Award-winning Viennese writer Robert Seethaler’s bestselling novel, The Tobacconist, tackles coming of age on the eve of war and shows a sentimental side of Freud.

Robert Seethaler didn’t plan to become a novelist. An established character actor on stage and screen (most recently opposite Rachel Weisz in Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth), he began writing novels while studying for a degree in psychology.

His fourth novel, The Tobacconist (2012), was his first bestseller, now available in an exemplary English translation by Charlotte Collins, published by Picador. As with his subsequent novel A Whole Life, shortlisted for the Man Booker ­International Prize in 2016, The Tobacconist demonstrates Seethaler’s ability to infuse seemingly unremarkable lives with meaning by pitting them against dramatic historical events.

A country boy in the city

Robert Seethaler (Trans: Charlotte Collins) The Tabacconist Picador, 2016 240 pp €13.99 // Cover courtesy of publisher

The novel takes place in Vienna from 1937 to 1938, as 17-year-old Franz Huchel arrives in the city, fresh from the provinces. While working as an apprentice to a Viennese tobacconist, Franz encounters a certain Professor Freud, in a meeting that will have consequences for his personal development that are as fateful, in their way, as the seizure of power by the Nazis, which he witnesses over the course of the novel. A coming-of-age story against a backdrop of rising nationalism, the novel’s timely themes yearn for dramatic staging, most recently for the Volkstheater in den Bezirken (Theater in the Districts) project of the Volkstheater.

The novel begins with a sympathetic and convincing account of Franz’s first erotic adventures. Given his simple origins – he is the son of a barmaid and a woodsman – and his utter lack of experience, he is no match for the ­Bohemian Anezka, who initiates him into the secrets of love. Anezka, who works as a striptease dancer in the Prater, eventually takes up with a young SS officer, leaving Franz utterly disoriented. In his anguish, he turns to one of the regulars in the tobacconist’s shop, a Dr. Freud, who is happy enough to trade his understanding ear for some expensive cigars.

Agony uncle

As the novel proceeds, park benches take on the function of the psychoanalyst’s couch, with Franz slowly coming to a critical awareness of himself and the world in a series of conversations with the doctor of the soul. Surrounded by a monstrous parade of oppression and opportunism, Franz struggles to grasp humanity.

A particularly striking motif of this struggle consists in a series of dream texts, descriptions he composes at Freud’s suggestion and then pastes to the shop window. Things unravel as Franz’s employer Otto Trsnyek, a decorated veteran of the Great War, is arrested by the Gestapo on the charge of slandering the local butcher and dies shortly thereafter. Franz confronts the butcher in the presence of his wife, and hoists Trsnyek’s trousers on the flagpole of the Gestapo headquarters, leading to his own arrest. We never learn what happens to him.

This is the tale of an “ordinary man” in extraordinary times, effectively told in an engrossing yet simple personal narration, interspersed with letters and moving passages of dialogue – one flowing whole, without chapter divisions, reminiscent of Bohumil Hrabal’s masterpiece I Served the King of England.

There are lapses, like Seethaler’s inability to resist the occasional cliché, exaggeration or commonplace – for example, a detailed description of naked lovers on a freezing cold night writhing undaunted in the snow. Dr. Freud’s opening gambits, too, are somewhat lacking in subtlety, as with the all too familiar innuendos concerning the real meaning of cigars.

But once these initial lapses are past, Franz’s coming of age amid the coming of war is sympathetically drawn and grippingly told.