F by Daniel Kehlmann

F is for…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

“Then listen to me,” Lindemann put a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “This is an order, and you’re going to follow it because you want to follow it, and you want to because I’m ordering you, and I’m ordering you because you want me to give the order. Starting today, you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs.”

f daniel kehlmannWhen unsuccessful author Arthur Friedland takes his three young sons to see a stage hypnotist, he doesn’t expect it to change his life. But a couple of hours later, he lets the boys out of the car and drives off, not to be seen or heard of again for years. The three boys, identical twins Ivan and Eric and their half-brother Martin, are young adults when suddenly Arthur’s new book, My Name is No One, becomes a sensation. With its message that no-one exists, not even the reader, it achieves notoriety when it provokes a brief spate of suicides. And incorporated into the book is a history of Arthur’s forebears, stretching back for centuries, showing how eventually, in one way or another, they all went away and ‘never came back’. But, you know, perhaps they do…

We next meet the sons when they are in their middle years, the promise of youth having faded into failure for each. Martin, a priest who doesn’t believe in God, sees the other men of his generation advancing in the Church while he grows fat and breathless, and spends his life hoping no-one asks him any questions about the meaning of his faith (though he has a stock answer that stands him in good stead – ‘It’s a Mystery!’). To outward appearances, Eric is a successful financial broker, but in reality he has been defrauding his clients for years and fears he’s about to be found out. In a constant state of near hallucination due to over-indulgence in prescription drugs, he’s finding it harder and harder to distinguish reality from his nightmarish fantasies. Ivan realised early that he would never be a great artist, so has turned to forgery and fraud to make his fortune. It’s all going well, but that’s about to change.

The reader keeps trying to make sense of it all. Perhaps the hero died. Perhaps the inconsistencies are harbingers of the end, the first defective spots, so to speak, before the entire warp and woof unravels. For what, the author seems to be asking, is death, if not an abrupt break in the middle of a sentence which the reader cannot elide, a soundless apocalypse in which it isn’t humanity that disappears from the world, but the world itself that disappears, an end of all things that has no end?

This is a brilliant novel, sparkling with wit and intelligence. The fact that I have no idea what it’s about really didn’t affect my enjoyment of it in any way. F is for family, or failure, or faith, or fraud, or fear, or fate. Or possibly it isn’t. For fun (two more Fs), I looked to see what the professional reviewers were saying. The quotes in the book have Ian McEwan calling it ‘strange and beautiful’ – agreed – while Adam Thirlwell, with much more alliterative elegance, describes it as ‘a family saga, a fable and a high-speed farce’ – again agreed. The Guardian thinks it’s about the death of God, The New York Times thinks the ending may suggest that faith is the solution after all, and The Telegraph wimps out completely by deciding it provokes us to find ‘meanings of our own’. The sad fact is that I agree with all of these too.

Daniel Kehlmann
Daniel Kehlmann

The main part of the book takes place over three lengthy chapters, each told from the viewpoint of one of the brothers and each covering the same short time-frame. During that period an event happens that has ramifications for all three but, although the reader knows what happened, the brothers don’t, and this is partly what gives the book its air of slight farce. The writing is superb – Kehlmann can squeeze a mountain of characterisation into a few telling phrases, allowing him plenty of space to treat us to some fairly tongue-in-cheek philosophical asides. And he forces the reader to collude with him in mocking, but affectionately, the worlds of art, literature and religion. The translation by Carol Brown Janeway is seamless – there isn’t a single clunky phrase or passage in the entire book.

…and Arthur described his idea to write a book that would be a message to a single human being, in which therefore all the artistry would serve as mere camouflage, so that nobody aside from this one person could decode it, and this very fact paradoxically would make the book a high literary achievement. Asked what the message would be, he said that would depend on the recipient. When asked who the recipient would be, he said that would depend on the message.

One final review, a concise 5-worder this time from an Amazon reviewer, says ‘This book is impossibly pretentious’. And, do you know, I tend to agree with that too – except I’d add that it’s knowingly pretentious, inviting us to laugh at its pretentions, as a reflection of the world that its being pretentious about. It’s also absurd, marginally surreal at points, wickedly funny and superbly written. And one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time…

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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57 thoughts on “F by Daniel Kehlmann

  1. Now that sounds like an odd, but interesting book, FictionFan! I always respect authors who do different things and whose stories don’t fall neatly into one or another category. It takes creativity and innovation to pull that off.

