Initially F from German author Daniel Kehlmann seems to be something from a Woody Allen film, and that’s partly due to the insertion of the nebulous influences of a magician, but it’s also partly due to the dysfunctional family dynamics and the relationships between 3 male siblings–two are twins who are almost telepathically connected and yet vastly different from each other.
The book begins in 1984 with unemployed, would-be author Arthur, married to an ophthalmologist, taking his three sons to see a magician. There’s an immediate sense that Arthur is a slippery individual: an irresponsible disinterested father, husband, and human being, so it doesn’t seem too surprising to read that his oldest son, 13-year-old Martin, waits for over two hours for his father to show up for the outing or that it had been “fourteen years since he had tiptoed swiftly” out of Martin’s mother’s life. Martin’s step-brothers, Ivan and Eric, are identical twins who dress alike, are practically impossible to tell apart and “seem like an optical illusion.” And these early scenes set the tone for the novel in which chance, Fate, illusion, fabrication, and identity play large roles.
Arthur takes the boys to see The Great Lindemann: Master of Hypnosis, and since Arthur firmly believes that hypnosis doesn’t work on him, the choice to see the magician seems a little odd, but it’s a choice that indicates Arthur’s wish to stay always on the boundaries of life, skeptical, superior, and ready to slip out the back door if the feeling takes him. When Arthur is called up on the stage, a strange event occurs, which may or may not occur under hypnosis, and which acts as a lever to spring Arthur, yet again, from the domestic life he secretly despises. Abandoning his second family, he disappears to pursue a writing career.
No matter how often Martin thought back to that day, and no matter how much he tried to summon up that conversation from the shadows of his memory, he always failed. The reason was that he had imagined it too often before it took place, and the things they actually said to each other soon merged into the things he’d imagined so often over the years. Had Arthur really said that he didn’t have a job and was dedicating himself to thinking about life, or was it just that later, when Martin knew more about his father, he simply attributed this answer to him as the only one that seemed to fit? And could it be that Arthur’s answer to the question of why he had walked out on him and mother, was that anyone who gave himself over to captivity and the restricted life, to mediocrity and despair, would be incapable of helping any other human being because he would be beyond help himself, succumbing to cancer, heart disease, his life cut short, rot invading his still breathing body?
Arthur becomes a famous author, with his most memorable book being: My Name is No One. The book, which adds a meta-fictional aspect to the novel, with a main character known only as F provokes complicated “theories” regarding its meaning, a “well-known radio talk-show host [who] voluntarily checked into a locked psychiatric ward after declaring on the air that he was convinced of his own nonexistence,” and instigates a “wave of suicides.” While Arthur more or less disappears and then reappears later in the book, his books and their meaning (if any) weave throughout the novel as the plot follows the subsequent careers of Martin, Ivan and Eric. Unable to make a living with his mastery of the Rubik’s Cube, Martin becomes a Catholic priest who munches bars of chocolate in the confessional. This section is hilarious, and poor obese Martin, unable to get a girlfriend, finds security in his identity as a priest, even though part of his job is to listen to the salacious details of the life of a chronic philanderer. Eric becomes an investment banker whose private life spirals out of control in conjunction with his professional malfeasance, and Ivan, an art historian becomes an art forger, manipulating the market as he bids on his own fakes. All of the sons are inauthentic in their own way–fakes, frauds, and a forger. Add to that the last name of all the male characters: Friedland, shaped by the example of a shifty irresponsible father, and it’s clear that F stands for a lot of things in this book, but more than anything else, F stands for Fate:
“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you. Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.
Each of the three sons narrate their own chapter on a particular day August 8, 2008, and these chapters are very funny indeed as we see how the three brothers have grown up, their lives intersect, and exactly what messes they’ve made of their lives. There’s a sense of both design (fate) and chaos here, as Ivan and Eric, in particular, attempt to scramble out of the webs of deceit they’ve created by their own Finagling. The chapter Family however is an exposition of genealogy, and it detracted from the novel overall. By the time this chapter appeared, it created not a diversion as much as a distraction. I wanted to return to the main characters.
F is a very clever, complex, Existentialist novel which asks some big questions about identity & the absurdity of life: how ‘Free’ are we (there’s that F again)? Can we escape our Fate? And how much does chance play a role in our lives? What of Family (role models & genetics)? F shows how Fate, Chance and Family all influence the lives we build for ourselves, but in the case of the males in the Friedland family, there’s equal emphasis on how these characters attempt to dig their way out of those messy lives.
There’s the sense, at times, that the author places Ivan and Eric under the microscope recording the absurdity of their actions as they scramble around attempting to disentangle themselves from the chaos their lives have become. Their father managed his quest for Self effectively by Abandonment: dumping his wife and children, and looting the bank account along the way in his quest for Self & the authentic life. Will his sons achieve the same? With its frantic energy and humour, F is funny & entertaining, and, for the most part the novel manages to juggle dense philosophical ideas well with plot; if you felt so inclined, you could probably write a paper on “Symbolism in F” or “Existentialism in F.“ Some readers may not enjoy the novel’s cleverness which at times seems to tug at the narrative and leaves the characters less than whole human beings and more ‘types.’ I appreciated the Woody-Allensque humour, the chaos, the absurdity, and the moral dilemmas everyone seems to ignore.
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway