It’s my birthday today and my tradition is to read a book I’ve never got around to reading but always wanted to. I’ve been doing this for many years now. This year I picked off my shelf a novel I heard great things about when it was first published in English last year and that I bought earlier this year at the newly opened bookshop Libreria. “A Whole Life” by Robert Seethaler feels like the perfect novel to read on a birthday because of the brief intense panoramic view of a life that it gives. Using straightforward prose, it recounts mountain man Andreas Egger’s life throughout the early twentieth century. He lives through a difficult childhood, love, war and the development of the barren slopes around him into a fully inhabited holiday village. It’s an extremely meditative novel which patiently considers through the eyes of a man with simple values and simple aspirations what’s most important in life.
The story begins with Egger trying to rescue a dying man named Horned Hannes from his hut. As he begins carrying him on his back towards the village the old man slips off and runs into a blizzard. What becomes of him isn’t uncovered until many years later at a point when Egger has experienced all the pleasures, pains, disappointments and contentment that life can give. Hannes acts as a kind of double through whom Egger can think of all the possibilities in life he didn’t pursue. It’s observed that “In his life he too, like all people, had harboured ideas and dreams. Some he had fulfilled for himself; some had been granted to him. Many things had remained out of reach, or barely had he reached them than they were torn from his hands. But he was still here.” In a way, it feels too simple to say we experience regret or disappointment when considering the paths we’ve not taken in life. This retrospective view of life is at once more complex and more simple than that. Things turned out the way that they have and our continued existence is all that matters.
It’s especially interesting how the novel looks at Egger’s work life. As a hardy muscular man, he spends many years doing manual labour laying foundations for the growth of the countryside around him. His manager points out that “You can buy a man’s hours off him, you can steal his days from him, or you can rob him of his whole life, but no one can take away from any man so much as a single moment. That’s the way it is.” What I take from this is that although we spend the majority of our lives labouring to earn a living, this work doesn’t define us. Our moment to moment experiences and thoughts are who we are. We posses this outside of whatever job it is we do all year and there’s a sort of comfort in owning that.
There is a quiet, considered nobility to this novel. For the deep impression it makes, it’s remarkably compressed. I found something movingly dignified in Egger’s mostly solitary life and the way the narrative focuses so intensely on his circumscribed experience outside of the politics or large scale changes happening around him. The movement of time in this novel reflects how you witness the world changing around you, but in some essential way you feel like the person you always were. So it can be surprising when you see physical changes to familiar places. Later in his life Egger might walk past a place where his house once stood or glance at a television to see a man stepping on the moon. It’s a testimony that society and the world around you is moving on, but you’re still here older but essentially the same.
It’s difficult not to get reflective on birthdays, especially now that social media can allow such quick easy contact with the majority of people who have been most important to you in your life. While I read about the full span of Egger’s long simple and passionate life in the mountains I received a stream of notices on my phone from friends and family wishing me happy birthday. It gave me a funny awareness of how you can be so solitary, but still exist in the net of other people’s lives. Egger oftentimes felt very much alone, but he was a presence who existed in the consciousness of people around him. Despite all the hardships and conflict in life, there’s a stoic beauty in just existing.