Claws

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Stephen Romei

It’s funny how the ti­tles of nov­els can play with our per­cep­tions. Hanya Yanag­i­hara’s cel­e­brated A Lit­tle Life is big in so many ways. It was short­listed for last year’s Man Booker Prize and runs to more than 700 pages. Set in New York and cen­tred on the lives of four young men, it’s the sort of novel that can take over a reader’s life, in a con­sum­ing but thrilling way. The new book I want to men­tion to­day, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life (Pi­cador, $18.99), runs to just 148 pages, yet it ran my life for a few hours, and lingers still. Seethaler is a Vi­ennaborn, Ber­lin-based writer and ac­tor (a re­cent film you can spot him in is Paolo Sor­rentino’s Michael Caine-Har­vey Kei­tel drama Youth). A Whole Life, trans­lated by Char­lotte Collins, is his fifth novel. It fol­lows the life of An­dreas Eg­ger, a sim­ple, strong, stoic, tac­i­turn man (how I loved his avoid­ance of “un­nec­es­sary words”). He lives and labours in an Aus­trian alpine vil­lage, a place he ar­rives at in 1902, a four-year-old or­phan. The writ­ing about this de­sirous and de­struc­tive (and cold!) re­mote land­scape is won­der­ful. The novel opens with Eg­gers meet­ing an in­jured goatherd in the snow. What hap­pens next is mys­te­ri­ous and spell­bind­ing. The goatherd is con­jured late in the book, too, when the ti­tle words are men­tioned: “Al­most a whole life lay be­tween Horned Hanns’ dis­ap­pear­ance and his turn­ing up again.” What Eg­gers does in that whole life is ba­sic and mov­ing. He is a man who lives with the mem­ory of love. This is a beau­ti­ful, ab­sorb­ing novel about the amaz­ing qual­ity of or­di­nary life. For line af­ter line, you won­der what is go­ing to hap­pen next. It re­minded me of John Wil­liams’s 1965 novel Stoner, which I wrote about here not long ago. At one point Eg­gers’s boss at a ca­ble car com­pany also uses the ti­tle words: “You can buy a man’s hour 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.” There are two dogs in my house­hold, Bella and Scout. Each has her — let’s use a kind word — idio­syn­cra­sies. Bella, a 10-year-old black labrador with short sight, will run into traf­fic if she mis­takes the white line on the road for a long slice of bread, or any sort of food in fact. Scout, a five-year-old we res­cued as a puppy in out­back Queens­land, is of un­cer­tain lin­eage, but there’s a fair bet she has dingo in her blood. She’s in­tel­li­gent, in­dif­fer­ent to all other dogs ex­cept Bella and a bit mad. Her be­hav­iour, par­tic­u­larly in a ter­ri­to­rial sense, used to test my san­ity. Still does, to be hon­est, but I’ve come to un­der­stand her a lot bet­ter since read­ing Stephen Dais­ley’s sec­ond novel, Com­ing Rain, in which one of the main char­ac­ters is a fe­male dingo. New Zealand-born Dais­ley, 60, had var­i­ous jobs be­fore turn­ing to writ­ing, in­clud­ing a stint in the NZ Army and a lot of work on the land in his adopted West­ern Aus­tralia. I don’t know if he saw din­gos in ac­tion or just read up on them, but ei­ther way he is un­der their skins and in­side their heads. Com­ing Rain has just won NZ’s rich­est book prize, the in­au­gu­ral Acorn Foun­da­tion Lit­er­ary Award, worth $NZ50,000 ($46,000). That makes it two from two for Dais­ley: his de­but novel, Traitor, a bril­liant story of Gal­lipoli and be­yond, won the 2011 Prime Min­is­ter’s Lit­er­ary Award. Com­ing Rain is longlisted for this year’s Miles Franklin Lit­er­ary Award, the short­list for which will be an­nounced on May 29. Quote of the week: “Peo­ple are some­times sur­prised that I have writ­ten a se­ri­ous book.” Ac­tor and co­me­dian — and writer — Magda Szuban­ski when her mem­oir Reckoning won the nonfiction prize at this week’s NSW Premier’s Lit­er­ary Awards. She was on stage, speak­ing to the crowd and, via her phone, to her 92-yearold mother. The se­ri­ous job of hold­ing the phone went to the bloke stand­ing next to her, NSW Premier Mike Baird.

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