtle subversion of the status quo through the Gwendo’s inmates, many of whom come in contact with people of a different class and race for the first time. It’s a richly satisfying piece of storytelling with a bright thread of humour running through it and a cast of vivid, sharply observed characters .

And if I had to choose? I think it would come down to Kim Echlin’s beautiful paean of praise to female friendship Under the Visible Life, Ann Patchett’s immensely satisfying Commonwealth, or Hiromi Kawakami’s quietly charming The Nakano Thrift Shop. Who knows what 2017 will bring – I fervently hope that it will be better for the world than 2016 – but whatever it is at least there will always be books and storytelling to solace ourselves with, if only for a little while.

If you’d like to catch up with the previous three books of the year posts for 2016 they’re here, here, and here. A click on any of the titles above will take you to my review. Next week it’ll be time to look forward to what’s on offer in January.

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler (transl. Charlotte Collins): Dark days in Vienna

Cover imageIt’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.

Books to Look Out for in October 2016

Cover imageBack from my travels in central Europe – more of that later in the week – with a look at what’s on offer in October’s publishing schedules. Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life was one of my books of last year: elegant, beautifully expressed and deftly translated, this slim novella encapsulated the life of an ordinary man, revealing it to be far richer than you might expect. October sees the publication of The Tobacconist, a second novel by Seethaler in translation. Set in 1937 with Austria about to be annexed by Germany, it’s about seventeen-year-old Franz, apprenticed to a Viennese tobacconist, who forms a bond with a certain Mr Freud.

Like Seethaler, Per Petterson writes in beautifully clipped yet often lyrical prose. His new novel, Echoland, is about twelve-year-old Arvid on holiday with his family at his grandparents’ in Denmark. About to make the leap from childhood to adolescence, Arvid takes himself off exploring on his bike, escaping the household’s intergenerational tensions and glorying in his new-found freedom. ‘Echoland is an extraordinarily subtle and truthful snapshot of growing up, with an emotional depth that lingers long after its final pages’ say the publishers which sounds very much in Petterson territory to me.

In contrast, Sebastian Barry’s Days without End seems to step quite a way out of his usual territory heading off to Tennessee in the 1850s where Thomas McNulty has signed up for the US Army. Fleeing terrible hardship, he and his comrade John Cole fight first in the Indian Wars then the Civil War. ‘Moving from the plains of the West to Tennessee, Sebastian Barry’s latest work is a masterpiece of atmosphere and language. Both an intensely poignant story of two men and the lives they are dealt, and a fresh look at some of the most fateful years in America’s past, Days Without End is a novel never to be forgotten’ promise the publishers. Hoping for more of that lyrical writing I’ve enjoyed in Barry’s previous novels. nicotine

I wish I could say I’d also enjoyed Nell Zink’s novels but I’ve yet to read one so it may seem a little odd to include Nicotine in this preview. It’s ‘the clash between Baby-Boomer idealism and Millennial pragmatism, between the have-nots and want-mores’ in the book’s blurb that’s caught my eye. Penny Baker’s rebellion has taken the form of conventionality, the only option left open to her after an upbringing by Norm who runs a psychedelic ‘healing centre’. When Norm dies, Penny finds that the house he’s left her is occupied by a bunch of squatters united ‘in the defence of smokers’ rights’. Before too long she’s caught up in their cause, battling against her much older half-brothers to protect the fervent campaigners. It sounds great but I really must get around to the other two Zinks sitting on my shelf.

Surrounded by a good deal of brouhaha, not least because President Obama took it on holiday with him, is Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad. Cora is a slave in Georgia, an outcast amongst her fellow slaves since childhood. When Caesar arrives from Virginia he tells her about the Underground Railroad offering a means of escape from her misery which Cora chooses to take. The novel follows her arduous journey through the South, a slave catcher snapping at her heels. ‘As Whitehead brilliantly recreates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America, from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day’ say the publishers. A tough read, I’m sure, but not to be missed.

Cover imageEnding on a high note, at least I hope so, with Ali Smith’s Autumn which sounds a little experimental. I was defeated by the blurb for Smith’s last novel, How to Be Both, and it looks like I may well be again with this one. It is, apparently, ‘a stripped-branches take on popular culture, and a meditation, in a world growing ever more bordered and exclusive, on what richness and worth are, what harvest means’. It’s the first instalment in a quartet named Seasonal – ‘four standalone books, separate yet interconnected and cyclical (as the seasons are), exploring what time is, how we experience it, and the recurring markers in the shapes our lives take and in our ways with narrative. From the imagination of the peerless Ali Smith comes a shape-shifting series, wide-ranging in timescale and light-footed through histories, and a story about ageing and time and love and stories themselves’. There we are then.

That’s it for October. As ever, a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis should you want to know more. Paperbacks soon…