A novel full of poignant moments and a sense of yearning at a time of great change. Austrian born Seethaler’s novel is quietly impressive. It begins in 1937 when 17 year old Franz is sent by his mother from their Austrian Lake District home to Vienna to work in a small tobacconist’s shop.
Here Franz begins to learn about life from the merchandise and the shop’s aromas, from the newspapers he reads each day and from the customers. These include an aging Sigmund Freud with whom Franz strikes up an unlikely friendship.
But the times are a changing and anti-semitism makes a bond with the Jewish Freud increasingly difficult and the one-legged tobacconist who Franz works for seems a threat to the authorities. Franz, initially bewildered by the mysteries of love and an obsession for a worldly Bohemian girl finds he has more difficult things to contemplate.
The very likeable Franz is the heart of this novel. Everything is underplayed, there are few big dramatic scenes yet the drama and turmoil of the times is palpable. It is clear that for the people in Franz’ circle things can never be the same again.
I like novels where young characters attempt to make sense of the adult world and in Franz’s Vienna there is little that makes sense. His retreats to analysing his dreams is both as a result of his meetings with Freud and an attempt to fathom out his existence where neither the real nor dream world seem quite right.
Robert Seethaler has written five novels. His last “The Whole Life” was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize. This, translated by Charlotte Collins, with its quiet tenderness may slip under the awards radar but it is of lasting appeal.
The Tobacconist was published by Picador in 2017.