The Tobacconist – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)


Earlier this year I read A Whole Life by Robert Seethaler, and after enjoying that, chose to read more of his work! This was also selected as a book for this month’s book club:

Seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

The book is set in pre-war Austria where a young man is sent to Vienna to work with one of his mothers old friends at a tobacconist shop. This tobacconist was once a soldier in the trenches during which time he lost a leg and now worked in the shop to make ends meet – reading the newspapers and knowing everything about the cigars (despite not smoking).

The shop gets regular customers, one of which is the famous “idiot doctor” Sigmund Freud – a man Franz has heard much about and is excited to meet.

As war approaches however, the shop becomes vandalised as a “place that sells cigards to Jews”, and as the tobacconist fights these strange new ideas, and Franz chases love, the city of Vienna seems smaller and smaller as war approaches.

Frustrated by the Nazi’s, sad at the fate of his lost love, Franz seeks Freud’s advice and friendship, though this becomes difficult; Freud being a Jew.

The book is not unlike A Whole Life in the way that it is written – no chapters and much imagery. The constant call backs to a peaceful childhood fit effortlessly in the prose, and Franz becomes a likable character as he develops into a man in such a difficult time.

It certainly gives a good glimpse to pre-war Austria, with peoples opinions seeming to change in such a short period of time – one month mocking Hitler as a dog; the next shouting “Sieg Heil” and mocking the Jews…

The cynic in me questions our immunity to such fluctuations too – we are often blind to our hypocrisy even today, and a liberal society is in danger as being no different to a totalitarian one once it starts enforcing by law it’s liberal ideologies – “believe in liberalism, or face punishment, or public shame, or jail”. We must be on guard and soberly check our logic in such things.

Overall a thought-provoking read though an acquired taste – often slow and seemingly insignificant, but all rounded to a big picture of change and the loss of hope in the face of your own country against you.


A Whole Life – Robert Seethaler (Book Review)

I picked this up in Waterstones when looking for shorter books to read. It had a review beside it by a member of staff, and other reviews reinforced my choice to buy it:

Andreas Egger knows every path and peak in his mountain valley, the source of his sustenance, his livelihood – his home.

Set in the mid-twentieth century and told with beauty and tenderness, his story is one of man’s relationship with an ancient landscape, of the value of solitude, the arrival of the modern world, and above all, of the moments, great and small, that make us who we are.

Firstly, this book is very well written – the occasional humour throughout was genuinely very clever, but the sadder times of Egger’s life felt disturbingly real to the point of sympathy for a fictional character. The book essentially follows the whole of Egger’s life in about 150 pages, and it is full of the ups-and-downs as in all lives.

From childhood, to work-life, to marriage, to war – the book is diverse in it’s content. If you are a fan of Stoner by John Williams, you will like this too. The atmosphere of this book was very real, and though not necessarily always the type of book I’d lean towards, I was engrossed throughout.

The book is a translation of Robert Seethaler’s original which took Germany by storm – reaching the top 10 shortly after being published.

The change in the quiet mountain valley as modern life enters in is quite melancholy, and leads to a lot of reflection on the change tourism has had on places whose beauty was once exclusive to those who lived there, and who also often never left.

If you can get a copy, I recommend giving it a go. It’s not long, after all, and is really very good.