Philip Zimmerman talks with the acclaimed novelist about false starts, art world con games, and why fate draws us to the novel.
Photo by Michael Lionstar
Daniel Kehlmann is one of the German-speaking world’s most celebrated writers—at age 39. His latest novel, which bears the one-letter title F, was published in August 2013 and promptly reached the top of the Spiegel bestseller list. The English translation, by Carol Brown Janeway, is published from Knopf. The author himself will be appearing on September 21st at the Brooklyn Book Festival, in conversation with Zadie Smith.
Kehlmann’s writing is partly a reaction against the dour, moralistic tone of many postwar German novels. The hallmarks of his style are speed, wit and a nuanced appreciation of the absurd. He often writes about geniuses and fools and the thin line between them. He’s a specialist in the kind of irony that tells us more about a character, and ourselves, than sincerity ever could.
F is the story of three brothers: Martin, a priest without faith; Ivan, a painter turned forger; and Eric, a financier teetering atop a pyramid scheme. It’s a funny and highly readable novel, and in that way resembles Kehlmann’s earlier work, but it’s also something new for him—broader, deeper, more patient, more open. Questions are posed and answers are given, but nothing is solved. These aren’t those kinds of questions; this isn’t that kind of book.
Kehlmann went from being a young writer to being a famous young writer with his 2005 novel Measuring the World. No one expected it, the author least of all, but the irreverent take on the lives and accomplishments of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, two German scientists of the Weimar Classicism period, sold millions of copies and was translated into some 40 languages. Most surprisingly, perhaps, it was actually worthy of the attention. It is a very good book.
But Kehlmann is not a one-book author. His first novel, still untranslated, appeared in 1997, and he has since published six other novels, a story collection, essays, criticism and a play.
Kehlmann and I met on a rainy morning in Berlin, at a café he described as “wishing it were in Vienna.” In the recording of our conversation, an espresso machine whirrs almost constantly in the background. We talked about social crises and personal ones, fate, writing about fate, writing as a fate, and New York City. Throughout, Kehlmann radiated an engaging intellectual energy, delighting in unexpected turns of thought. It quickly became clear that he takes literature more seriously than he does himself.
—Philip K. Zimmerman for Guernica
Guernica: In F, one family’s identity crisis seems to reflect the disintegration of a whole society. Which end did the novel start on—a portrait of society in crisis, or just the story of a dysfunctional family?
Kehlmann: I really just wanted to write about three brothers. When you do that, though, it gives you this wonderful opportunity to tie together different social milieus, because siblings usually move into different worlds as they grow up. So the novel does show many aspects of society, but for me it all started with the three brothers.
That was something I really wanted to do with this book, was to find out first who the characters were and then see what would happen from there. There’s this nice phrase in English, character-driven, which isn’t easy to say in German, but that’s exactly what I wanted to write, a character-driven book.
I wanted to write a book that would leave open many riddles and mysteries, even to me.
That’s also why it took me longer to write. The oldest brother, Martin, is a priest who’s never managed to believe in God, but what I had in mind for him first was a television writer who writes really bad scripts for afternoon soap operas. He’d be a very intelligent person working far below his intellectual level, and I wanted to include whole chapters or sections from the soap operas he’s writing. Then I found out: This is very funny for five pages, but then you’ve said everything there is to say about it.
After that I considered making Martin work in media. I even made a few attempts to write his part as a media satire. Finally I just felt that the most interesting thing for Martin, and for me, was to make him a priest who has never found faith.
Guernica: The book seems so carefully constructed, though. Martin is constantly playing with a Rubik’s cube, and I often thought while reading that the novel was built on the same principle: shifting planes that either line up or don’t depending on what you do with them.
Kehlmann:There are puzzles in the book—metaphorical puzzles and literal ones. But the truth is that there was a lot less planning going on than in any of my other novels. I wanted to write a book that would leave open many riddles and mysteries, even to me. Of course in some cases I do know the answers, but in many others I don’t know and don’t want to know.
Someone who was a big model for that was Roberto Bolaño. I was very impressed by the openness of his novels. There is so much unexplained stuff going on, and you feel that not even the author has to understand what it’s all about. In my own, very different way, that’s what I was going for.
Guernica: Normally your books are thoroughly planned?
Kehlmann:Usually I work out the plot before I start. This time I thought: Writers always talk about not knowing where a book is going—-I want to experience that, too. What I found out is that it’s very interesting, but it takes much longer because you have so many false starts. You take wrong turns and you have to go back and start the whole chapter, or the whole section, from scratch.
Guernica: And, of course, each time you start over it calls into question the project as a whole.
Kehlmann: Yes, but I’m used to that. When I write a book I’m always questioning the project as a whole. I always feel I might have to just throw it away and forget about it, and I’ve done that with novels I’ve started and worked on for a long time. It’s an option I need in order to write freely. For a while I never show anybody what I’m writing, and during that time I need the feeling that publishing is only an option. I might publish this, I might not. I think if I had to publish it, I might panic.
That’s why it was so interesting to write my first screenplay, for the film of Measuring the World (ed. – The film of Measuring the World was a German-Austrian production, directed by Detlev Buck and released in 2012), because quite early in the process, once you’ve raised the money, you know: This is going to happen. It has to. No matter what, this movie will get made. Which is interesting, too, but I’m not sure I want that feeling with a novel.
Guernica: You’ve been a writer for a long time, judged by your age at least. So one might assume you’ve built up a lot of writerly muscle against those kinds of creative crises.
Kehlmann: I think I have. I think so. But I still feel exposed to any kind of writerly crisis you can name.
“We tend think of fate as the thing we would have if we were literary characters, that is, if there were somebody out there, writing us.”
Guernica: One of the central themes in F is fate, a concept that goes back to the roots of Western literature. Fate is almost indispensable to literature, but does it really play a role in our lives?
Kehlmann: That’s something I’ve thought a lot about. You say fate is almost indispensable to literature—I think it’s completely indispensable, at least in a novel, because a novel always has a plot. Even if nothing happens, even if someone just spends a day walking around Dublin, or whatever, there’s still something going on.
So the fact that there’s someone who’s planning what happens to the characters, writing it down, means that the characters always have a fate. And when we think about fate, we tend think of it as the thing we would have if we were literary characters, that is, if there were somebody out there, writing us.
When I look at life I try to be as agnostic and unmetaphysical as possible. So I have to admit that, most probably, we do not have a fate. But I think that’s something that draws us to novels—that the characters always have a fate. Even if it’s a terrible fate, at least they have one.
The consequence is that we think in terms of fate even if we don’t believe in it. Even something as trivial as missing the bus—we think: Well, it might be good for something. We always have that thought, no matter how critical we try to be. The idea that everything is always total chance—we’re not made for that.
Guernica: The only difference is that in literature we know who’s pulling the strings.
Kehlmann: Yes, exactly. That’s something I tried to explore in Fame, in a chapter called “Rosalie Goes Off to Die.” In the story the writer has the God role and wants the character to die for the sake of the plot.
Guernica: But she asks the writer to change her fate…
Kehlmann: That’s right: exactly as we might ask God, and do ask God, to change our fate. The difference is that in the story the writer actually replies and in the end even changes his mind. As I put it, he ruins his story to make her young again. Then the writer, doing this, says he hopes that someday someone will do the same for him.
And that wasn’t just a joke. I mean, I’m pretty sure no one will ever do that for me, but when I wrote it I was really shaken. In the story, Rosalie warns the writer: “Someday all this will happen to you. You will be dying, you will be in pain, and you will ask why no exception can be made.” And I really felt like she was saying that to me. First, because obviously she is, I am the writer of the story, but also because it’s true, everything she says. That whole conversation, it didn’t feel like just some postmodern game—it felt like a real conversation about things that are, unfortunately, quite true.
Guernica: The three brothers in F also try to escape their fates. Ivan, for example, starts out as a talented artist, but at some point he takes, I don’t want to call it a wrong turn, but an interesting turn.
Kehlmann: Yes, I’m not sure it’s a wrong turn, either. Interesting is a good way of putting it.
Guernica: He forges paintings in the name of another, mediocre artist, and based on Ivan’s forgeries that artist becomes famous. Then the artist dies, and Ivan becomes the leading expert on the artist’s work and the administrator of his estate. So Ivan’s life becomes something like an extended practical joke on the art world.
Kehlmann:One of the points where the art world is at its most metaphysical is in this weird aspect of the power of the expert. There are experts who claim they cannot be fooled because they have an inner connection to an artist and can feel whether something is genuine or fake. I’ve heard experts say, on panels: When it comes to my period, or my painters, I cannot be fooled. And of course that’s completely ridiculous.
