Flawed father and fraternity: F
Review: A hilarious, often touching novel about a faulty father’s effect on his sons
Daniel Kehlmann. Photograph: Sven Paustian
A deeply flawed father gathers his children for what appears to be another of his haphazard outings. Arthur Friedland drives along, holding forth to his 13-year-old identical-twin sons. His discourse is characteristically random and features “Nietzsche and different brands of chewing gum . . . and whether Superman was stronger than Batman”.
The gifted German writer Daniel Kehlmann, born in 1975, graces this hilarious, often touching novel with such a vivid opening scene, he seems intent on making life extremely difficult for himself. How to sustain a narrative begun so masterfully? He does and more in what is a lively black comedy that far surpasses Joshua Ferris’s good-natured if laboured Man Booker shortlisted To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.
Kehlmann’s perceptive new novel exudes daunting effortlessness. By the second paragraph it is clear that Arthur didn’t have a job. “He wrote novels that no publisher wanted to print . . . It was all he did, but his wife was an eye doctor, and that paid the bills.”
His character emerges fully formed in a couple of astute sentences and the presence of this absent father becomes a major theme. He advises one of his sons: “A life doesn’t last long, Ivan. If you’re not careful you squash it in stupidities.”
Meanwhile, before that telling interlude, back in the car, it all seems very relaxed until Arthur pulls up at a terrace of houses and sounds the horn: “Within seconds a front door flew open.”
Out races his eldest son, Martin, who had “spent the last two hours waiting”. The two hours are significant; so too is the fact that, as the boy hurries excitedly out to the street, his mother retreats to a room, to avoid seeing Arthur. “It was 14 years since he had tiptoed swiftly out of her life, but it still tormented her that he could exist without needing her.”
Precise, understated and poignant observations such as this underpin a very funny if equally tragic story of three boys who grow up into men with distorted notions of truth and provenance, never mind having any notion of who exactly they are trying to be.
Despite the gags, the paranoia, laconic one-liners, flashes of comic exasperation and impressively three-dimensional characterisation, F is very serious literary fiction tackling God and truth; art and lies.
Kehlmann, who first appeared on the international literary scene with his dazzling historical romp, Measuring the World, in 2007 (two years after its all-conquering German publication) is an original who gleefully engages in cerebral games yet never resorts to mere trickery. His reimagining of the lives of the aristocratic German explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the coarsely uninhibited mathematical genius Carl Friedrich Gauss emulates Thomas Pynchon’s wonderful Mason & Dixon (1997). F is the fourth of Kehlmann’s novels to be translated by Carol Brown Janeway. Their collaboration is successfully easing Kehlmann’s dense, allusive prose, as well as his distinctive wryness of tone, from German to English without missing a beat.
Fame (2009), published in Janeway’s English translation the following year, is about celebrity and what happens when a mobile phone falls into the wrong hands. That earlier work unfolds through a series of interlinking stories; this time, in F, the story is similarly structured, seen from the viewpoints of the three troubled grown sons.
Kehlmann wastes few words and cleverly conveys the chaotic thoughts infiltrating the respective minds of the sons. In childhood, Martin was the natural dupe of the twins. They have had some semblance of a home life, whereas Martin was always the loner, dependent on the thrills encountered by mastering the Rubik’s Cube his father gave him. Within sentences of the first glimpse of Martin as the boy waiting at the window, he runs across the street without looking and narrowly avoids being hit by a passing car. “Brakes squealed inches away from him, but he was already in the passenger seat . . . and only now did his heart let up for a moment.”
Even the self-absorbed father is shocked. But the street-wise twins have a different reaction: one of them asks, “how can anyone be so dumb?” The other twin remarks that he “could be dead” and this is said “matter-of-factly”.
There is also a sense that Kehlmann has looked to the traditional fairy tale in placing Arthur, albeit only a slightly wicked father – merely lazy and selfish – in the company of three boys who are about to face a modern variation on the Biblical theme of a test, if one noticeably lacking in violence. Their shared trial is to find out a way in which to live.
The first test comes in the form of a visit to a hypnotist’s stage show. The Great Lindemann not only summons Ivan and his cynical father to the stage, he causes Ivan to, tellingly, forget his name, while he encourages Arthur to pursue his festering ambitions, which he does by going home, emptying the family’s bank account and fleeing. He eventually re-appears to enjoy short-lived literary fame as the author of a controversial book entitled My Name is No One – which results in several suicides.
Martin, Ivan and Eric each give their versions of what happens. They prove contrasting, if never really conflicting, accounts. Yet again as in his previous work, Kehlmann, who gave a wonderful speech in English when Carol Brown Janeway was given a major award for translation, suggests that he could have a second career as a stand-up comedian. Martin’s deadpan monologue on his travails as a reluctant priest approaches comic perfection: “I confess. I hear their voices, but see nothing because the sun coming through the window is blinding.” He fights his yawns, hates having to get up early to fulfil his priestly duties and remarks “the organ starts with a drone”. The faithful drive him crazy and to each of their pressing theological questions he has a stock answer: “It’s a mystery.” It seems to satisfy the parishioners.
Escape from his life was the impetus for becoming a priest. There was no vocation, although there had been an embarrassing episode. While doing homework with a classmate, a bizarre urge found him standing up as the eager girl pulled his trousers, then his underpants free.
“The opening credits for some crime series were blaring from the TV. I looked at her breasts . . . she leaned forward to meet me. The door opened and in came her father, followed by her mother and her sister, followed by a dachshund, followed by my mother.”
Martin’s mother is more surprised by Martin’s interest in the girl, than by the actual event. A slightly off-kilter mood is effectively used throughout the narrative; everyone is that bit distracted by events.
Just when it seems that Martin’s account can not be bettered, Kehlmann allows Eric, now a corrupt financier about to be disgraced, to offer his version of events.
Eric is demented; he takes so many drugs he can’t eat or sleep, and lives in fear of being blackmailed by anyone who knows him. His internal monologue is frenetic and interspersed by a series of off-hand exchanges such as informing his 10-year-old daughter that she will be late for school, before admitting privately: “I have no idea when school starts” and then he wonders “what will she think of me when I’m in prison?”
Ivan, aspiring artist, turned art historian, turned dealer, turned forger, also has problems. He attempts to intellectualise forgery: “The art world is full of lovable people, full of enthusiasts, full of longing and truth. It is art itself as a sacred principle that unfortunately doesn’t exist.”
Kehlmann is very clever yet his fiction is never overwhelmed by his intellect. For all the laughs – and there are many – there are moments of unnerving beauty such as the virtuosic section entitled Family in which Arthur attempts to either record or create a sense of dynasty.
Eric is a tremendous comic creation who ultimately becomes obsessed with going to confession, yet the sympathetic heart of what is a very human family story is Martin, who can’t stop eating and whose sense of pain jousts with his fatalistic apathy. His love of the Rubik’s Cube is the prevailing metaphor of a mercurial family odyssey rich in humour and deceptively generous in profound unease.