SWFT Wellbeing Reading Group Book Review of The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler

Our read this month was The Tobacconist, written by Robert Seethaler in 2014 and recently translated from the German by Charlotte Collins. It is the story of Franz, a teenager from a small village in the Austrian lakes who moves to Vienna to become apprentice to an elderly tobacconist.  In the course of the book, Franz suffers from home sickness, falls in love, and receives romantic advice from a regular customer, known as the Professor.  However this is the 1930s, the Professor is Sigmund Freud, and Hitler is on the rise…

The story has been described variously as ‘tender and heartbreaking’ (Waterstones)

‘a bittersweet picture of youthful ideals getting clobbered by external forces. The result is a little like Great Expectations, only with dachshunds and strudel.’ (The Guardian)

‘a touching miniature of an ordinary life irrevocably altered by the larger forces of history.’ (Sunday Times)

Our Reading Group’s main opinion of The Tobacconist was that we didn’t really know what to think. One member described the story as ‘weird’, another as ‘unfinished’, one reader felt ‘it didn’t really do anything’, another said it was ‘predictable’, and another commented that it was ‘depressing’. We agreed that it was a quick read – one member took their copy on holiday – however two others hadn’t finished the book by the time of the meeting. Given that the setting of the novel was the Annexation of Austria (Anschluss) and the rise and domination of Hitler, we felt that it didn’t really go into things enough. The story ignored problematic issues, such as when or why is prejudice considered to be acceptable. Moments like when the butcher defaced and graffitied the tobacconist’s shop, felt wasted as they could have been further developed. Instead the story just concentrated on the life of a not particularly interesting teenager. In fact the story was described in group as less a story, and more a series of things happening to someone who is unable to make their own choices and just gets manipulated by others. Perhaps this was due to his youth, or maybe it didn’t occur to him to get involved until it was too late.

One group member felt that the story had had potential but didn’t achieve it, maybe because it was trying to do too much. Certainly the role of Freud as a type of Father Confessor figure was not as well written as it could have been. It was almost like a cameo appearance rather than a main plot device. We were left feeling that Freud could actually have been anyone, rather than being a major figure in Psychoanalysis. In comparison the figure of Heriberet Pfrundner, the local postman, provided light relief, and reminded one member of a character in ‘Allo ‘Allo. We did feel that some aspects were well written, such as the description of the shop itself. However in general it was a hard period to read about, especially when behaviours, such as those of the soldiers, are re-enacted even now.

As people have been jetting off on holiday, we thought now would be a good time to find out what books you have been reading. Is there anything you’ve read recently that you would recommend to other group members? Anything you read that was disappointing or overhyped? Come and join us on 20th September and let us know what books you took on holiday and whether they lived up to your expectations. If your book was so good that it made you forget about the rain outside, we want to know.

Have a good summer!