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Daniel Kehlmann: Ich und Kaminski (Me and Kaminski)

Anyone who has dealt professionally with artists knows that some of them can be very difficult to work with. This book shows that, while an artist may be difficult, his biographer can be many more times difficult. The protagonist is Sebastian Zollner, the Me of Me and Kaminski. Sebastian had started out by trying to become an artist, attending art school. He was not very successful and dropped out, to work in an advertising agency, a job he got with the help of his uncle. He then managed to get a job as an art critic on a newspaper. He was able to successfully network and got commissions to write for several magazines. He then gave up his job and went freelance. He is now about to write a book about the artist, Manuel Kaminski, still alive but very old and infirm.

The book starts with Sebastian’s journey to Kaminski. Right from the very start we learn that Sebastian is one of those people who does not quite fit in, who does not quite behave the way that he ought to, for whom things seem to go wrong and who seems to live entirely in his own world, with his own rules, which are not necessarily anyone else’s rules. On the train, his shaver won’t work, he has a disagreement with the conductor and, on the connecting train, finds that the man opposite is reading a biography of Picasso by Hans Bahring, Sebastian’s deadly rival. Even when he gets to the guesthouse, things are not easy. The owner tells him how to get to Kaminski’s house but it turns out that she has not told him the shortest way. When he does get there, he has arrived two days before he was expected and Kaminski’s daughter will not let him interview her father and insists that he cannot be interviewed, only she can.

We gradually learn of Kaminski both through Sebastian and people talking to Sebastian. He had been a mediocre painter but then had visited the (fictitious) salt mines of Clairance. There he had had something of an epiphany – we learn more later – and suddenly becomes a good painter. He is feted by Matisse and Picasso and has an exhibition in Paris but, despite the acclaim, sells little and his reputation does not grow. Then when he is interviewed and seems to be painting, despite the fact that he is blind, his reputation suddenly soars. He admits that he can still see a bit but no-one notices. He has a retrospective at the Guggenheim and the prices of his works shoot up. Then, six years later, there is a final exhibition. It is roundly condemned. His work is seen as mediocre and he disappears into obscurity, living out his days with his daughter in the country. Most people assume that he is dead. However, what is the truth about Kaminski? Sebastian is a spectacularly unreliable narrator. We know this because of what he says about himself but it seems that he may be exaggerating or inventing some of Kaminski’s story.

Both Sebastian and Kaminski have had murky private lives. Sebastian is currently being dumped by his girlfriend, who has told him three months ago to leave her flat. He has done nothing about finding alternative accommodation and now risks finding himself homeless. Kaminski seems to have difficult relationships. He had had an affair with Therese but it seems that she had had someone tell Kaminski that she was dead, in order to get rid of him. He had married and been left by Adrienne. Kaminski had brought up their daughter, Miriam. Sebastian hatches a plot to have Kaminski meet Therese again, as he has discovered that Therese is alive and he knows where she lives. Much of the book is about how he manages this, most of which is a succession of one disaster after another.

The book’s great strength is the two main characters – Sebastian and Kaminski – both of whom are seriously flawed characters, who take themselves too seriously, who are cantankerous, difficult and self-centred and who have virtually no concern for the feelings of others. They are bad enough on their own but, together, they are a disaster. Kehlmann plays this for laughs but he does not overdo it, at least not excessively. Will Kaminski meet Therese again and, if so, what will be the result? Will Sebastian write his book? Whatever the result, Kehlmann has given us an excellent and very funny book.

Publishing history

First published 2003 by Suhrkamp
First published in English by Pantheon/Quercus in 2008