    • Yes, odd and interesting just about sums it up really. But very enjoyable too – I quite like when a book is left open to interpretation, so long as it’s done well, and this one is! 🙂

  2. What a wonder! It seems no one is sure what it’s about really. And the main part of the book is told only over three chapters? *laughs* And you don’t even know what the F stands for? *laughs more*

    The professor is convinced you should have given it only one mean smiley, I think.

    So, in the great cat picture up there…what was Tommy looking at?

    • Ah, but they’re three lo-o-ong chapters! Well, of course, it was written in German, so it might not even stand for any of these options – maybe it stands for flugelhorn…

      No – why? It was good fun! Things don’t always have to make sense to be enjoyable, you know… *suddenly thinks of the PL*

      Well, I think he must have been looking at the ghost on the stairs. Both of them look up at that place quite often…and there’s never anything there… *spooked face*

      • But still…unless the chapters are 60 pages each… What’s a flugelhorn exactly?

        *laughing lots and then bangs head on desk* I’m not sure what to say the sudden. Hmm…

        Bob used to do that to me! Is your house haunted?

        • You must have read it! Because they are just about 60 pages each! I have no idea – you’re the musical one! But I’m guessing it’s a horn…

          Yay! I won! I won!!!

          Well, the cats think so but I don’t see how it could be. a) It’s a newish house and no-one has ever died in it and b) there’s no such thing as ghosts. Of course, perhaps the house is built on the site of an ancient battle and perhaps the kilted ghosts of long-dead soldiers rise at night to fight on into eternity… *shivers*

          • *shocked face* See? I think I’m something of a wizard. Me too…I’m musical every other day…

            Yes, I think you did. You do that to me often, you know. And I have to say, you’re one of the few who can!

            *gulps* You didn’t bring the ghost, did you? *laughs* So you don’t even believe in ghosts! Then, I think the problem is much simpler. Zez must be running around in your house! (The soldiers thing sounds neatio…try to get a sword from one, please.)

            • Ooh, you”ll need to get a hat like Gandalf then! *laughs* I’m glad we agree.

              *proud as a peacock* Really? That must be incredibly annoying… *laughs happily*

              Ooh, maybe! But *terrified look* why would a ghost be following me? *laughs* Ouch, that ‘even’ really stung, you know! I believe in Professors, though, and Schwarzys. You could be right about Zez!! And all this time I thought the gurgling was to do with the water tank… *quivers like a fretful porpentine* (Hmm… you want me to jump into the middle of a ghostly battle, do you? OK… for you… *gulps*)

            • Yes, I suppose so. But I won’t wear his cloak!

              It’s actually sort of amusing. I told you you’re like Aravis!

              I’m not sure! Depends what you did in your past! *laughs* Well…the first part of your comment led me to believe you maybe sorta did… *laughing* Don’t believe in Schwarzys! Oh dear…well, if he’s there, just let him be. He probably won’t hurt you too badly bad. (Well, yes! If you can. I’m almost sure you should get out alive.)

            • Oh, but it’d suit you so well!

              I’m definitely going to re-read that book…

              Well, I think I’d remember if I’d done anything bad enough to deserve haunting! But of course Schwarzys exist! Otherwise who was singing? *suspicious face* I reckon Tuppence could handle an 8-inch gremlin… (Thanks for your concern!!!)

            • Nah. A bowtie might. But not that.

              I think I’ve read it 5 times! (Probably a record for me.)

              That’s true. Unless…you did it when you were a baby! You mightn’t remember then. You’re right: Schwarz is real. I was just messing with you. But not Zez!

            • Bet you’d look soooo c&a in a bowtie!

              See, you could just pretend you’re reading it while you’re reading BH and you’d be finished in no time!

              Zez isn’t real?!? I bet you wouldn’t dare say that to his face! (Maybe Schwarzy gets a voice double to do the singing for him though… *still suspicious*)

            • I’ve never seen myself that way… I’m always on the inside looking out, see…

              Yeah…but…there’s no Aravis or battles in BH.

              No, he’s real. I just like to pretend he’s not. Hmm…is this FEF’s way of asking who voices Schwarz?

            • Get a mirror…

              How do you know? Maybe you just haven’t got to that part yet.

              NO!!! No, no, no!! The mystery must remain – if you shake my belief in Schwarzy’s realness my whole life will come tumbling down. Who would I adore then?!?

            • *laughing lots* I need this book! Bet it’d make things much easier for me, truly.

              Now, why couldn’t have Dickens just wrote it like that?

              Very good point. Your logic is impeccable.

            • It’s a great book – I consult it regularly!

