German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

I don’t participate in a lot of blogger challenges (though I’ll be doing “Novellas in November” on Monday); it’s more of a coincidence that I finished Austrian writer Robert Seethaler’s excellent The Tobacconist (translated from the German by Charlotte Collins) towards the end of German literature month.

You may recall that I read Seethaler’s previous novel, A Whole Life, on my European travels this past summer, and didn’t think too much of it. I’d read so much praise for its sparse style, but I couldn’t grasp the appeal. Here’s what I wrote about it at the time: “This novella set in the Austrian Alps is the story of Andreas Egger – at various times a farmer, a prisoner of war, and a tourist guide. Various things happen to him, most of them bad. I have trouble pinpointing why Stoner is a masterpiece whereas this is just kind of boring. There’s a great avalanche scene, though.”

tobacconistBut I’m very glad that I tried again with Seethaler, because The Tobacconist is one of the few best novels I’ve read this year, and very much a book for our times despite being set in 1937–8.

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel’s life changes for good when his mother sends him away from his quiet lakeside village to work for her old friend Otto Trsnyek, a Vienna tobacconist. “In [Franz’s] mind’s eye the future appeared like the line of a far distant shore materializing out of the morning fog: still a little blurred and unclear, but promising and beautiful, too.”

Though the First World War left him with only one leg, Trsnyek is a firebrand. Instead of keeping his head down while selling his cigars and newspapers, he makes his political opinions known. This sees him branded as a “Jew lover” and persecuted accordingly. One of the Jews he dares to associate with is Sigmund Freud, who is a regular customer even though he already has throat cancer and will die just two years later.

Especially after he falls in love with Anezka, a flirtatious but mercurial Bohemian girl, Franz turns to Professor Freud for life advice. “So I’m asking you: have I gone mad? Or has the whole world gone mad?” The professor replies, “yes, the world has gone mad. And … have no illusions, it’s going to get a lot madder than this.”

Through free indirect speech, the thought lives of the various characters, and the postcards and letters that pass between Franz and his mother, Seethaler gradually and subtly reveals the deepening worry over the rise of Hitler and the situation of the Jews. This novel is so many things: a coming-of-age story, a bittersweet romance, an out-of-the-ordinary World War II/Holocaust precursor, and a perennially relevant reminder of the importance of finding the inner courage to stand up to oppressive systems.

Monument for the victims of Nazi Terror at the former Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Metropol, Vienna. By Gryffindor (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Monument for the victims of Nazi Terror, former Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Metropol, Vienna. By Gryffindor (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.
Freud and his family had enough money and influence to buy their way to England. So many did not escape Hitler’s regime. I knew that, but discovered it anew in this outstanding novel.

Some favorite passages:

Dear Mother,

I’ve been here in the city for quite a while now, yet to be honest it seems to me that everything just gets stranger. But maybe it’s like that all through life—from the moment you’re born, with every single day, you grow a little bit further away from yourself until one day you don’t know where you are any more. Can that really be the way it is?

And as more than twenty thousand supporters bellowed their assent into the clear Tyrolean mountain air, Adolf Hitler was probably sitting beside the radio somewhere in Berlin, licking his lips. Austria lay before him like a steaming schnitzel on a plate. Now was the time to carve it up. … People were cosseting their faint-hearted troubles and hadn’t even noticed yet that the earth beneath their feet was burning.

(from a letter from Mama) Just imagine, Hitler hangs on the wall even in the restaurant and the school now. Right next to Jesus. Although we have no idea what they think of each other.

Freud: “Most paths do at least seem vaguely familiar to me. But it’s not actually our destiny to know the paths. Our destiny is precisely not to know them. We don’t come into this world to find answers, but to ask questions. We grope around, as it were, in perpetual darkness, and it’s only if we’re very lucky that we sometimes see a little flicker of light. And only with a great deal of courage or persistence or stupidity—or, best of all, all three at once—can we make our mark here and there, indicate the way.”

My rating: 5-star-rating


Happy Thanksgiving to all my American readers! In previous years we’ve been able to find canned pumpkin in the UK to make a pumpkin pie, but alas, this year there have been supply issues (my husband blames Brexit). Nor can we find a real pumpkin – they disappear from the shops after Halloween. Without pumpkin pie it doesn’t feel much like Thanksgiving.

At any rate, here’s a flashback to the seasonal posts I wrote last year, one about five things I was grateful for as a freelance writer (they all still hold true!) and a list of recommended Thanksgiving reading.

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9 thoughts on “German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

  1. I was convinced I’d already read a book by Seethaler, but it seems I haven’t. This very much appeals. I know Hallowe’en type pumpkins have disappeared, but other varieties are available that I would have thought would do much the same job, with a little extra cooking. Butternut maybe? I think the trouble with us Brits is that we really don’t appreciate sweet pumpkin pie, and other varieties make curries and soups etc. so much better than the Jack o’Lantern. I think even the country voting ‘Remain’ (as if – though I continue to dream)) wouldn’t find you a pumpkin of the kind you require, but happy hunting.

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    1. I *think* A Whole Life is his only other novel currently available in English translation, though he’s written four in total.

      I was up for doing a sweet potato pie instead, but my husband wasn’t keen. The thing is, even if a butternut, etc. would technically work, traditional American pumpkin pie comes out of cans: canned pumpkin puree plus canned evaporated milk. It would be hard to get the silken texture otherwise. We don’t have a food processor and would struggle to get a smooth paste with just our stick blender. However, we do have a lead on a homegrown pumpkin from my husband’s colleague, so perhaps we will give it a go next week.

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  2. A lot of things about this book appeal to me. And 5 stars is impressive from you! I will have to add this one to my list.
    Good luck with the pumpkin pie – it really is quite different when making it with an actual pumpkin. Maybe you could make pumpkin cake? Or pecan pie. That’s my favourite. Happy American Thanksgiving! 🙂

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  3. Coincidence or not, welcome to German Literature Month! I’ve added you to the blogroll and this excellent review to the contributions index over at germanlitmonth.blogspot.co.uk.

    I, for one, loved A Whole Life, so if this is much better, I have a lot to look forward to.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lizzy! I’m sorry I didn’t make more of an effort to figure out who was hosting or how to link up my review with other blogs.

      I think I appreciated the combination of momentous world events with momentous personal events here, whereas A Whole Life was just about the latter (and not always so momentous).

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