A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler
Born in a small German mountain village, Andreas Egger led a modest life as a local mountaineer, and, according to his birth certificate, lived to be 79 years old. In a powerful and economical 150 pages, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life traces Egger’s life from memory to memory, illuminating a simply-lived but emotionally rich and relatable existence.
While appearing on the surface like a eulogy, A Whole Life’s careful pacing creates something far more poetic. Seethaler lands on certain lovely memories with relish and lets them unfold over a handful of pages with the clumsy expansiveness of a first love. More difficult memories are developed with reticence, and dark years are often skipped between two solemn paragraphs. A Whole Life reads like the phenomenon of one’s life flashing before their eyes at their moment of death: Seethaler’s expert prose feels like a gift to his protagonist, a chance to re-live it all before the great finality.
In one scene that “Egger was to remember all his life,” his general manager tells him:
“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.”
In a similar sentiment, while discussing his limp and scars with his new wife Marie, he likens them to years: “one follows another and it’s all of them together that make a person who they are.” A Whole Life is Egger’s retention of these memories: a life of moments, relived in memoriam.
Death, or “the Cold Lady”, as she is personified by another hiker in the novella, looms throughout A Whole Life. The volume’s title and slender size function as a sort of doomsday knell, warning readers of Egger’s impending demise as the pages run out. But Seethlater uses this metafiction to his advantage and inversely reminds readers of the glorious persistence of life: when Egger loses his mountain cabin and Marie in an avalanche, it’s remarkable to see that despite the hopeless emotional trauma, he still has half a novella left to live.
A Whole Life is almost a parable: its message universal, much of the story is set in a nondescript village that could have been in innumerable regions or eras. But eventually Seethaler reveals the first signs of the twentieth century as Egger begins working for a cable car company. “He saw himself as a small but not unimportant cog in a gigantic machine called Progress, and sometimes, before falling asleep, he would picture himself sitting in the belly of this machine as it ploughed inexorably through forests and mountains, contributing, with the heat and sweat of his brow, to its ongoing advance.” As Progress charges onward towards the 1940s, Egger is conscripted by the Wehrmacht, and later held in Voroshilovgrad as a prisoner of war for years before returning back to his village. These sections of A Whole Life span little more than fifteen devastating pages but their terse recollection suggests an unspeakable weight.
The inclusion of World War II in A Whole Life provides the novella with an important new context. If Seethaler were to focus solely on Egger in his mountain village, A Whole Life would still be a remarkable book on account of its masterful rendering of a life’s memories. But by placing Egger’s life in relation to the twentieth century’s engine of Progress, one can marvel not only at an entire life lived but how far we’ve all come in a lifetime.