Fickle Fate, Fantastic Fakery: Daniel Kehlmann’s “F”

A review of Daniel Kehlmann's "F," translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Here are the surefire steps to prevent me from reading any book.

1. Describe it as “Holden-Caulfied-meets-X.”

2. Describe it as “(insert famous author here)-ian.” Don’t get me started on the god-awful neologisms “Dickensian,” or, even worse: “Kafkaesque.”

(But sometimes hapless reviewers like myself have no choice but to commit these crimes of equivalence. And reviewing translations is especially tricky).

Not only do critics fumble when appraising prose written by a translator (as opposed to the quote-unquote “original” author), but we even stumble in the face of plot and character: clueless as to if these are culturally determined and unique to their (unknowable) contexts. Even worse for us all, thanks to an education resolutely committed to politicizing every text, we reviewers (rather stupidly) cannot help but ask: where is the equivalence? What’s the project here? What does it mean?

For this review, I read Austro-German author Daniel Kehlmann’s latest novel, F, translated into English by superstar Knopf translator Carol Brown Janeway (who also translated some of Kehlmann’s other novels: Measuring the World and Fame). And in this review—I hope you’ll forgive me—I’m terribly guilty of equivalence. I hope you’ll see why.  

F is about the Friedland family fate, beginning with the patriarch, unhappy writer Arthur Friedland, his three sons (twins Ivan and Eric, and the awkward Martin, from a previous relationship), and ultimately, Arthur’s granddaughter, Marie. The book begins in 1984, with an ill-advised visit to a hypnotist who convinces Arthur to abandon his family and disappear, dedicating his life to writing. In the following years, Friedland writes a crushingly nihilist book called My Name is No One, starring an unnamed protagonist named F, which inspires a wave of suicides (in the tradition of Infinite Jest).

The plot picks up again on August 8, 2008, shortly before the financial crisis, and things aren’t pretty for the Friedland boys. Martin, the eldest, has grown up to be a miserable, binge-eating Catholic priest who doesn’t believe in God, instead obsessively practicing his Rubik’s cube technique and hoping for a top spot in the national championships (I won’t be spoiling much to say that in this endeavor he fails). Eric is a high-profile financier up to his ears in debt and Bernie-Madoff-esque fraud, as well as a muddled, highly medicated and paranoiac perspective (unfortunate literary parallel: American Psycho). Ivan, his identical twin, appears to be a successful art seller—until the realization that he’s engaged in a sort of double forgery, betraying his own art and that of the more illustrious, absolutely fictionalized artistic behemoth, Heinrich Eulenböck.

F can be read as a quest in pursuit of—or critique of—the futile search for authentic life in modernity. Kehlmann touches three industries uniquely afflicted by the problems of globalization: the spiritual industry, in Martin’s church and awkward theological hedging; the finance industry, in Eric’s blatantly and neurotically fraudulent dealings; and the culture industry, in which Ivan’s dealings with art prove that it is as much a commodity as Eric’s doomed derivatives. But F isn’t all that: it’s a book seriously engaged with fatherhood, heritage, and provenance, be it artistic or genetic. The real question here asks: how attached are we to the illusion of truth?

I’ve read other Kehlmann novels—Measuring the World and Fame—but I read them in German. Fame, in particular, holds a great deal in common with Kehlmann’s latest: the intersecting plot lines, the unstable, yet corroborating narratives, the emphasis on variant perspectives, and the diversity of expression. For the most part, Carol Brown Janeway does an excellent job embodying each perspective, though I feel as though the prose could have gone further, extending the book’s syntactical disembodiment to exhale through every sentence rather than every page or paragraph. But this is just a minor quibble: with the exception of a few dubious word choices (when does an eleven-year-old use the phrase “I mustn’t”?), the prose is vividly funny and clear.

Let me get back to my literary complaining (remember that?): sometimes it’s just as hard for the reviewer to convey the big deal-ness of an author. And some would argue that it’s silly, or pointless (maybe so). But in the case of Kehlmann, German bestselling author of epic proportions, the comparison is apt. What we have here is a literary author capable of selling more copies of a novel of a decidedly literary bent than any other living German author today.

F delves into questions of truth and fiction, but is not overambitious, as such efforts often can be. So let me risk annoying (and potentially alienating) my audience: Daniel Kehlmann is sort of like a German-language Franzen—or, given F’s preoccupation with art and authenticity, a Donna Tartt of sorts. But he’s good at what he does, even in translation: creating a marvelously addicting, readable book that sticks to your guts and even awes at times. No, F is no grand masterpiece, but it doesn’t try to be: it’s a smart, tightly wound novel that succeeds at what it aims to do—which is more than I can say for the bestselling American crew.