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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 F features an unpublished novelist whose breakthrough comes only after he walks out on his family with his passport and all the money in his and his wife’s joint account.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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In Kid Gloves, the stories tumble out like washing from a machine

Adam Mars-Jones' has created a clever, stoical and cool account of caring for a dying father.

In bookish circles, it’s pretty commonplace these days to remark on the way in which the spirit of the Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard hangs over our literary culture – noxious gas or enlivening blast of ­oxygen, depending on your point of view. Nor would I be the first critic to point out the similarities between his prolixity and that of the British novelist Adam Mars-Jones. Reviewing Knausgaard’s My Struggle in the New Yorker, James Wood likened its style – “hundreds of pages of autopsied minutiae” – to that of Mars-Jones’s novels Pilcrow and Cedilla, the first two volumes in a thus far unfinished project in “micro-realism”. But originality be damned: I’m going to say it anyway. As I read Mars-Jones’s new memoir, Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father, it was Knausgaard I thought of repeatedly. Mostly, this was because I simply couldn’t believe I was so fascinated by a book that was at times so very boring.

Mars-Jones is by far the more elegant writer of the two. He is also feline where Knausgaard is only wide-eyed. Nevertheless, they clamber (slowly and with many pauses to consider the view) over comparable territory. What, after all, is Knausgaard’s account of the effect of milk on a bowl of ­cereal compared to Mars-Jones’s disquisition on the subject of orange juice? The Norwegian’s reverie is the longer of the two but it is Mars-Jones who is the more triumphantly banal. “Shopping on a Monday I saw a wide variety of types of orange juice on display in a supermarket and bought large quantities,” he writes early on. I love that “Monday” – it’s so precise. But it also prompts the question: which supermarket, exactly, was he in? Was it the same “large branch of Sainsbury’s” where, three paragraphs later, we find him picking up a carton of buttermilk?

You will think that I am taking the piss. I’m not – or not entirely. For all its pedantic weirdness, Mars-Jones’s memoir, clotted and rich and true, does its job rather well. As the subtitle suggests, at its heart is his tricky relationship with Sir William Mars-Jones, the high court judge who died in 1999. A clever man but also a difficult one (having made a bit of a leap in terms of education and social class, he clung rather ardently to certain comforting reflexes), he is brought to life vividly by his son, who often simply replays their most frustrating conversations. In doing so, Mars-Jones, Jr also tells us something of himself. He comes over as a bit silly and fastidious but also as clever, stoical, kindly and, above all, ever cool in the face of provocation. In this light, his Pooterish digressions are just another symptom of his unnervingly temperate personality, his clinical even-handedness.

His memoir is oddly artless, the stories tumbling out, one after another, like washing pulled from a machine. An account of his father’s better-known cases (he prosecuted in the Moors murders trial) shades into a detour on soup-making; an analysis of Sir William’s retirement – he gravitated, his son writes, towards the state of “inanition” – takes us, almost slyly, to an explanation of why Mars-Jones tenderly associates Badedas with shingles (a friend who had yet to discover he had Aids, of which shingles can be a symptom, bathed in it).

The reader waits, and waits, for the big scene, for the moment when Mars-Jones tells his father, a regular kind of homophobe, that he is gay. But in a strange way (it does arrive eventually) this is beside the point. From the outset, we know that it was Adam, not his brothers, who looked after his widowed father in his last days, sharing his flat in Gray’s Inn Square; so we know already that an accommodation has been reached, however horrifying Pater’s reaction was at the time. (Mars-Jones, Sr suggested that his son could not possibly be gay because, as a boy, he played with himself during a film starring Jacqueline Bisset; more cruelly, he delegated his clerk to research the possibilities of testosterone treatment for his son.) In any case, there is a universality here: for which of us, gay or not, hasn’t trembled on hearing our mother say, down the line from home, the dread phrase “Dad would like a word”?

After his father’s death, Mars-Jones attempts to continue to live in his parents’ home, insisting that the inn will have to evict him if it wants him gone. When it does turf him out, he writes a piece for the Times in which he denounces its members – in ­effect, his parents’ friends and neighbours. Is this just the response of a more than usually broke freelance writer? Or is it that of a man in deep grief?

Perhaps it’s both. Mars-Jones tells us quite a bit about his parlous finances but relatively little of his feelings of abandonment. He was closer to his mother. It is more than 15 years since his father died. And yet, here it is, his book. Those Knausgaardian impulses of his – perhaps they’re just displacement for his loss, word-fill for a void so unfathomably big that it still takes him by surprise, even now. 

Kid Gloves: a Voyage Round My Father is available now from Particular Books (£16.99)

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism