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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

F
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 F features an unpublished novelist whose breakthrough comes only after he walks out on his family with his passport and all the money in his and his wife’s joint account.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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Paul Auster's 4 3 2 1 is by turns rewarding and maddening – just like life

Auster’s epic new novel of immigration, politics and consciousness is rich but imperfect.

It’s a cliché, or a joke: the immigrant who arrives in the New World from the Old Country, to be greeted by an official who promptly renames him, mishearing the strange tongue that the arrival speaks. Paul Auster’s new novel begins: “According to family legend, Ferguson’s grandfather departed on foot from his native city of Minsk with one hundred rubles sewn into the lining of his jacket, travelled west to Hamburg through Warsaw and Berlin, and then booked passage on a ship called the Empress of China, which crossed the Atlantic in rough winter storms and sailed into New York Harbor on the first day of the twentieth century.”

Ferguson’s grandfather is called Isaac Reznikoff. Another Russian Jew advises him that it will be wiser to give his name as “Rockefeller” to the official. “You can’t go wrong with that.” But when it is his turn, “the weary immigrant blurted out in Yiddish, Ikh hob fargessen (I’ve forgotten)! And so it was that Isaac Reznikoff began his new life in America as Ichabod Ferguson.”

A joke or a fable: the way that so many stories begin in America, the stories of those who sailed past the Statue of Liberty and the words inscribed on its base, words to welcome the tired, the poor, those masses yearning to breathe free. And so Auster, in his first novel in seven years, presents the reader with an Everyman, Ferguson-who-is-not-Ferguson, not the man who stepped off the Empress of China but his grandson, Archibald Isaac Ferguson, the cranky protagonist and hero of this tale.

Ichabod begat Stanley and Stanley begat Archie, who was born, like his creator, in Newark, New Jersey, in 1947. This nearly 900-page epic is a Bildungsroman, though it would be more accurate to call it a Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungs-Bildungsroman, because Archie’s story is told not once but four times. There are that many versions of the protagonist: in each version, his life takes a different turn, and so everything that follows is altered.

Auster is something of a prophet in exile in his own land. His brand of existentialist postmodernism – in which characters with the author’s name might appear, in which texts loop back on themselves to question the act of writing, in which the music of chance can be heard loud and clear – has sometimes found greater favour in Europe than it has in his native United States. For example, City of Glass, the 1985 meta-detective novel that forms part of The New York Trilogy, will be adapted for the stage here this year.

But City of Glass, like all of Auster’s previous books, is a slender novel. The New York Trilogy as a whole comes in at just over 300 pages. Where much of Auster’s work is elliptical, 4 3 2 1 can be overwhelming, but that is precisely the point. The author creates a vast portrait of the turbulent mid-20th century by giving his protagonist this series of lives. The book is divided into sections that clearly mark which Ferguson we are getting: 1.1, 1.2, 1.3 or 1.4.

Yet there is nothing supernatural about this journey lived and relived, as there was in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life. The only magic involved is the magic of the novelist’s imagination, which allows both writer and reader to juggle realities as if they were balls in the air.

However, it is not as if one Ferguson is midshipman and another a circus performer, or one a loudmouth and another shy and retiring. The strength of this novel is that Ferguson remains himself while events shift around him, changing the course of his life. Ferguson’s father dies, or Ferguson’s father lives but divorces his mother, Rose. What happens then? Rose is a talented photographer; does she continue her work when Stanley prospers and they move to the suburbs, or does she take up golf and bridge? Ferguson is a good student, always a writer: does he go to Princeton or Columbia? What’s the difference between translating poetry in a Paris attic and working as a journalist for the Rochester Times-Union?

At its best, 4 3 2 1 is a full immersion in Ferguson’s consciousness, which, perhaps, is a consciousness not too far removed from Auster’s. His protagonist’s youth is wonderfully, vividly conveyed. Even if you don’t care about baseball, you’ll come to care about it because Ferguson does. The details of the young Ferguson’s life are carefully and lovingly created: the powder-blue Pontiac that his mother drives, the pot roast and cheese blintzes served at the Claremont Diner in Montclair, New Jersey – and  the floorboards in an old house that creak when two young lovers make their way between their separate rooms in the middle of the night. Auster builds a world of heartfelt, lived-in detail.

But this is a novel of politics, too. Ferguson is a young man during the tumult of the late 1960s, when dozens were killed and hundreds injured during riots in Newark in 1967; when students at Columbia occupied the campus in protest over the war in Vietnam; when young men such as Ferguson could be drafted to fight in that war.

It is in this last third of the novel that the book flags a little, as lists of events tumble on to the page: one paragraph contains the My Lai massacre, the killing of the Black Panther Fred Hampton and the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont. At times, history lessons threaten to overwhelm the narrative, and Ferguson’s story/stories lose the texture and particularity that have made them so compelling. And its ending is abrupt, a tying-up of loose ends that fragments on the final page.

But then lives – real lives – have strange, abrupt endings, too. This is a rich, imperfect book, often rewarding, occasionally maddening. Again, like life, or at least if we’re lucky.

4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster is published by Faber & Faber (880pp, £20)

Erica Wagner is a New Statesman contributing writer and a judge of the 2014 Man Booker Prize. A former literary editor of the Times, her books include Ariel's Gift: Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and the Story of “Birthday Letters” and Seizure.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era