It’s also one of these strange points where metaphysics converges with economy. Because really what the experts are doing is creating value by banishing doubt. All great dead painters basically have this one person, this expert who has the metaphysical power to grant a seal of authenticity. So I thought: If the expert were also the forger, he’d be more or less invincible.
What he forges isn’t art, it’s an artist, and the question is: Is that really so different from what other artists do when they create work under their own names?
Guernica: Even his forgeries would be authentic in a way because he’d control the notion of authenticity.
Kehlmann: That’s exactly the kind of issue I wanted to raise in this novel. What interested me was the way all these questions—of faith, as with Martin, or authenticity, as with Ivan—how they all become more complicated the closer you look, how it becomes more and more of a gray zone.
I’m not even sure that Ivan is a forger. There is certainly a kind of con game going on in what he does, but he doesn’t forge work under someone else’s name, he creates a body of work for someone else.
Guernica: He almost creates the person.
Kehlmann: That’s right. What he forges isn’t art, it’s an artist, and the question is: Is that really so different from what other artists do when they create work under their own names?
I had written a satire on the art world before, Me and Kaminski, which is a short, funny, brutal comedy. So going back to that topic I didn’t want to write another satire—I wanted to be fairer, more serious in a way.
What Ivan is, apart from a forger who’s not really a forger, is a good estate manager. He struggles to control prices by buying and selling pictures at the right moment, or not selling them, or buying them back once he’s already sold them, and we see all these really complicated economic calculations that go into managing an artist’s estate. I tried to be as realistic as possible about that. I did a lot of research, talked to people in the art world and even had artist friends correct the manuscript. And the funny thing is, many people not connected with the art world still thought it was just pure satire.
Guernica: For me one of the funniest and at the same time most terrifying scenes centers on Eric, the brother who’s running a pyramid scheme. The scene shows him having one of his paranoia attacks: he enters his television room and isn’t quite sure where the spy camera is hidden, but he knows it’s there, then he turns on the television and thinks the government official giving the press conference is watching him through the screen. Readers will inevitably be reminded of the NSA surveillance scandal, but this scene must have been written before Edward Snowden was ever in the news.
Kehlmann: It was. When I wrote that, Snowden still had a nice job in Hawaii. I would have put the NSA into the novel if I had known what was going on; it could have been one of the things fueling Eric’s paranoia. But I think it was William S. Burroughs who said that sometimes paranoia is just knowing all the facts. And it’s true: the more we learn about the way the world works, the harder it is not to be paranoid. There’s also another old joke that turns out to be true: Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not really coming for you.
Of course the kind of thing that Eric is worried about, where someone sits in front of screen and watches you, isn’t what the NSA is doing. Instead it’s this big-data processing where it’s all done by algorithms. And it’s not just the NSA. I’m really waiting for the moment when they use big-data processing for hiring at companies. It’s already started to some extent, and I’m pretty sure that, a few years down the road, when you apply for a job, there will be a computer program that just gives a thumbs-up or thumbs-down and no one to appeal to if you feel treated unfairly. That’s much more terrible, in a way, than someone secretly watching you. At least then your rights would be violated by another human being.
Guernica: The three brothers’ father, Arthur, is a writer. He writes novels so experimental that they seem to explode the genre. And in your own work you’ve become steadily more experimental over the years.
Kehlmann: I think that’s just what happens when you write a big bestseller. After that you need to find out: What’s the best way to go on? And the worst thing you could do would be to try to repeat the formula. That would be suffocating. So after Measuring the World I wrote a more experimental book, Fame, and now, with F, I’ve written an experimental take on the family novel, which is about the least experimental form out there.
I’m trying to exploit the bestseller, in a way, but not in the sense of repeating the formula. It’s just that the bestseller did so well economically that now I’m freer to do what I want to do, or to try out what I want to try out.
As for Arthur, I wouldn’t want to be the kind of writer he is. I know that when you put a writer in a novel and you describe his or her work, people will always think it’s a kind of meta-commentary on what you’re doing. In my case it’s often the opposite. Arthur’s famous book, which causes some people to try to commit suicide—and some of them succeed—it’s characterless, there are no characters. There’s also very little plot. What plot there is, is unimportant, a joke on the idea of plot. As for me, as a writer, I take plot and characters quite seriously.
