Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F fails to convince

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F is the new novel by Daniel Kehlmann, the German-Austrian author who rose to fame after the 2005 bestseller Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World), a historical fiction account of two German scientists’ lives: Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt.

The book’s enigmatic title can be understood, so the novel’s characters themselves suggest, as an abbreviation for various keywords important to the narrative: fate, forgery, freedom, but first and foremost F seems to denote family. For the story portrays the personal and professional struggles of the twin brothers Ivan and Eric as well as their half-brother Martin after the abrupt disappearance of their estranged father Arthur.

Arthur Friedland is an absentminded intellectual and failed writer. In a weak attempt to spend quality time with his sons, he conscientiously takes them to a mediocre hypnosis show none of them wants to see. It so happens that there he is made to realize that his family is the root of his inability to write successfully. On the way home from this vain effort, he promptly drops them off (two of them at the wrong apartment), only to withdraw his wife’s savings and vanish into thin air.

Through this succinct preface-like beginning, Kehlmann sets up a story centered on the troubled relationship with the concept of ethics. Martin grows up to be a faithless priest who is missing a connection with God; Eric becomes an extortionately fraudulent investment banker; and Ivan maintains his fine art dealing business by nonchalantly forging paintings.

Three chapters, told from their individual points of view respectively, narrate the brothers’ approaches to the underlying morals of their professions. As they call into question the appropriateness of their behavior, more often than not they demonstrate a forlorn helplessness, as if deceit was an inevitability of life that subdued them.

They are simply unable to bring about the sincerity that should or could be at the very heart of what they do. Honesty and responsibility, it seems, are mere abstractions; and obligation, as their father puts it, is nothing but an invention. In reality these ideas contradict and disturb the functionality of the career system as well as that of personal happiness.

Kehlmann picks up on a wide array of issues, ranging from the erosion of the church’s adherence to their own doctrine to the crisis that has upset financial markets around the globe since 2007. In addition, his novel challenges the idea that art carries an intrinsic value rather than being made worthy by means of manipulation.

As far as the Zeitgeist is concerned, Kehlmann really hits the spot. Even his characters’ mundane problems could not be more contemporary. Obesity and self-conscious eating behavior are as essential to the plot as the addiction to antidepressants and mood stabilizers; redundant communication by text, over-working, stress and burnout are also thrown into the mix.

The presence of those issues, if nothing else, does give proof of Kehlmann’s fine observational skills. No matter their generic accuracy, though, their textual development is quite plain. They are described in an artless, straightforward manner and repeatedly (over-)analyzed by the affected protagonists. On one level, this may quite accurately portray our current society’s obsession with constant self-evaluation. But on the level of discourse, it requires very little effort to consume and fails to enthrall the reader.

Notwithstanding the subtle, sometimes startling, humorous nuances that emerge in the narrative from time to time, the attempt at coeval satire turns out rather flat. The occasional intellectual banter, for example in Ivan’s story, even supposing that its meaninglessness is intentional, is painfully boring in its irrelevance: “This of course leads to Rilke. We talk about his time with Rodin, we talk briefly about Rodin himself, then, it’s unavoidable, we talk about Nietzsche.” Equally, the integration of a chapter of Arthur’s eventual bestseller —a story of pure nihilism—into the actual novel F is no sign of wit but one of over-indulgence in postmodern self-referentiality.

In the words of Martin, F is about the sad state of the human condition, about being “bored by love, incapable of engaging seriously with anything, using everything including art as a mere excuse for doing nothing, unwilling to take an interest in anyone else, incapable of taking responsibility.” To deny that this is a great subject would be a lie; however, it’s quite annoying to be told exactly what a novel is about by the novel itself.

No doubt, though, F brings to mind past works of great literature. Structurally—three sons narrate three chapters, each depicting the events of one day that are interspersed with memories of the past—it loosely resembles Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Its fearless repetition of repetitive events is mildly evocative of Roberto Bolaño’s enumeration of the Santa Teresa murders in 2666, as is the unspectacular family reunion through the production of a book. Yet unlike both of these novels, F cuts to the chase with impatience and too rapidly presents the solution to its own enigma.

Haste makes waste, as the saying goes. True in life, true in literature.

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The English translation of F is out today, 26/08/2014.

This review also appeared in the New York Journal of Books. Read the NYJB article here.

Photograph by Manfred Werner, via Wikimedia Commons. Used and edited under a Creative Commons Licence.

Agatha Frischmuth

Agatha Frischmuth is Chief Editor of The Re|view.

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