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Daniel Kehlmann

Portrait of Daniel Kehlmann with blue filter
  • Interview by Claudia Steinberg
  • Issue 7
  • Free Radical

In the opening pages of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F, the curtain rises on a cabaret stage, and a sinister hypnotist called The Great Lindemann rattles the subconscious of the unsuccessful writer Arthur Friedland: he abruptly leaves his family and soon becomes a famous author.

Friedland’s nihilistic prose provokes a wave of suicides (an echo of The Sorrows of Young Werther) and casts a curse over the lives of his three abandoned sons, Martin, Eric, and Iwan, who all end up leading fraudulent and pained existences. Set in the early days of the recent financial crisis, F portrays the unraveling of all three young men—a gluttonous, hypocritical priest; a financial swindler; and a forger of paintings—via Rashomon-like shifts of perspective. Kehlmann’s sixth novel offers no sympathy, no redemption, no judgment. Its swift pace is reminiscent of the German-Austrian author’s 2005 bestseller Measuring the World, a fictionalized account of the attempts by the naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and by the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss to organize unruly reality into systems. In that book, both the empiricist and the theoretician succeed at their chosen tasks but eventually fall victim to the “pathetic randomness” of life, as Gauss puts it, just as the doomed Friedland family does in F.

Claudia Steinberg

All the characters in F—a title that could stand for Fake, Fate, Fame, Flawed, Fraud, or Friedland, just to name a few possibilities—are rather compromised individuals. Are they you?

Daniel Kehlmann

While I’m writing, yes. I find it therapeutic to inhabit my characters, warts and all. One of the functions of writing is to put you in touch with your devils. I always try to defend Iwan—I think of him as a genuinely good person. He may not have truly great talent, and he may not possess the necessary egotism to succeed—but he’s a very good painter. He just finds it better for his soul to paint as someone else. I don’t think of him as flawed.

But he commits fraud.

True, but there is no real victim. He is only helping his older lover, to keep his career going, and he is actually very nice to him. It recently occurred to me that forging art is the only victimless crime. There are victims only when the forger gets exposed, and until that possibly happens, everybody is happy.

Well, it has financial victims, even if we may not feel that sorry for them. Some institutions are refusing the authentication of expensive works because of the possibility of getting sued by the duped buyers. The erosion of truth is not quite victimless.

Still, Iwan is not really a bad person, as opposed to his brother Eric, who is truly a very dark being—I loved developing Eric’s character. Many people found him too mean. There is no way to defend him morally, but you can pity him—after all he is afflicted by demons. One of the perks of writing is putting yourself in the shoes of someone who is not polite, not nice, not ethical at all. In Amazon reviews you can see that many people judge books morally; they may dislike a novel on the basis of the characters’ unethical behavior. Readers also berate you when something awful happens to your appealing characters. But you have to remember: It’s morally bad to do bad things to real people, it’s not morally bad to let bad things happen to fictional characters. For some reason many people tend to forget this simple fact these days. However, I was in a very black mood when I wrote about the horrible thing that happens to Iwan at the end of the book. It was very disturbing, but it had to be done.

Who decided on that? It brings to mind Muriel Spark’s book The Comforters where the characters seem to write themselves, emerging from the typewriter. Do your protagonists take on a life of their own?

No, it is more like role-playing. I would love for my characters to appear to me, but that has not happened.

But you have said that you want to be surprised by your characters.

In the case of F, I knew only that I wanted to write about three brothers, and I wanted all of them to be criminals or hypocrites who didn’t know about the others’ schemes. So each imagines himself as the only black sheep of the family, but actually they’re all black sheep. I knew that Iwan would be part of the art world, but the whole complicated scheme of forging an entire artist’s career came while I was writing. Nor did I know that Martin would be a priest. Originally, I wanted him to be a scriptwriter for a TV soap opera, a typical media cynic. But I realized that there was not enough intellectual complexity in that setup to keep me interested. I had to start again from scratch, imagining him as more spiritual.

An unusual choice to become a priest in today’s society, considering the difficulties the Catholic Church has in recruiting.

I was wondering myself whether one can still write about a priest without faith, or whether it’s an old-fashioned problem. That’s why I gave him the Rubik’s Cube, a slightly outdated game.

The Rubik’s Cube handed to Martin seems the opposite of faith—it’s pure rationality.

I saw that metaphor only later. Jeffrey Eugenides compares the whole structure of my novel to a Rubik’s Cube but I wasn’t aware of it. I just loved the image of an overweight priest going to a Rubik’s Cube competition.

One doesn’t really want to allow a priest a passion other than that for the higher power.

I wouldn’t say that. I went to a Jesuit school, it was progressive, and I liked it. Not all the teachers were priests, because the order was transferring most of its operations to South America in order to promote revolutions. The Jesuit order is now very leftist, and many of the priests held Ph.D.’s in philosophy.

You said that you like to look at yourself from the perspective of the future, as part of history.

When I was writing Measuring the World, a historical novel, it seemed so strange to me that we don’t see ourselves as part of a specific time. My Gauss character is acutely aware of how relative his present circumstances were, and so he was able to project social and technological developments far into the future. Our lives today look so much like science-fiction movies from the 1970s: just think of how we sit in an airport lounge with our iPads, giant TV-screens floating above our heads. But we don’t seem to remember how baffling all that is.

It only works the other way around—backwards in time. You see yourself in 1970s clothing, and you laugh, Wow, that’s how we looked then.

Yes, we fail to wonder about what we are wearing now—we just accept the status quo. We just had this profound revolution brought on by mobile phones, and even that upheaval doesn’t seem to register. I recently watched the entire Sopranos series again. The first season is taking place in the late 90s, and you realize that it is a completely different world because they don’t have mobile phones—they send faxes, and they keep calling around to find people.

So one cannot have plots evolving around the difficulty of finding someone in the same way as before. Now people from the past keep dropping back into your life through social media—these discoveries would have required a detective until quite recently.

I think this phenomenon is more profound than the invention of the first telephone and more on a level with the invention of the printing press.

But you have been critical of electronic communication and its way of undermining reality.

I’m most concerned about the erosion of our capacity to focus, and how reality has truly changed: you can exchange text messages with someone without even knowing that this person happens to be in Australia. Space has become something different.

Talking about the future made me think about a passage from John Updike’s memoir Self-Consciousness, where he writes that our desire to live forever is not selfish but actually based on our love for the world.

That notion says a lot about Updike, who is such an important writer to me—people have always accused him of being egotistical, but all his detailed description came from his love of objects, of the world in general. He shared that with Nabokov. One of the best ways to refrain from taking yourself too seriously is curiosity, which is another term for loving the world. As a writer, that can save you from being self-obsessed.

Returning to the subject of dying: you have said the true scandal is not that we die but that we age.

I still think that’s true. I saw my father suffering from dementia. That was very much on my mind while writing the last part of Measuring the World, when Humboldt and Gauss have become old. When you are young, you think people had enough time to prepare themselves for old age, but they are actually all young people trapped in a process which happens far too soon for everybody. And it starts early: we’ve always known that very few great mathematical discoveries were made by anyone older than thirty, because by then the brain has lost its greatest powers of concentration. We didn’t need neuroscience for that insight. Gauss knew he could never again create anything like his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae, which he published at the age of twenty-one.

Did you ever envy Gauss or Humboldt for the single-minded pursuit of their interests? Their obsessional ways could almost be seen as a parody of the romantic artist, in this case camouflaged as scientists.

That’s quite true. In some way the novel is about being really dedicated to what you do, what you gain from that, and what you lose. There’s no difference between an artist and a scientist in that regard. But it is also very much a novel about the relentless pursuit of rationality, and the convenient thing about being an artist is that you don’t have to be totally rational. In Gauss’ case it also means not being content until you have the answer that tells you everything you want to know—instead of saying, “Isn’t it interesting that parallel lines meet in infinity,” and moving on.

Louise Bourgeois despaired over that—she stopped being a mathematician and became an artist instead.

As a scientist you have to stick with the problem, but as an artist you might live very well with ambivalence and with unsolved questions. People who can’t take that may become scientists, and others may become religious.

Gauss and Humboldt seem to have found comfort in systems and numbers—as armor against disorder.

Especially Humboldt. He couldn’t accept chaos. Measuring the World has been called a novel about two geniuses. To me it is a novel about one genius and one crazily disciplined person: Humboldt achieves everything with willpower and hard work, but for Gauss it all comes without effort—it’s quite unfair.

I just heard an interview with someone who suffered a terrible brain injury that turned him into a mathematical savant. Shouldn’t that change our perspective what makes a genius?

In recent years we have discovered staggering things about personality and the brain. We can only carry on with our traditional idea of what constitutes a person because we ignore these insights in everyday life, and we’ll need a lot of time to get used to these new ideas. Darwinism has been around for a long time, but we still fight over how it should affect our worldview. People were quite upset when the Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn, wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that Darwinism doesn’t go along with Christianity. He is totally right, it doesn’t. Which of course doesn’t mean that we should give up Darwin. And there is so much more to come—most people still have no clue about quantum physics. And Kurt Gödel’s discovery that logical systems cannot be complete is hardly known at all. So I think it will be another 200 years before people will start to actually take in how extremely confusing and earthshaking the discoveries of modern science actually are.

We may not understand these things, but their tangible results are part of our lives already—we take the pills, we use the technology.

It is something that amazed C. G. Jung about the Swiss towns of his time, that they simultaneously had sophisticated technologies and premodern customs. He suspected that this sort of dissociation is just part of being human.

Perhaps. However, you always stress the rational, for example, in your thoughts about the logic of our fate, the laws of probability—but maybe you have had experiences that seem fateful after all?

We seem to be hardwired to perceive an internal logic to our lives when in reality we are just subject to the forces of chance. Every one of us could lead a completely different life if just a few tiny things had been different. But life doesn’t feel like it, and we can’t bear it. Kundera’s much-quoted title The Unbearable Lightness of Being still describes it beautifully.

Alexander Kluge is very much obsessed with this idea. In his Chronicle of Emotions, for example, he writes about this little boy who is a hundredth of a millimeter and a tenth of a second away from fatally hitting his head.

A few years ago, I was walking down a very narrow sidewalk in Hamburg with a friend when he suddenly yanked me away from a bus that would have killed me. For ten minutes you are very shaken, and then you think, Of course I’m still alive. That’s just how we are made. You could have easily not met the person you’re madly in love with, and then you would probably love someone else. That’s a very impolite thought.

How did you come to love American literature?

At the university in Vienna we were taught that the greatest, most exciting literature was the Wiener Gruppe, writers like Gerhard Rühm, H. C. Artmann, Ernst Jandl. They did little more than continuing with Dadaism, and so I learned a great deal about people who were considered subversive all their lives without really ever changing anything. It angered me, and it is one of the reasons why I began loving American literature—North and South. Someone like David Foster Wallace was truly experimental back then, he tried to do something else with each novel. In the visual arts, being reliably subversive is always the road to success. However, these days it has become so important for the artists to hang out with the collectors, to dine with them and invite them into their studios, and so they have to behave. Selling their art is not sufficient anymore; they have to sell a lifestyle. And the collector doesn’t want someone who throws food in his face.

In the 1980s I knew young wild German artists who would drink madly and urinate into the gallerist’s fireplace, and worse. I don’t think that would fly today. Artists have to be more businesslike, and the collectors want to be more like the artists.

You can see that as a mechanism of gentrification—everybody wants to be where the artists are. You don’t find any artists at Prenzlauer Berg any more, but the same time, Berlin profits greatly from the real estate situation in New York. There is just no normal life possible any more in the old neighborhoods of New York artists, it’s too expensive! The whole of below Harlem has turned into a gated community, and American culture in general has become increasingly insular.

The obsession with security has created a certain provincialism. There is the chronic lament over how few foreign books are being published here. Translation is still viewed with suspicion, as if it were less authentic, less truthful.

People over here ask me all the time, “How can translation work?” I tell them that it has been done all over the world, for thousands of years. In some way when Americans are asking this question it’s a way to mask their bafflement about the strange fact that people actually make the choice to write books not in English.

You have always been fascinated with the Devil’s pact: trading something infinite for something immediate. Are we doomed because we keep doing that with nature, exchanging the world itself for immediate gratification?

Climate change is such a difficult issue because you cannot pinpoint a single culprit, so nobody thinks they have to change anything. Rationally, the Devil’s pact makes no sense: why would anybody trade the soul, the single most valuable thing we own—personally I’m not sure whether it exists—and doom it to eternal pain? But as human beings we always seem ready to exchange something irreplaceable for something momentarily more exciting as long as the consequences of the foolish deal don’t start right away.

You have talked so much about the lack of humor in German culture. I suspect that Germans are funny only in the satirical genre, not in the absurdist or self-deprecating manner of Americans—perhaps Germans don’t value humor unless it is critical?

Germany never had someone like Voltaire, a first-rate cultural figure who was elegantly working with humor. Goethe actually disliked humor, he said it was a tool for people who lack character. He really said that! To this day any humorous writer finds it very hard to become part of the official German canon. My Humboldt character was largely a parody of what it is to be German, but of course I had to painfully draw on my own “Germanness” in order to portray him: anything that bothers you in others, you carry in yourself.

Claudia Steinberg is a contributor to numerous German and U.S. publications and the author, with the photographer Bärbel Miebach, of The Art of Living (Monacelli Press).

Photo © Peter Rigaud/Laif/Redux