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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 F features an unpublished novelist whose breakthrough comes only after he walks out on his family with his passport and all the money in his and his wife’s joint account.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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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue