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Arnon Grunberg: Fantoompijn (Phantom Pain)

Robert Mehlman is a moderately successful writer but a somewhat flawed human being. He tells his own story (with a framing story by his son). Robert G Mehlman is my father. Even though, during sudden fits of rage, he has denied that. He has been a successful writer. When I was born, Robert G Mehlman was at the peak of his glory. He was more than a major talent. But within five years there wasn’t much of that glory left. His own story describes his life, both his past life and his present life. Not only is he a generally flawed human being, he is not a good father and not a good husband. His wife is a psychotherapist, specialising in dreams. They met when he was working in an all-night delicatessen in Amsterdam. She came in, allegedly to escape a pursuer. She came back on other occasions but then they lost touch but met up again and, eventually, married. She had been offered a post in the United States and they moved there, while he continued his writing career. His most successful book had been about his father. His mother had told him that his father had been a very successful tennis player. In fact, he was rated 268th in the world and his career had ended when he had bitten an opponent on the ankle. Mehlman’s book was called 268th in the World. His father had made a point of telling checkout girls that he was Aron Mehlman, the famous tennis player, and his son has his father’s same arrogance about his achievements. Mehlman had also written letters to his son (cruelly named Harpo), starting at a very young age, which he had also published.

Much of Mehlman’s account, though telling of his past, recounts his present. He is having no success financially, as all his books have already been bought by anyone who is going to buy them. He is meant to be writing a magnum opus and, though he has received two advances for it, has barely started it. He has several ideas – letters to the chimney sweep and a story about his girlfriend, for example – but they never get written. He has sold all his shares, though he harasses his accountant to sell them again. His current royalties are minimal and he harasses the publisher to do more. He has five credit cards and has not paid anything on them for some time and is contacted by the credit card companies to make a payment, which he promises to do, knowing full well that he won’t. His wife is only vaguely aware of his predicament, as they talk less and less, especially since he started an affair with a woman she calls The Empty Vessel. The only money he seems to be able to earn currently is an article on Svevo for which he will be paid a pittance. Yet he has no sense of responsibility or caution, spending money he has not got, for example on a secretary who does his shopping and other such tasks and who massively overcharges him. The beauty of the book is that, while he is well aware of his predicament, he is convinced that it is not his fault but the fault of others, whether his publisher, his accountant, the credit card company or even his poor wife. His arrogance, which pours out on every page and which Grunberg clearly relishes in mocking, is astounding but very funny.

His whole character is illustrated by one key episode in the book. He has found a piece of cardboard by his front door, asking him to phone a number, as the person concerned has a package for him. (This piece of cardboard is found later by his sonh and his son wonders whether he ever got the package, the number being no longer valid.) He eventually does contact her and it turns out that the woman, Rebecca, had been asked to bring him the package from the Netherlands. It contains a sculpture of him, which a friend of Rebecca had made after having seen him on TV. His wife is away so he starts a brief fling with Rebecca, which involves hiring a limousine and gambling away $5000 at Atlantic City. Rebecca will turn out to be The Empty Vessel. They drag around Atlantic City and pursue their travels, including visiting an old Polish woman in Brooklyn when he has an idea for a cookery book (for which, of course, he has already received an advance.) He and his wife reconcile and break up and reconcile again.

Mehlman is a complete charlatan, a crook, dishonest and a poor husband and father. In short, he is the stereotypical irresponsible artist, who thinks only of himself and his needs. Grunberg milks this stereotype to the limit, mocking Grunberg’s every foible, his irresponsible and often dishonest (sometimes criminal) actions and his utter self-centredness. We cannot really like Mehlman as he has few if any redeeming features but we have to have a sneaking admiration for him as he pulls himself out of a hole, often with a certain amount of dishonesty. Moreover, we cannot help but enjoy Grunberg’s mocking of Mehlman. At the end, we see that his son has his fantasy world as well, imagining a succes without really having earned it. How many writers are really like Mehlman? Probably quite a few.

Publishing history

First published in 2000 by Nijgh & Van Ditmar
First published in English by Other Press in 2004