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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 F features an unpublished novelist whose breakthrough comes only after he walks out on his family with his passport and all the money in his and his wife’s joint account.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

Donmar Warehouse
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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution