The Books Interview: Daniel Kehlmann

Is your novel Fame a reaction to your own success? Your books are bestsellers in Germany.
It might be, but I don't think it's the major incentive for the book. Yet the question of fame, of celebrity, and what it does to people, how it distorts their self-image, is a question that has always interested me. I don't think that the questions of fame which most interest me in a literary way
have anything to do with the kind of huge and surreal fame that can come to an actor or to a sportsperson. This kind of fame does not come to a writer, thank God. I could have written the same book if this bestseller hadn't happened to me.

Literature has its own celebrity culture of sorts. What is your attitude towards literary prizes?
We need them, in a way. If you've read the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, you would say that any literary culture will always need prizes to create distinctions. There will never be a literary culture that has no prizes as forms of distinction. I think that even if the whole of civilisation was wiped out, and we started to write books or poems on scraps of paper again, the next thing you know, someone would be giving out a literary prize. I make fun in the book of a writer who is obsessed with prizes. I can do that now because I've won so many prizes in Germany, for which I'm very grateful.

Fame comprises nine apparently discrete stories. Some reviewers have questioned whether it is a "novel" at all.
I don't want to be put in a position of defending the novel-ness of this book. One work I always loved was Milan Kundera's Book of Laughter and Forgetting. He had the idea of having a different character in each chapter and no character ever recurring - and he called it a novel, too.

One of the stories in Fame is a satire on a literary star, Paulo Coelho.
Yes, I am making fun of him, but the whole story is the most philosophical story in the book. I think it was David Hume who said about Voltaire's Candide that it pretended to be a satire on Leibniz, but was actually a satire on God. And this is what I tried to do with that story. It pretends to be
a parody of this writer, and of writers who tell people that life can be good and that it's all a question of your attitude. But that wouldn't be enough. What I wanted to do was to turn the book into a serious satire on why the world is so horrible and why it's ridiculous to say that life can be good.

Have you always been interested in philosophical questions?
Yes, I come from philosophy. I could never have become an original philosopher, but I was always interested in philosophy and I studied it. And I'm still very much concerned with ideas and how they interplay with human beings. There is a certain sort of comedy that arises out of the clash between lofty ideas and the banal realities of life. This is something that concerned me very much in my novel Measuring the World; I wanted to have fun with that collision.

Do you see yourself as a novelist of ideas?
No, definitely not. I still think ideas can play a role in a novel, and it's wonderful to have them there. But the usual notion of the novel of ideas is that of a book which starts out to prove or to demonstrate a certain philosophical concept, and I think that has never worked.

Not even in the fiction of someone like Jean-Paul Sartre?
I'm not a big fan of Sartre as a philosophical novelist. I think that approach never works. It always produces dry and somehow lifeless books.
Ultimately, a novel has to be about people and life, about things that happen to human beings. In a way, even if there are a lot of ideas in a novel, what it will demonstrate - if it works as a novel - will always be the opposite of an Ideenroman. It will always show that human life is muddled, complicated and unsatisfying, and that there is no idea, no philosophical concept, that will help you to get everything right.

Isn't that itself a philosophical position?
Yes, of course it is! I'll admit to that.

Daniel Kehlmann's "Fame" is published by Quercus (£12.99)

Jonathan Derbyshire is executive opinion editor of the Financial Times. He was formerly managing editor of Prospect and culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, What a carve up!