Category Archives: Kehlmann Daniel

F by Daniel Kehlmann

Initially 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.

FArthur 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.

Review copy

Translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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Fame by Daniel Kehlmann

“Reality isn’t Everything.”

Did someone declare Austrian literature month around here? First Anna Edes by Austro-Hungarian  (yes that’s cheating a bit) Dezso Kosztolányi, then Concrete by Thomas Bernhard and now Fame by Daniel Kehlmann. I’m going to admit that I’d never heard of Daniel Kehlmann or his latest book Fame before, but he came highly recommended from Seeing the World Through Books. What is Fame–is it a novel? Or is it a collection of nine cleverly interwoven short stories? I suppose I should opt for the latter, but part of me really wants to lean into the novel idea for some reason, and this seems validated by the fact the author (and after all, he wrote it) states it’s a “novel in nine chapters.”

These stories or episodes are so well done, so clever, there’s not a loser in the bunch. Sometimes the connections between the characters are obvious, and sometimes the connections are much more subtle. While the characters come from various walks of life, there’s a common thread throughout: fame, identity, and the cell phone. Kehlmann introduces cell phones in his stories or chapters and never once does this ring a false note or seem contrived as cell phones become a crucial element through the lives of his characters.

Here’s an overview of each story:

In Voices (one of my favourite episodes), Ebling buys a cell phone and begins getting calls for someone named Ralf. At first he’s annoyed by the calls, and then he’s intrigued. Ralf becomes Ebling’s “doppelgänger, his representative in a parallel universe.” Ebling becomes increasingly disinterested in his own life as he waits for calls intended for Ralf–a man who seems to have a more far exciting time. In one great passage, Ebling is hiding from his wife and running off to the cellar to make assignations with sexy-sounding women:

He had worked out that he could say anything provided he didn’t ask any questions, but that people got suspicious the moment he wanted to know something. Yesterday a woman whose throaty voice he particularly liked had accused him directly of not being Ralf–all because he’d asked where in Andalusia they’d been together on summer vacation three years ago.   

 In In Danger (another of my favourites) neurotic novelist Leo Richter (who reminds me a great deal of a Woody Allen character) is on a circuit tour of Central America, and he asks his fairly new lover, Elisabeth, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders to go along. Richter is an astonishing blend of neuroses & self-centeredness, and there’s a sort of fuzziness instead of a dividing line between Richter’s reality and Richter’s fiction. He’s a hilariously funny character–terrified of air travel and yet unexpectedly casual in certain situations.

In Rosalie Goes Off to Die, an elderly woman diagnosed with terminal cancer books a trip to a Swiss clinic where she plans to end her life. But is this her plan or Leo Richter’s?

In The Way Out, famous actor Ralf Tanner’s life takes a turn for the worst when his phone stops ringing. He experiences an identity crisis which is exacerbated by sessions watching Ralf impersonators on YouTube and reading error-riddled articles on Wikipedia:

He had long suspected that the act of being photographed was wearing out his face. Was it possible that every time you were filmed, another person came into being, a less-than-percent copy that ousted you from your own presence? It seemed to him that after years of being famous only a part of him survived, and all he needed to be whole again was to die, and to be alone in the place he truly belonged: in films and in his myriad photographs.  

The coup-de-grace arrives when he stumbles into a discotheque and learns he can’t even impersonate himself convincingly.

In The East detective writer Maria Rubenstein attends a writers’ trip to Central Asia, and here she learns the hard way that fame and cell phones don’t always mean a great deal in the squalor and harsh poverty of a gadgetless third world country.

In Replying to the Abbess, Blanco, a phenomenally successful writer known for his bestsellers that explore the meaning of life and inner serenity discovers his own nihilistic truth after reading a letter from an Abbess questioning his faith.

A Contribution to the Debate is written by Molwitz aka mollwit–a forum and chat room poster who’s unexpectedly asked to attend an important business conference. This has to be my all-time favourite episode. Molwitz is a walking disaster–a 37-year-old man who ignores personal hygiene (after all, his relationships takes place in cyberspace), lives with his controlling, hysterical mother and whose social life is spent on various internet forums. This section of the book is written by Molwitz, and some of his conversations resemble internet forum exchanges. Here he is, seriously disturbed when he discovers he has no internet access in the hotel:

At Reception, I demanded instant Internet. The woman looked at me like an obelisk. “Internet! Hello, Internet!”

Her: “not working right now.”

“Pardon, what, how, huh?”

Her: yes, so sorry, service interrupted at the moment, usually the rooms have wi-fi, but not for now.

Me: just stared. Couldn’t get it.

“It’ll be fixed next week.”

Me: Fanbloodytastic. Really helps me. What’s the prob?

Stared at me blank. Sarcasm: new territory for her. So shocked felt faint. Hotel parked in booniest boondocks. No village, no Internet cafe, so either someone lent me his HSDPA card, or situation pitch-black. And come on, nobody lends you their internet card, everyone’s afraid you’ll download movies at company expense. So: catastrophe. Catacombs. Night night.

And then Mollwitz runs into Leo Richter….

How I Lied and Died concerns a man who begins an affair that’s either facilitated or complicated by a cell phone.

The last story, In Danger revisits Elisabeth and Leo Richter. This time, they’re on her turf when Leo accompanies Elisabeth to a dangerous war zone. She knows it’s dangerous but she thinks she “wanted finally to show him this real life.” At first Leo acts in a fairly predictable fashion asking the European doctors if the soldiers in jeeps carry “real” weapons. We might expect writer Leo Richter  to blur reality and fiction, but is it a coincidence that his girlfriend Elisabeth’s life mirrors that of one of his most famous characters? Instead of the trip defining reality for Leo, Elisabeth finds herself in a confusing blend of fiction and reality.

Fame is highly entertaining and really very funny–no argument from me on that score, but the book is a lot more than that. I found myself thinking about the characters a great deal, and then I’d return to the book and reread quotes. In Fame, Kehlmann’s characters don’t exactly struggle with reality. They juggle with it as their lives are caught between reality and fiction.

The East and The Way Out both explore the connection between reality and fame.  The main characters in these stories are celebrities, yet when they lose their fame they both cease to exist and find themselves sliding towards new lives. Their existence is defined by their fame to one degree or another. When that’s stripped away, what’s left? I think most of us would argue that the projected ‘famous’ images of Ralf and Maria are more real than Mollwit’s internet identity, and yet all three characters flounder when detached from the identity they’ve formed for themselves.  Are the images we’ve formed of ourselves fragile once removed from their context? 

What of Mollwit? His entire life is spent flaming others on the internet through various identities, and in a sense you can hardly blame him as his ‘real’ life is quite dreadful. But what is Mollwit’s real life? Is his internet life just as real as his pitiful home & office existence? And this moves to the question of the image we have of ourselves and the image others have of us. Which is real? How ‘real’ is anything?

I find myself agreeing with Leo. Here’s a conversation he has with Elisabeth:

“All this isn’t real,” she said. “Or is it?”

“Depends on your definition.” He lit a cigarette. “Real. It’s a word that means so much, it doesn’t mean anything anymore.”

Review copy courtesy of Pantheon books. My version is translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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