              Well, he sat at his desk thinking, shall I make this book short and put in a few battles to make the Professor happy, or shall I make it looong and fill it with glorious language and zillions of quirky characters to make FF happy. I won! *smugly sticks tongue out at Professor*

              I am actually half Vulcan, you know, you know… *raises Spockish eyebrow*

            • *laughs*

              He’d heard all the horrible things you’ve said about him. When he travelled to the future, that is, in HG Well’s time machine.

              Oddly (courageously admitting that she has tried) I can with my left hand but not my right – which is strange since I’m right-handed. You could make this the basis of your neurological studying… *waits*

            • Ohhhhhhhhhhhhhh….I like Dickens every other day. That’s a pretty good record for an author, I’d say.

              *laughing* Well, that is special! I’ve tried, and I can’t do it at all, I fear. Which is an interest. Maybe you can do more with your left hand than you’d previously thought? (Do you play tennis left or right handed?)

            • It is! Santa brought me more Dickens, so you’d better hurry up and finish BH so you’re ready for my next recommendation…

              Really? But I’d have expected a guitar player to be much more supple than most people. Must be to do with the brain rather than the fingers then, eh? My brain clearly only works on one side, and yours, sadly…well…anyway! (Haha! Trust me, it makes no difference to the quality of my playing…)

    • Haha! Yes, I was relieved to see the professionals seemed just as bamboozled – it would have been awful if the meaning had been blindingly obvious to everyone but me! But I was also pleased to see all the press reviewers seemed to love it too… whatever it’s about…

    • Well, I can’t in truth say I ‘got’ it either really, but I still enjoyed it hugely. I have a sneaking feeling that not getting it might be part of what he was aiming for… I reckon you might enjoy it…

      • Sounds fun. Have you ever read The Third Policeman? It’s a book you’re not supposed to ‘get’ (I think – it took me a second read to work it out) but half the enjoyment was the confusion.

          • It is a very, very strange book the first time you read it – I got all the way to the last page before I went “Oh RIGHT, that’s what it’s about!” and immediately read it again. I would go as far to say that it’s my favourite book, mainly because no other book has made me react in that way. It certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it is twisted genius 😀

            • Hmm…well, if it’s your favourite book, I suppose I’d better move it from the wishlist to the TBR… (yes, my system is complicated – it’s a way of pretending there’s only half as many books on my TBR as there really are… 😉 )

            • You’ll know the other thing about calories, of course? That cakes only have calories if you buy them yourself – if someone gives you a doughnut, it’s calorie-free! It’s been scientifically proved…

    • It does seem to be dividing opinion – mine is far more enthusiastic than most of the Amazon reviews, but the press reviewers seemed to feel much the way I did. It’s an odd one, for sure… 🙂

    • It is! I loved that all the reviewers were having the same difficulty as me in deciding what it was about, and yet they all seemed to love it too. Which is more than can be said for my fellow Amazon reviewers, who seem to be much more dubious. I suspect it might be a love/hate one…

  3. Oh. Caught on a conundrum. We’ve done so badly by each other of late I’m trembling in the balance. Perhaps it will be a new year’s resolution to read. Or not. Stop go on this . And it seems as if ‘what it is all about’ is equally conflicted. I know ‘the death of God’ and ‘faith is the solution’ are not opposites but there does seem to be a bit of furrowed brows interpreting the runes going on.

    • Hmm…hard to know, but I think you might enjoy it. I suspect the point of it is to leave it open to each person’s own interpretation and if so it succeeds wildly! I reckon the last bit I quoted is the important bit, where the author is obliquely telling us about this book, while delicately sticking his tongue out at us as he does so…

  4. This sounds quite intriguing although I have a sneaky suspicion that I would find it a little too frustrating but then again if every reader decides it is about something different then maybe I could just enjoy the wit and ignore the pretention (intended or otherwise) A great review from you, not an easy task by the sound of things.

    • Certainly it’s picking up some negative reviews on Amazon. I suspect it’s one of these ones that only works if it appeals to your sense of humour – and it did appeal to mine! Haha! The review became easier when I discovered nobody else seems to know quite what to make of it either – up till then I was afraid I might have missed something… 😉

  5. From the quotes you’ve shown us, I’m thinking the reader needs to be awake, specifically reading during the day and not in the soggy, sleepy wee hours when even straightforward sentences and paragraphs tend to require re-reading. It does sound tempting.

    • Yes, it’s quite short, but I did find I had to have my wits about me – but it’s not hard work. It’s written so well, it just flows along, and re-reading the philosphical bits was a pleasure. In fact, I had loads of fun flicking through it again to find quotes – could have picked a zillion more…

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