Review – F by Daniel Kehlmann
I have been trawling lists again. Last year it was the Booker Longlist, which I attacked with unseemly optimism and basically fizzled after about 8 books (I am a slow reader). In December I started on the New York Times 100 Most Notable Books (of which about 20 are fiction, where I tend to nest). I also genuflect at the feet of the NYT book editors – they remain for me the best arbiters of quality writing.
First up – F by Daniel Kehlmann. Who? Exactly. I had never heard of him. He is an young Austrian/German author who is a really big deal in Germany, having struck literary gold a few years back with a novel about the poetics of science called Measuring Time.
F is an odd and riveting little novel, deeply intellectual and concerned with gravid issues of many stripes. The book has 3 main characters (there are others, but all subsumed into background). They are brothers, or more accurately twins and a stepbrother. While some background expository is given, the action, such as it is, takes place in the recent past. The stepbrother is an obese and stolidly atheist Roman catholic priest, through whom the author spelunks issues of faith and reason. The one twin is an asset manager who has lost all of his client’s money through mismanagement and Ponzi-style desperation and who is falling off the edge of sanity as he world collapses around him. The other twin is a failed artist, but spectacularly successful forger of one ageing, famous and reclusive artist, with whom he enters into a relationship as carer, lover, hospice and forger-with-permission (and here we get deep into the territory of ‘what is art, really?’).
The three brothers are not close, they intersect at odd angles and in times of need. Kehlmann uses this wobbly fictional scaffold to basically write a series of essays about matters that obviously are close to him and the resulting novel is a bit uneven, but peppered with wonderful insights about art and parenting and faith and money and selfishness and sanity, and salted with unusual dialogue and slightly off-key scenes and strange narrative colours.
There is one small section of the book where Kehlmann describes the life of the brother’s paternal grandfather, and then his father, and then his father, and then his father, and so on for about 20 generations (!), right back to feudal Europe, without no more than one paragraph given to each father. It does not drive the story forward one iota, but it was so off the wall that I imagined that Kehlmann had smoked a joint when he described the grandfather’s life, and just kept going backwards until it burnt his lip.
Weird. Magnetic. Different. Somewhat satisfying. Maybe even more than that.