Home > 2010, 21st Century, Austrian Literature, Novel, Seethaler Robert, TBR20, WWII > German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

German Lit Month: The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. Disappointing

November 11, 2018 Leave a comment Go to comments

The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler. (2012) French title: Le tabac Tresniek. Translated from the German (Austria) by Elisabeth Landes.

The Tobacconist is my first read for German Lit Month organized by Caroline and Lizzy. I’m not sure I need to introduce this novel as it has been reviewed numerous times.

The young Franz Huchel is sent from his village on the Attersee in Upper Austria to work as an apprentice at a tobacconist in Vienna. The owner, Otto Tresniek is an old friend of Franz’s mother and has accepted to take him under his wing.

Franz arrives in Vienna at the end of the summer 1937, a few months before the Anschluss. He stays with Otto Tresniek and is introduced to the tobacconist-newsdealer trade. He learns about the different kind of cigarettes and cigars and slowly gets used to reading all the newspapers everyday as a proper newsdealer should, in Otto Tresniek’s mind.

Up to that stage of the book, I enjoyed it. The descriptions of the Salzkammergut region were nice, it looked like a good coming-of-age novel in troubled times. We’re in page 43 in my French edition when Sigmund Freud enters the story and everything went downhill from there.

I disliked that Robert Seethaler felt he needed the crutch of a larger-than-life character like Freud to give substance to his story. He had a good start, why were anonymous Vienna inhabitants not enough to hold the story?

Then Franz spends a Sunday at the Prater amusement park, gets acquainted with a mysterious girl who disappears on him. This part was nice and should have ended there, as a lesson learned for young Franz. But he becomes obsessed with this girl, talks about love with Freud and decides to look for her. He finds her, her name is Aneszka and she comes from Bohemia. That thread peters out oddly and suddenly we leave his angst and Aneszka behind without really understanding why.

In the background, the Nazis take power in Austria, in the country but in the minds too. The tobacconist is attacked, the Nazi dictatorship settles in the country and the first visible deaths arrive. But to me, that part wasn’t convincing either. There is no real exploration either of what happens to the country on a political level or on what it does on people’s everyday lives. There are hints but not built well enough to create a clear picture in the reader’s mind.

The Tobacconist felt like a series of missed opportunities. To picture Vienna in 1937. To dissect how the Nazi took power in Austria. To show how a young country boy adapted to the big city and to the political context. To recreate the life of ordinary people in the Vienna of that time.

There are good ideas in this book but for me, they didn’t click together and made a convincing puzzle. And, as you can see, I have no quote to share because I didn’t highlight anything in the book. If you’ve read The Tobacconist, I hope you’ll share your opinion about it in the comments, I’m looking forward to discussing it with you.

For more enthusiastic reviews, see Lisa’s here and Susanna’s here.

  1. November 11, 2018 at 10:18 am

    Funnily enough, as I was reading your review, the phrase ‘missed opportunity’ came to mind, and then I noticed that you’d used the very same expression in your closing summary. What a pity this didn’t work out for you as the period and setting are so interesting. I wasn’t a massive fan of Seethaler’s novella, A Whole Life, so this probably isn’t for me either.


    • November 11, 2018 at 11:08 am

      It’s a very interesting setting and era but also a tricky one because so much has already been written about it.

      What I really disliked is the Freud thing. Why on earth did the author feel the urge to put Freud in the story? Because it was the time he had to flee Austria because he was Jewish?

      I’m not keen on trying another book by him either.


  2. November 11, 2018 at 10:29 am

    Ah, shame, I quite loved this novel, particularly because it was not too explicitly political or historical. The mix of real and fictional, comic and tragic was precisely what appealed to me. The fact that when big historical events happen, people are still far too absorbed by their selfish little personal concerns. Thought it was a very good description of the shallow depth of Viennese society.


    • November 11, 2018 at 11:18 am

      You’d love anything set in Vienna, no? 🙂

      Seriously, after reading Bonheur d’occasion, this sounded very bland. Here, the neighborhood doesn’t really come to life. And the relationship between Franz and Freud, come on, what need was there for that?

      IMO, we know nothing about anybody’s personal concerns except Franz’s. And he’s a teenager, so self-centrered is part of the territory. This is something Imre Kertész describes masterfully in Fateless or Fatelessness. (Or Etre sans destin. The French title emcompasses both English titles) How the teenage narrator is rather oblivious to what’s happening in Budapest.
      Other characters are not developed. There are no real dialogues between Otto and the anti-semitic butcher, for example.

      Liked by 1 person

      • November 11, 2018 at 12:58 pm

        Yes, you are right that I cannot be entirely objective about anything set in Vienna…

        Liked by 1 person

        • November 11, 2018 at 3:30 pm

          I’ve started The Emperor’s Tomb. Sounds great.


  3. November 11, 2018 at 10:30 am

    P.s. I read it in German, which may have made a difference.


    • November 11, 2018 at 11:19 am

      I don’t think it made a difference in this case.
      Sometimes, I think German doesn’t translate that well into French and we lose something in translation but I don’t think it happened here.


  4. November 11, 2018 at 11:06 am

    Thanks for the mention:)
    The Tobacconist isn’t as good IMO as A Whole Life. That was a tender, generous-hearted novel which I would recommend to anyone. Although I think there are things to admire in The Tobacconist, I probably wouldn’t have read more of Seethaler if that had been my first one by this author.


    • November 11, 2018 at 11:24 am

      You’re welcome and it’s good to give a bit of balance to my billet as I really struggled to finish this book.

      Does The Whole Life have also historical characters like Freud in it?

      There are definitely good elements in The Tobacconist, I just thought they didn’t make a good dish in the end.


  5. November 11, 2018 at 2:09 pm

    Your description of the first part of this really appeals, what a shame it then changes. It sounds like the author couldn’t quite decide what he wanted the story to be.


    • November 11, 2018 at 3:27 pm

      A lot of readers really liked this book. So maybe it’s me, maybe I read it at the wrong time.
      I felt like the author lost himself in the book.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. November 11, 2018 at 8:35 pm

    Thanks for the mention!
    Some of the things that you disliked about the book are aspects that I liked. I enjoyed the conversations between Franz and Freud and that the Nazis took power in the background. I was always under the impression that people continued to live their lives normally and didn’t give much importance to Hitler at first, like no one expected the Nazis to go as far as they did.


    • November 11, 2018 at 8:39 pm

      By giving much importance, I mean not thinking that he would act on his words.


    • November 11, 2018 at 9:44 pm

      It’s a well-loved book, so lots of readers feel more like you did than I did.

      Part of the people didn’t pay attention because they never imagined Hitler would put everything he said into practice. Alas, he did.
      But a lot of people agreed with him and that’s what Seethaler tries to show with the butcher character. Antisemitism was a strong current in the Austrian society of the time.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. November 12, 2018 at 3:41 pm

    Oh my. I had a similar experience with A Whole Life. Everybody, with some exceptions, seemed to love it, but I didn’t. I’m not keen on the Freud idea at all. It really sounds like a missed opportunity. I know that after reading A Whiole Life, I decided to give him another chance and bought either this one or another one. I hope it’s the other one.


    • November 12, 2018 at 9:57 pm

      I’m glad I’m not the only one with reservations about his work. I was wondering if something was wrong with me.

      Let’s see how you like his other book. You’re more forgiving than I am, I’m sure not tempted to read A Whole Life.

      On another note: I’m half way through The Emperor’s Tomb and I love it so far.


      • November 13, 2018 at 7:18 am

        I’m not that forgiving when it’s literary fiction and especially not when I read in German or French.
        I’m also liking The Emperor’s Tomb very much. I still don’t understand why you didn’t like Hotel Savoy.


        • November 13, 2018 at 7:25 am

          I did like Hotel Savoy very much. (see my billet)
          And The Radetsky March too.


          • November 13, 2018 at 12:03 pm

            How strange. I read your review when you posted it and seem to remember you were disappointed. My memory must be playing tricks.


            • November 15, 2018 at 10:16 pm

              It must have been someone else! 🙂


              • November 16, 2018 at 7:04 am

                I went back to it and it really seems you were not that keen. Just look at our discussion. I mean Hotel Savoy.


  8. Vishy
    November 12, 2018 at 11:49 pm

    Sorry to know that this book didn’t work for you, Emma. I loved his other book ‘A Whole Life’ and I was hoping to read other books by him. Now after reading your review, I am not sure whether I should read this one. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    • November 15, 2018 at 10:20 pm

      Well, we can’t love them all!

      Lots of readers enjoyed it, so maybe you shouldn’t trust this billet. Maybe I’m the odd one who didn’t like it but you will.


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