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“Fate,” says the writer Arthur Friedland, the unifying character of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel F:

“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.”

F, translated by Carol Brown Janeway, is a novel about how much control we have over our lives. Its characters, in particular Arthur’s three sons, Ivan, Eric and Martin, all look to place their faith in something that will give their lives direction and meaning only to find themselves guilty of falsifying that meaning. Martin becomes a priest who does not believe in God; Ivan dedicates his life to art only to use his talent as a forger; and Eric enters the world of finance, sustaining his investment company through deception and fraud. The F of the title, however, stands for none of these things – fate, faith, forgery or fraud (none of which begin with f in German) – but family, as Kehlmann has explained:

“’Family’ is quite a big word, so in the case of my novel only the first letter remained. When I started out I thought: ‘I want to do to the family novel something similar to what I did to the historical novel when I wrote Measuring the World. Which is to write an unusual specimen of the form. A family novel for people who don’t trust family novels.”

For this reason perhaps, it’s a family novel in which the members of the family are rarely together. Only in the first chapter, a family trip on which Arthur takes his three sons to see a hypnotist, do they seem at all united. Despite his protests that hypnotism will not work on him, Arthur is led to the stage. He answers Lindeman, the hypnotist, honestly – he’s a writer whose work is largely unpublished living off his wife’s money. “Maybe ambition would be an improvement,” Lindeman tells him, “Starting today you’re going to make an effort. No matter what it costs.” Arthur is still dismissive of the hypnotist as they leave, but when he drops Martin off at his mother’s, he also leaves Eric and Ivan (he has remarried). He drives off and his sons do not see him again until they are adults.

The novel, too, travels forward in time. We learn that Martin has become a priest but that he has yet to find faith – instead he overeats and continues to enter Rubik’s Cube championships, a toy his father gave him. Eric, an investment banker, has been using his clients’ money to make it appear as if their investments have been successful but now has nothing left and knows it’s only a matter of time before he is found out. The pressure, and a steady supply of prescription drugs, mean he now has an uncertain relationship with reality:

“Stay calm. Always calm. I look up, there he is, sitting in front of me. Martin. My brother. I look at the phone, the message is still there. I look at his face. Is it my imagination after all? Am I sitting here alone?”

Ivan, having decided that his own artistic talent didn’t stretch to genius, is forging paintings for the artist’s estate which he administers. Kehlmann connects the narratives using events like the lunch which Eric and Martin share (we see it from both brothers point of view) and characters such as the boy in the Bubbletea is not a drink I like t-shirt. He also includes a chapter called ‘Family’, purportedly written by Arthur, which traces his family back over generations in a way that makes life seem bleak and meaningless.

Novels by their very nature, however, imply fate rather than chance, subject as they are to the author’s plan. Kehlmann makes no attempt to disguise this, creating a puzzle of interconnecting parts which the reader must twist and turn, like the Rubik’s Cube which Martin cannot leave behind in his childhood, until the pattern is plain. A further clue is given when Marie, Arthur’s granddaughter, looks closely at a painting by Ivan:

“She stepped even closer, and immediately everything dissolved. There were no more little people, no more little flags, no anchor, no bent watch…
She stepped back and it all came together again.”

Is Kehlmann suggesting life is meaningless when viewed from close up, but subject to pattern when the proper perspective is taken? Or is that a property only of art? Is the novel’s form in conflict with its meaning? Is its comic tone at odds with its bleak message, a question once asked of Arthur’s first novel:

“Is My Name is No One a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful mind, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it?”

Rarely does a novel so easily read, ask the reader such difficult questions.

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17 Responses to “F”

  1. winstonsdad Says:

    I’ve yet to read his books I like the feel of the book

  2. jacquiwine Says:

    I’m intrigued by the questions at the end of your review, and it sounds like a great book for discussion. I wonder if it will catch the eyes of the IFFP judges next year?

    I caught an interview with Kehlmann on R4’s Front Row the other week. There’s a link here if you missed it and are interested (if you scroll down there’s a link to the piece):

  3. MarinaSofia Says:

    Hmmm, sounds very intriguing, and throws up some big questions for discussion. I tried to read Vermessung der Welt by him but somehow got sidetracked (had to return the book to a friend and didn’t find another copy, something puerile like that). Makes me want to seek him out again.

  4. Mytwostotinki Says:

    So far I have read two of his books which I liked and your intriguing review makes me curious to try also this one.

  5. Anokatony Says:

    I read your review to compare it to mine which I just posted. I didn’t read yours before I wrote mine.
    Your review does a nice job of conveying the major plot points as well as the philosophical issues underlying the novel.
    Even despite the short story ‘Family’ in ‘F’, I’m still a major fan of Kehlmann. Most people thought the ‘F’ stood for ‘Fate’ or ‘Fake’ but maybe it is ‘Family’.
    The writer who I see as closest to Daniel Kehlmann in outlook is the French writer Jean Echenoz.

    • 1streading Says:

      I enjoyed your review – the novel is certainly ‘light and playful’ but ‘not easy’ as you suggest. I, too, immediately assumed that the F stood for Fate until I realised that, as it is also the German title, it would also need to refer to a German word beginning with F. Perhaps some German readers can help us out!
      I can see why you compared him to Echenoz – another of my favourite writers.

  6. David H Says:

    It’s interesting that both you and Tony Messenger end your review with questions. It’s that kind of book, isn’t it?

  7. Bellezza Says:

    You have done a masterful job of reviewing this book, the only part of which I truly enjoyed was Eric’s frenzied running around from one person to another as he wove the web of financial deceit that had encroached upon his whole life.

    To me, the novel was not as much about how little control we have, as the power of poor choices. I did not see the characters as victims; rather I saw them as incredibly stupid. One bad choice after another does not mean you have bad fate…it means you have bad judgement,

    I like how you likened the twisting of the Rubik’s Cube to the twists of their lives.

    • 1streading Says:

      Thank you. The fate versus free will argument is very interesting in the novel – I suspect the purpose of the hypnotist is to raise that very issue.

  8. Independent Foreign Fiction Prize 2015 | 1streading's Blog Says:

    […] Kehlmann, F (German: trans. Carol Brown Janeway), […]

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