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Daniel Kehlmann: F (F)

Arthur Friedland is a not very successful writer. He has written books but no-one will publish them. He has had some stories published but that is all. Fortunately, his wife is a successful eye doctor. They have two thirteen-year old twins called Eric and Iwan, named, as Arthur later tells us, after two of the Knights of the Round Table (Erec and Yvain). At the beginning of the novel, Arthur takes them to meet his other son, Martin, from a previous relationship, of whose existence they were ignorant. Arthur takes all three boys out on several occasions. Finally, he takes them to see the Great Lindemann, a hypnotist. Arthur claims not to believe in hypnotism but the Great Lindemann uses him as a subject and gives him some advice, telling him to be more assertive in his writing career. After the performance, Arthur takes the three boys home to Martin’s mother and leaves them there. Katharina, his wife, gets a telegram saying that he has left to write his novel, clearing out their joint account, and will not be returning for a long while.

The action then moves ahead. We learn about Arthur’s literary success. He has written a book called Mein Name sei niemand. (This translates, roughly, as My Name May Be Nobody, the use of the subjunctive in German having no exact equivalent in English) The title recalls both Max Frisch‘s Mein Name sei Gantenbein (A Wilderness of Mirrors; Gantenbein) and the spaghetti Western My Name is Nobody. The three sons receive a copy in the post without any indication of the sender or any dedication. At first, Martin hears nothing further about the book but then, gradually, he sees people reading it and suddenly it becomes hugely successful. The protagonist of the book is called F. Arthur will write further books that have some success.

We next follow the stories or, at least, the recent stories of the three brothers, now adults. Martin has become a priest. He does not believe in God but the only other thing he was capable of doing was Rubik’s cube and there is no career to be made there. However, even when he becomes a priest, he continues with the cube, entering Rubik’s Cube competitions. He eats a lot and has put on weight. He struggles with confession – Kehlmann gives us several examples of his not terribly helpful confession technique – and with his role in general.

Eric has become a financier, and a quite successful and ruthless one at that. But Eric has always had problems with demons and nightmares and these continue to trouble his mind. In particular, despite the fact that it is still a bit before the general European financial crisis, he is having financial difficulties and fears not only bankruptcy but also imprisonment, as he has not always been scrupulous in his dealings. He also imagines that his marriage is falling apart (he is having an affair) but is not sure.

Iwan, meanwhile, wants to become a painter but has doubts about his ability. By chance, he sees the Great Lindemann in a café in Vienna and goes to talk to him, pretending to be an interviewer from the fictitious Oxford Quarterly. Lindemann eventually recognises him and tells him that he does not have the ability to be great painter. As a result, he becomes a forger but with the full knowledge and compliance of the painter whose work he is forging. Kehlmann cleverly has the three brothers contacting one another during these episodes and we learn of the discussions from both sides. He also has characters appearing in all three episodes, particularly Ron, the thug, who is seen very differently by all three brothers.

While I certainly did enjoy Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), Kehlmann’s most successful work to date, I did not think it as good a work as many other critics did. This novel, however, is far superior. F probably refers to the main character in Arthur’s novel but German critics have had a wonderful time speculating on what else it might stand for. Family, forgery (or fake) and fate are some candidates (Arthur himself says it stands for fate). They are all themes in this work (and, fortunately, all start with F in both German and English). But the book is clearly also about where Germany is now and, in Kehlmann’s view, it is not a pretty picture. The three brothers are all frauds (another F-word) – a priest who does not believe in God and is concerned only with eating and Rubik’s cube, a financier who is about to go broke and has broken the law (and is a poor husband and father) and a painter who is a forger. Even the mysterious Arthur (who appears out of the blue in the lives of his sons, only to disappear again) is, as he himself admits, not a good father or husband. But Kehlmann’s approach is not a simple diatribe against modern Germany but a complex and brilliantly written novel about the nature of relationships, particularly family ones, about authenticity, about people struggling with their demons and, of course, about reality not being what we think it is. I think that we will soon come to see this novel as Kehlmann’s best to date.

Publishing history

First published 2013 by Suhrkamp
First English publication by Pantheon in 2014