From the outset, we’re aware of a dry observational humour running throughout this devastating novel. A prominent local business man, with a tendency to be generous towards the women he’s sleeping with, dies in a thunderstorm. We’re told that ‘a conspicuous number of black-veiled women gathered around the grave.’ Franz’s mother is among the many and it is her lover’s death, amongst other things, which convinces her that her somewhat naive son needs to move to Vienna, to work as an apprentice to an old friend of hers, the Tobacconist. ‘Preininger’s gone,’ she said, placing her hand on Franz’s arm, ‘and the times aren’t getting any better. Something’s in the air.’ Franz instinctively looked up at the sky, but there was nothing there. His mother sighed.’ Franz comes of age in The Tobacconist, experiencing his first passion, witnessing the rise of fascism in his country. Like Seethaler’s A Whole Life, also translated by Charlotte Collins, this is a tale of an individual caught up unwillingly, initially at least, in events far beyond his control.
This is also a story of an education – he learns to read the newspapers properly, with all their divergent views, and he ‘derived a certain degree of pleasure from his reading. It was an inkling he could sense rustling among all those printed letters, a little inkling of the possibilities of the world.’ His rather unexpected friendship with the Professor is another part of his development, and the scenes between Franz and Sigmund Freud are a joy to read – Seethaler’s Freud is at once very much what we’d expect ‘the world famous originator of psychoanalysis’ to be and also utterly human in his feelings about events unfolding in Vienna.
Seethaler captures the sense of foreboding, and the small, and not so small, acts of resistance to a mood sweeping the country as Hitler annexes Austria in 1938 . Otto Trsnyek, the Tobacconist to whom Franz’s mother sends her green son with his delicate hands, is a hero of the novel. Having lost a leg in the trenches years earlier, he views the aggressive Anschluss with a quiet horror and refuses to be cowed.
At first, Franz is slow to see what’s going to happen – the older people see it first – but he refuses to buy into the new mood: ‘More and more people greeted each other with ‘Heil Hitler!’, stretching their arm out as they did so. Franz, to whom this seemed a trifle excessive, got into the habit of replying with a non-committal ‘Thank you, same to you!’ His refusal will prove costly, but it makes another hero of a quiet man in this most excellent and moving of novels.