The Tobacconist by Robert Seethaler: a haunting tale of friendship in Nazi-occupied Vienna

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From the author of one of my favourite books comes a heartbreaking story about a young man and his friendship with Sigmund Freud during the Nazi occupation of Vienna.

I adored A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler’s finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2016.

As well as being fantastically written, there’s a story behind the book for me. It helped bring Iain and I back together after we ended our relationship in the summer of 2018; he bought the book, read it himself, and then gave it to me when we first met up after time apart. It’s still one of my favourite books.

When we saw that Robert Seethaler had authored another book, The Tobacconist, we both wanted to read it. Iain gave it to me this Christmas, before flying to Japan to start his postdoctoral research position in Nagoya, where he’ll be for nearly two years.

I read the book in Glasgow last month, and haven’t yet got the book out of my head.

During the rise of Nazism, seventeen-year-old Franz Huchel journeys to occupied Vienna to apprentice at a tobacco shop. There he meets Sigmund Freud, a regular customer, and over time the two very different men form a singular friendship. When Franz falls desperately in love with the music-hall dancer Anezka, he seeks advice from the renowned psychoanalyst, who admits that the female sex is as big a mystery to him as it is to Franz.

As political and social conditions in Austria dramatically worsen with the Nazis’ arrival in Vienna, Franz, Freud, and Anezka are swept into the maelstrom of events. Each has a big decision to make: to stay or to flee?

While A Whole Life is rooted in rural Austria, The Tobacconist is very much a book about Vienna. Or, at the very least, it’s a book about leaving the rural Austrian lakes for Vienna.

It’s not a book to rush through. Read it slowly – maybe just half an hour before bed each night – and see how it affects you. Experience Franz’s journey through so many types of loss and love as he grows up, matures, and collides head-on with the realities of Nazi occupation.

It’s not an easy or uplifting read – I don’t find that Robert Seethaler’s books fit that mould. But The Tobacconist is a very special type of book. It contains so much unashamed realness, which may be uncomfortable, but it’s honest.

It doesn’t shy away from the worst moments in modern history, nor the hardest human emotions. As with A Whole Life, it’s a book about life. And to succeed at that, it must be multi-faceted, hard-hitting, and raw in its highs and its lows. It delivers.

You can get a copy of The Tobacconist on Amazon or your local bookshop.


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