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Selfish giants: F is Daniel Kehmann's most technically accomplished novel yet

The latest translation from the German author is an introspective, postmodern comedy.

The author. Photo: Quercus

Daniel Kehlmann. Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Quercus, 258pp, £16.99

Most of the living German-language novelists who make it into English write about war and/or the GDR (Julia Franck, Eugen Ruge, Uwe Tellkamp). Exceptions include Charlotte Roche, the author of the anatomically explicit bestseller Wetlands, and Daniel Kehlmann, whose postmodern comedies examine the cost of success – a natural theme for a million-selling writer whose books have been translated into more languages than he has years (he has just turned 40). Part of his international appeal may have to do with how easily he allows you to overlook his work’s German setting: when, on the first page of his new novel, F, someone parks “in front of a line of terrace houses in a street in the outer boroughs”, you’re more or less free to picture the scene wherever you are. A later reference to Currywurst  is almost shockingly atypical.

Kehlmann made his name with Measuring the World (2005), a novel about the Enlightenment thinkers Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, who at one point manages to forget that his wife is in labour and doesn’t care to be reminded. The suggestion that genius can’t thrive at home resurfaces time and again in Kehlmann’s fiction. In the art-world satire Me and Kaminski (2003), the eponymous painter abandons his daughter in his quest for “a way out of mediocrity”; her mother accepts that it wasn’t “in [his] capacities to make people happy”. F features an unpublished novelist whose breakthrough comes only after he walks out on his family with his passport and all the money in his and his wife’s joint account.

The novels excuse these acts on the grounds that it is better to be a cad than a nobody – the fate of the floundering art critic Sebastian Zollner, the “me” in Me and Kaminski. In F, someone wonders how “people with no particular gifts put up with their existence”, a phrase replayed throughout. In Kehlmann’s book of linked stories Fame (2009), an office worker suggests that it is not easy: “Every one of us who’s an employee feels we’re an artist . . . None of us wants to acknowledge . . . that nothing about us is exceptional.” The same book features an author who, after a series of Kafkaesque misunderstandings on tour in central Asia, ends up as a drudge labouring for subsistence. The message seems to be: never forget how bad the civilians have it.

This preoccupation with anointment is somewhat unappealing – Kehlmann knows where he stands – but it doesn’t spoil the brisk fun he has to offer. F is his most technically accomplished novel yet, moving freely in time and point of view. It begins in 1984 with Arthur, as yet unpublished, taking his three young boys out for an afternoon, then fast-forwards into their early thirties to portray a single day in 2008 from their separate points of view. Martin is a priest, Eric a banker, Ivan a painter. Each man is systematically sent up: Martin has no faith; Eric runs a Ponzi scheme; Ivan is a sophisticated art forger.

Much of the pleasure comes from the multiple ironies and manipulated expectations produced by Kehlmann’s shifts in perspective. Eric’s aloof behaviour over a swanky lunch with Martin at first seems intended to be a satire on his industry – bankers! – but we have cause to reconsider once we see the same episode from inside Eric’s troubled mind.

Kehlmann lets some neat touches do the heavy lifting of characterisation. When Eric says that Martin took vows only because he couldn’t get a girlfriend (something we already know to be as good as true from Kehlmann’s prior airing of Martin’s teenage humiliations), Ivan sticks up for Martin’s sincerity, foreshadowing the kindness that proves his undoing in the novel’s pivotal moment of violence.

A line in Kehlmann’s author bio has changed from “He lives in Vienna” (2007) to “He lives in Vienna and Berlin” (2010) to “He lives in Vienna, Berlin and New York”. In recent months, both Jonathan Franzen and Zadie Smith have interviewed him. Where Fame poked fun at writers, one effect of Arthur’s absence in F is to protect a bestselling author from the teasing the novel hands out to almost every other endeavour it portrays. When Arthur says that “nobody knows well-known writers”, the remark seems to come from the same sensibility on display in a recent (and unusually charmless) Q&A in which Kehlmann said that being a writer “means you often get questionnaires and you also get a lot of invitations to very nice literary festivals, but nobody ever puts you in business class”. I suppose he does have to fly a lot.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Christianity in the Middle East

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis