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Imagine a novel about a painter who believes forgery may be
more authentic than creating original works of art. Surround
him with corrupt critics and dealers. Add supporting stories
about a cleric suffering a crisis of faith, a writer struggling with
the demands of experimental fiction, and other victims of modern
urban life who embrace various forms of self-deception, and
sometimes decide that the best solution is to hide from the world
and its entanglements. Spice
generously with philosophy,
religion and alienation.
I could be describing William
Gaddis's famously recondite
novel The Recognitions from
1955. But every one of these
ingredients also appears in
Daniel Kehlmann's recent novel
F. And, as with Gaddis, our author
mixes fatalisms with humor—but
so heavily tilted toward the former
that it is easy to miss the latter.
If you added a laugh track, you would
need to insert a cry track as well.
Yet author Kehlmann is used to this. He noted, in a recent
conversation with Jonathan Franzen, that his work was initially
praised for its comic elements…except in his native Germany.
"Detecting humor is not our strong side," he admits. Then he
adds: "German culture has a neurotic relationship with humor."
Like Gaddis, Kehlmann works hard to subvert the amusing elements
of his stories, amplifying the tragedy and futility of his characters,
and cloaking everything in a tapestry of theoretical and theological
concepts. Even the book's title conveys something of these dark
signfications. The readers do not learn the meaning of that lonely
capital letter until the final pages of the book, when the enigmatic
and reclusive father figure Arthur Friedland offers this monologue
to his granddaughter:
Fate….The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force,
and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you.
Some kind of accidental fate. It happens in a flash.
And this, in a nutshell, is the prickly issue that looms large over the
entire course of Kehlmann's novel. Do we choose our life, or is it
imposed upon us? If we don’t make the choices, who does? A
loving deity? Blind chance? Demons and magical forces? Each of
these options gets its moment to strut and fret on the center stage
of this narrative. But in a strange turnabout, even the characters
who believe that outside powers control their lives somehow manage
to use this very belief to take charge of their affairs and achieve
Arthur Friedland, the cynic who surrenders to Fate with a capital
F, exemplifies this in his own rise to fame. At the start of the novel
he is a loser and a layabout, a failure in his first marriage and a
reluctant participant in the second. One day he takes his three
sons on an outing to see a traveling hypnotist's stage show. Arthur
is a skeptic, and boasts to the youngsters that he is immune to
the techniques of such charlatans. But when he is enlisted as a
reluctant volunteer, the hypnotist uses the power of suggestion to
implant a new set of goals in his mind. "You think that you have
no ambition? Maybe it would be better if you did, Arthur….Maybe
you should change your life. Change everything." After coming
out of his trance, Friedland leaves the show promptly with his sons,
drives them back to the home of his ex-wife, where he drops them
off, and then disappears from their lives (and from most the
remainder of the novel)—apparently in fulfilment of the hypnotist's
suggestion that he "change everything."
When we next see Arthur, many pages later, he is a famous author
and a recluse, pursuing his own interests while avoiding
entanglements and emotional ties with other human beings.
The implication is clear: Fate with a capital F intervened in his life,
literally by chance, and changed its course from dismal failure to
Perhaps Kehlmann believes in precisely this kind of destiny,
imposed from outside rather than nurtured from within. Yet he
counters it with complementary narratives about each of Friedland's
sons, each of whom possesses a very different perspective on the
best method of making one’s way in the world.
The twins Eric and Ivan are so close that they sometimes feel as if
they are two facets of a single person. Both turn to fraud to advance
their interests: Eric swindling the investors in a Bernie Madoff-type
pyramid scheme, while Ivan partners with an aging artist to create
fashionable forgeries that sell better than the originals. Meanwhile
Friedland’s son from his first marriage, the overweight and
ponderous Martin, pursues a career as a Catholic priest. This may
seem like a more commendable moral choice, but it too is built
on deception—Martin lacks faith and presides over sacraments that
he fears are a charade, no different than the faux paintings
and investment schemes peddled by his half-brothers.
At first glance, Kehlmann seems to say that life is inevitably built on
fraud and fate. But if that’s the case, his characters are reluctant
participants, much like Arthur on the stage with the hypnotist. At
the close of the novel, Ivan even stakes his life in a grand heroic
gesture that is clearly altruistic and self-directed. The recluse
Arthur comes out of hiding, and begins to nurture a relationship
with his granddaughter and take pride in his family, even as he
abandons his lucrative career as a writer. Martin, for his part,
never finds religious faith—and it is revealing that the only character
to passively accept his outcast fate has the most static and
narrowly constricted life of the entire family. But his half-brother
Eric more than compensates with his new found spiritual zeal.
After a series of events help him to avoid prosecution for his
financial crimes, he attributes his salvation to the intervention of a
higher power. Instead of giving credit to Fate with a capital F he
praises God with a capital G.
But other elusive powers are at play during the course of this
book. Magic, clairvoyance, telepathy, ghosts and other paranormal
forces intrude on the action at critical junctures. They combine
with the philosophical and religious concepts at play, and
individuals engage again with this elusive network of metaphysical
energies, but not as mere victims of destiny, rather as collaborators
who invoke the divine or mysterious (call it what you will) and, if they
are sufficiently capable and decisive, draw on its vitality for their
own purposes. And this entire texture of strangeness, inexplicable
yet potent, is what I see as the meaning of that looming letter F.
It is an ominous symbol, suggesting more than it can deliver,
sometimes even threatening. Yet Kehlmann works wonders with it.
I’d even toss out the F, and award him a solid A.
Ted Gioia writes on music, literature and popular culture. His next
book, a history of love songs, is forthcoming from Oxford University
Publication date: October 9, 2014
F by Daniel Kehlmann
Reviewed by Ted Gioia
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