It might be the most nihilistic thing I’ve ever written. I kind of shocked myself, but I still had a lot of fun writing it.
Guernica: I like what you say about the course of your career, because I think it describes well what’s going on in F. You’ve moved back into the traditional territory of the novel but bringing the worm of the experimental with you. So in the middle of F, your family novel, we read a passage from Arthur’s own family novel, which sets out to prove that families don’t exist.
Kehlmann: That chapter started out as a satire and then it turned into something else. I wanted to satirize the traditional information-overkill of the family novel, which always tells you about the characters’ parents and grandparents when you’re really not that interested. You’d like to skip that part and get back to the action. So I thought I’d write a chapter making fun of that, about thirty pages of meaningless information about bygone generations all the way back to the Middle Ages.
Then it turned in a completely different direction. It became quite bleak, and dark, and I realized: When you go back in time, one generation after another, and always summarize people’s lives in one short paragraph or so, every life turns into a mess, a complete, terrible tragedy. It might be the most nihilistic thing I’ve ever written. I kind of shocked myself, but I still had a lot of fun writing it.
There was one thing that was hard to smuggle past the copy-editor. There are three farmers in that chapter whose lives are so identical that I’ve repeated the same paragraph three times verbatim. You can only do that once in a writer’s life, but I felt this was the moment to do it. Obviously, the copy editor thought it was just a mistake and we had to send it back with a note: No, please leave this in.
Guernica: That’s a good example of what this novel is doing: smuggling in experimental forms under the guise of the conventional novel.
Kehlmann: Yes, and it’s funny because some people react very strongly to the experimental side of it, and others very strongly to the traditional side. I’ve never had that before with a novel.
German can take a lot more pathos than English can.
Guernica: Your translator, Carol Brown Janeway, is also your editor at Knopf, and I’ve read that you participate in the translation process. What’s it like to see yourself transposed into another language?
Kehlmann: I feel very lucky to have Carol as a translator, because her writing has such a wonderful flow. It often happens that I look at the manuscript of her translation and she has a slightly different emphasis than I did German, but it’s better. I think, If I had only thought of that! That’s the best thing that can happen to you when you work with a translator.
Also, she’s such a good editor that working with her always changes my idea of the book, even after it’s been published in German. With Me and Kaminski, for example, I wrote an ending with a lot less pathos for the English version. I didn’t really rewrite it, but I cut it down to a few paragraphs, much more minimalistic, sort of a Raymond Carver thing.
Guernica: The original ending didn’t lend itself to translation?
Kehlmann: German can take a lot more pathos than English can. When you say “pathetic” in English it’s a disparaging term, but when you say “pathetisch” in German it’s just a description, not necessarily negative. That says a lot already.
English is much drier. You can get away with a lot less. Pathos, lyricism, these are things you have to tone down if you want the English version of the book to work.
Guernica: We always talk about what gets lost in translation—do you think a book can also gain something in translation?
Kehlmann: English has a better way with colloquialisms. It has colloquialisms that are colorful and expressive but not too heavy or distracting. In German, if you use colloquialisms, it quickly descends into some kind of dialect literature.
Also, whenever you have direct speech, and I don’t quite know why, but it always gets better in English. Dialogue, the flow of dialogue, English just has a better way with it.
That becomes a problem, from the opposite end, when you translate the American writers who are best with dialogue into German—someone like Elmore Leonard, or Tom Wolfe, who’s also quite good with dialogue. It’s very hard to translate them well.
Usually the German translators do something terrible, especially with Tom Wolfe, which is that they make it local. So if the characters are from Harlem, the translators put all this Berlin slang into their mouths, and that’s just terrible. You cringe when you read that. But there really is no good solution to the problem, except learning English.
Guernica: I’ve read you’re now splitting your time between Berlin and New York. Are you a writer who can work anywhere, or do certain surroundings help or hurt your work?
Kehlmann: I think I can work anywhere, but you don’t get the same kind of inspiration everywhere. New York theater has become a big inspiration for me. I only started writing for the stage myself because I like to see the good, mostly off-Broadway plays in New York.
On the other hand, New York—and I’m not the first person to say it—New York can be a difficult place to write. There’s just so much going on. When I first moved to New York, every day there were a hundred things I felt I needed to see. It took me a while to learn to stay at home in New York and not feel like a complete loser. But now I can do that.