“F” by Daniel Kehlmann
I’d never heard of Daniel Kehlmann (Measuring the World, Fame) before the novel F was recommended to me. Though I’ll confess that it was the promise of a comic German novel that ultimately put the book in my hands. After all, Germans aren’t really known for their sense of humor, and Mr. Kehlmann himself in a recent interview with Salon suggested that the German people are confused by it. In the long view, I suppose that they aren’t a people who have been given many opportunities to laugh at themselves. German history has always been a very serious thing. It turns out that their humor is too, as Kehlmann and his translator Carol Brown Janeway demonstrate in this brilliant novel.
But modern Germany is a different place than the black and white melodrama that we all know so well from school. One of the largest and moist successful economies in the world, touted by many as the main engine of European growth, and a growing leader in international affairs, Germany seems poised, after years of international neglect, to retake its place among the cultural powerhouses of Europe. It’s nice to see their modern fiction getting some attention in the English-speaking world.
F is a wonderfully serious and funny book. Not in the laugh-out-loud ridiculousness of the absurdist humorists, nor in the dark and often dry fashion of the satirists; F is a sour humor. It asks the reader to break through themselves in order to laugh at the subjects of the novel. It isn’t a book for spectators: it laughs back at the reader too often for that. The characters absurd world views and mad justifications are completely in earnest. Like the history they represent, they are serious characters. And the experience is a bit like sucking on a sour candy – especially if you’re not ready. It is a challenging exploration of a host of ideas that start with ‘F’, the nameless, purposeless everyman from whom the book takes its name: family, fraud, fortune, faith, and more besides. Kehlmann approaches his subjects with intense precision, but his precision is also beautiful and powerful. This works to his advantage as I felt this novel finds its most comedic moments in curious intersections between pity and revulsion that all of us fear inspiring in our fellows – intersections that he reveals almost surgically.
The branching story follows the lives of three brothers, and tangentially, that of their estranged father. Two of them, Ivan and Eric, are identical twins, and the eldest, Martin, comes from an earlier marriage. Arthur, the father, is a failed writer and layabout who has refuses to take his own life seriously. He hides behind a blasé and uncaring cynicism. The boys meanwhile are precocious and engaging, even if each looks down on their father in their own way. F opens with the four of them traveling to see a famous hypnotist. The hypnotist puts people into trances, looks into their childhood, and challenges their souls. When Arthur is called up, he refuses to engage, and reassures the hypnotist that these things never work on him. The hypnotist responds by challenging him to take charge of his life and “make an effort. No matter what it costs…starting today.” Arthur initially shakes off the suggestion, but immediately thereafter, packs his bags, clears out the bank account, and disappears.
His absence and the adolescence of the sons he left behind isn’t the story here. When the book resumes, the boys have grown up and despite appearances, each has become a complete fraud. One is a priest who doesn’t believe in God, placating his parishioners with worn-out cliches and useless advice. The only love in his life is for food, and he spends his days self-consciously cramming whatever he can into his face. Another makes millions as a mutual fund manager, but his life is complicated by a senseless home life and an unescapable addiction to a variety of drugs. As his life spirals out of control, he is eventually told that “the truth will set you free… Nice if it were so. But sometimes there is nothing that can set you free any more. Neither lies nor the truth.” The last has become an art critic who creates forgeries of another artist’s work, and eventually usurps his career.
In the meantime, Arthur has parlayed his sudden disappearance into a highly successful writing career, and has become the only member of the family to find some level of fulfillment. His most successful book, an existential masterpiece called My name is No One, follows the story of a character named F, a shallow, uninteresting person whose personal journey is written as an existential assault on life and the delusion of consciousness. The book, popular and critically lauded, inspires a wave of suicides and a national outcry. Naturally, his sons all hate it. The father writes several other works as well, and all of them are darkly clever explorations of the capriciousness of life, including the chapter entitled “Family”: one of the more imaginative and clever pieces of historical fiction I’ve read.
It’s difficult to paint a proper summary of the book because I think it will strike every reader just a little differently. Mr. Kehlmann has crafted a delightfully ambiguous set of characters and twists his ironies around them with great skill. I recommend it whole-heartedly, but I can’t promise that you’ll find what I did.