Meaningful Suburban Life?

If you search for a good, touching and readable book, try The Field/ Das Feld by the Austrian author Robert Seethaler. Easy to read (short chapters), hard to get the mind off. It’s a stunning chronicle about the (non) life of a small town, named Paulstadt.

I recommend it if you’re flipping through self-help literature in search for a new meaning in your life … in vain. You’re still waiting for a more fulfilling job, a more loving partner, a better look, and a meaningful vocation. Visit Paulstadt, the protagonist city of “Das Feld”, and you’ll become aware of your luck. Compared to the Paulstadt’s suburban life, your life will shine with fulfillment.

Although the small towns’ daily life is not the book’s main theme, I deal with it in this article for it raises questions about our own life without big words . The relations between Paulstadt’s inhabitants, together with those between the inhabitants and the physical places — e.g., the cemetery, particular trees, the pub — weave a psychological spider web wrapping up the environment so tightly that there is no fresh air to breathe.

How to escape the spider web of a small town? Of a small

 

  1. Your work is related to urban studies and city planning. Include the book in your curriculum. It’s a literary textbook of social network analysis and environmental psychology. Not always evident, but easy to spot, anyway. All squeezed into 18 short stories. Perfect for our rushed schedule and limited focus span.

An urban research on Paulstadt

Paulstadt is a small town. Its urban plan includes everything one needs — that is all functions that architects and city planners have been taught to include since the rise of modern city planning. It fulfills spiritual needs (a Catholic church), leisure needs (a recreation complex), socializing needs (a pub), services (a car wash), a school (albeit in the background), an exotic fruits shop through which alterity slips in the city in the form of an Arab family.

People don’t come to and go from Paulstadt. What for? The city is contained in itself. Isn’t this our dream of a city? To have everything at hand? Yet, there are some ins and outs worth highlighting.

Out from Paulstadt: The main destination is the cemetery. Besides, a family with a kid leaves for holiday. But their luggage and microscopic priorities say that Paulstadt goes with them at the seaside. An old widow is the only radical: she decides to leave for good.

Into Paulstadt: The (Arab) emigrant and the WWII refugee. Classic. None is as problematic as the current urban literature states. They are caught in the banality of the everyday similarly to others.

The network of relations is not dense, but everyone can be eventually reached in a few steps, as the social network experiments proved. There is love in the city, friendship in the city, the fool, the fanatic and the addicted, in short the main prototypes of relations and characters.

The city has thus everything that urban theory requires. Except for life. It is a city inhabited by dead people. A visionary grandma writes her epitaph on the back of her photo:

“I was sick

and died

as hero

of my tragedy

entitled:

ALL IN VAIN”

Banality kills.

Yet, simple joys can spring out of banal things. “When you sit watching in the mornings the cars’ speeding down (…), think how good you live. (…) It is not much, but exactly this makes it so good.”

Where, then, does the secret of a good life hide? Read the book and try to find it out. I give you just one clue (hidden among many):

“Experience doesn’t bring much if you aren’t smart enough to reflect on things and to draw useful conclusions. Or when you don’t have anymore the strength to get your butt out of armchair. Few old people are wise, most are just old. I was one of many.”

Back to the urbanism: the big question is to what degree urban planning influences the wellbeing. There is so much concern and research on this. Yet, perfectly planned cities fail to function. Dormitory towns have good housing, amenities, schools, recreation, and services, but their environment proves noxious for our psychological wellbeing. Still, planning curricula and policies deal mostly with providing all goods and services as close as possible to people.

Robert Seethaler’s “Das Feld” points to some ways of finding meaning in life, breaking routines, enjoying the moment. And all these in (or despite) a banal city. This is the side effect of good literature. It lends itself to infinite interpretations. Read it this way. It has miraculous effects.

Note: The quoted texts (page 29, respectively 49) are my translation from Seethaler, Robert (2018) Das Feld, Berlin: Hanser Verlag.