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.

The first time Egger sees a TV he sees Grace Kelly waving and thinks she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

The first time Egger sees a TV he sees Grace Kelly waving and thinks she's the most beautiful woman he's ever seen.

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.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson

It’s my birthday today and, as I explained last year, it’s a personal tradition to read a book I’ve never got around to reading for one reason or another. This year I consciously saved something until today. “Mystery, Inc” by Joyce Carol Oates was published in July this year as a standalone short story by Head of Zeus Books and part of Mysterious Press’ ‘Bibliomysteries’ series. Anyone who is familiar with the bulk of Oates’ writing knows she has a predilection for the macabre and a fascinating engagement with the tradition of gothic literature. This is most evident in her "gothic series" of five novels which first begins with "Bellefleur," but also in many of her short stories and the many novels she's written under pseudonyms. 

I can’t imagine a better story to have saved as a special treat. This book is a fantastically-enjoyable and hypnotically-narrated short crime story. It’s also a bibliophile’s dream as it centres on a beautiful old New England bookstore and includes exhaustive lists of special editions of books that are discussed with reverence: “signed first editions by John Dickson Carr, Agatha Christie, and S.S. Van Dine… 1888 first edition of A Study in Scarlet… first edition of The Hound of the Baskervilles…Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (priced at $75,000), signed by Dickens in his strong, assured hand, in ink that has scarcely faded!” The narrator greedily wishes to obtain these volumes himself and plays with the idea of stealing them. So surprising to read in a book someone recalling with wistful feeling the thrilling rush of shoplifting in a bookshop: “Ah, those days before security cameras!” But the narrator has visited the bookstore while wearing a disguise with the much more sinister intent of poisoning the owner so that he can eventually acquire the shop himself to add to his growing chain of mystery bookshops. The story is sumptuously detailed in its descriptions of the shop, books and artworks displayed. It provoked strong feelings of warm-hearted nostalgia in me as what reader hasn’t felt the pleasure of perusing the shelves of bookstores and all the treasures they contain?

As the plot thickens, the tension rises while the narrator talks with the gregarious owner Aaron Neuhaus over mugs of cappuccino. There is a kinship between the men, but at the same time the narrator sees himself as a predator intent on disposing of Neuhaus to take his business and he even imagines himself taking Neuhaus’ wife! He’s threatened by Neuhaus’ success, particularly the lucrative online bookselling he does. However, Neuhaus has less interest in the business side of things and is more a passionate reader who has a philosophical interest in the genre of mystery. He states that “It is out of the profound mystery of life that ‘mystery books’ arise. And, in turn, ‘mystery books’ allow us to see the mystery of life more clearly, from perspectives not our own.”

 /* Style Definitions */
	{mso-style-name:"Table Normal";
	mso-padding-alt:0cm 5.4pt 0cm 5.4pt;
	font-family:"Times New Roman";
  Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting  The Dog  in his bookshop

Aaron Neuhaus has a print of Goya's stark & haunting painting The Dog in his bookshop

The tale turns as Neuhaus describes the history of his bookshop and the various ill-fates of the previous owners by tunnelling backwards in time like a ghost story about a cursed house. There is a shift in control as the narrator listens and it’s as if the predator has become the prey. The story ends in such a fascinatingly ambiguous way that left me unsettled and feeling a rush of wonder. This short story is in some ways like a compressed variation of the wonderful book-length thriller “Jack of Spades” which Oates published earlier this year. Anyone who is thrilled by this story will want to read this longer novel. It was such a joy reading "Mystery Inc" early this morning in my so-called "book nook" at the back of my apartment while drinking tea and listening to the airplanes somewhere over London humming by.

It felt so perfect and pleasurable reading Oates' story this morning that I felt connected to something greater. Not a higher intellectual or spiritual plane but that common ground of sharing a good story thrillingly told, taking part in that agreement between author and reader to indulge in a fantasy which plays upon the deepest murmurings of the subconscious. Like many people, I've encountered some difficult times in my life so I'm grateful for the peace offered by this solitude to read, participate in such enjoyable fiction and reflect.

Tonight I’m looking forward to seeing Sufjan Stevens perform at the Royal Festival Hall and having some dim sum with friends beforehand. Thanks to everyone who has been in touch with me over the past year to discuss books and suggested more things to read.

AuthorEric Karl Anderson
3 CommentsPost a comment

I turn 36 today. You know how there are particular books you’ve always wanted to read, but somehow never make the time for? Since I was a teenager, I’ve made it a birthday tradition to read a book that I’ve always wanted to get to but somehow never have. This is difficult since it needs to be short enough to be manageable and reliably well-regarded so as not to be disappointing. Of course, most years it takes me a number of days to get through the entire book. Sadly with work and adult life the days of being able to sit in all day doing nothing but reading are gone. When I turned 17 I think I spent the entire lonely day in my room reading Kobo Abe’s stark brutal novel “Woman in the Dunes.” It’s a fantastic book – though it left me feeling a little bleak.

However, upon waking up early this morning and on the way to work, I finally read “Alice in Wonderland.” I can’t think why this wasn’t on my shelf as a child as it would no doubt have made a terrific impact upon me. I think I would have loved the sheer creativity and terror and absurdity of it… and the illustrations if they were anything like the ones found in the fantastic hardback Bloomsbury edition I own with beautiful drawings by Mervyn Peake and an introduction from Will Self. Of course, I wouldn’t have picked up on the subtler aspects of this profound unsettling book at a young age. Alice’s struggle with identity is something we experience perpetually no matter how established we become in our lives: “Who in the world am I? Ah, that's the great puzzle!” Alice’s body rapidly transforms. She encounters horror and hilarity, as well as a plethora of personalities all consumed with their own peculiar obsessive preoccupations and egocentric desires – what a true depiction of encountering the world! All the while, Alice approaches every obstacle with a calm sense of logic while maintaining her integrity and desire for civility.

The book’s great lines and imagery are so embedded in the public imagination that even without having reading it I was, of course, already familiar with much of what the story and characters. When I first came to study in England in 1999 I excitedly sat in my first class (where our task was to translate prose text to theatrical text) and volunteered to be the first one to present the first assignment. The imposing lecturer turned and narrowed his eyes down upon me enquiring in a thunderous voice “Who are you?” and I was reminded immediately of the imperial caterpillar from “Alice.” The phrase “curiouser and curiouser” seems common parlance, at least here in England and especially amongst the learned well-to-do. The character of the outrageous anthropomorphic beings and the very spirit of Alice herself seem to be a part of everyday society. This book is an incredible imaginative feat and I’m glad to have finally experienced the original writing.

Since it’s my birthday I’m feeling a little sentimental and want to express my gratitude to everyone who reads this blog. I’m flattered people find value in my thoughts about books and I’ve enjoyed immensely all the communication I’ve had with readers through the blog. It’s a passion project of mine that I really pour my heart into so thank you for giving it your attention. I had a lovely time over the weekend when my boyfriend surprised me with an overnight trip to Cornwall. We drove through the spectacular countryside and I paid a visit to the Screech Owl Sanctuary. I have a particular fondness for owls and enjoyed meeting these curious creatures which included Boobook and Siberian Eagle owls. What beauties!

owl2 copy.jpg
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
9 CommentsPost a comment