The Magazine

Anti-Hero Worship

A German novelist turns the literary world upside-down.

Feb 23, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 22 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
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Me and Kaminski

A Novel

by Daniel Kehlmann

Translated by
Brown Janeway
Pantheon, 208 pp., $21.95

"We have to be grateful for each writer to whom power is denied," said Daniel Kehlmann, one of Germany's rising literary stars. The setting for Kehlmann's remark was a poetics lecture at the University of Göttingen in 2006--the very place, ironically, where seven professors (among them the fairytale collectors Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm) were sacked from their jobs in 1837 because they objected vigorously to the abolition of the constitution and their political disempowerment as citizens.

Kehlmann's point, though, was that Germans are misguided in their awed reverence for Great Writers, and in their assumption that the world would be a better place if such creators of high culture had a say in politics:

My god, Hölderlin and Kleist embraced patriotism and the German Nation, Kipling the English Empire; Claudel and Yeats were half-fascists; Pound and Benn whole ones; Céline and Jünger I don't even want to talk about, and Aragon, Eluard, Brecht, Heinrich Mann and Feuchtwanger and many dozens of Europe's premier intellectuals wrote letter or reverential submission to and hymns about Josef Stalin. Writers have two main traits: they dislike pragmatics and they are often opportunists.

This is why the Germans now revere the 34-year-old Kehlmann: He releases them from culture worship by telling them that the emperors are naked.

Kehlmann's point about the political shortsightedness and moral fallibility of great writers was secondary to his claim that creative writers are not professionals and usually don't know very much, and that it is utterly useless "to drag every hopeful creator of two short stories and three poems .  .  . before a microphone and demand explanations about writing as such (an sich) and how he, in particular, deals with it."

Kehlmann knows what he is talking about. As his entertaining, stingingly witty, and philosophically sophisticated 2005 novel Measuring the World, about the 18th-century mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the explorer Alexander von Humboldt, was developing into a bestseller, Kehlmann was being mercilessly beleaguered by the cultural recyclers who build careers out of hyping or rehashing original products and getting their creators to show off their secrets and to reveal whether it is really "all true."

The siege culminated in Kehlmann's appointment to deliver the poetics lectures at Göttingen. The former pupil of Jesuits in Vienna, and later student of philosophy, opened his lectures slyly by saying, "I know nothing" (Ich habe keine Ahnung), and then argued that a careful reader can move from ignorance to insight by following the trails of motives and their variations that texture literary works like musical compositions.

This is certainly true of Kehlmann's own novels. Measuring the World, about a cranky, womanizing, brilliantly theoretical Gauss and an obsessive-compulsive, sexless, yet reality-addicted Humboldt, was a minutely structured composition demonstrating the convergence of parallel universes in the joyless perfection of Weimar's great classical period. What that period lacked, Kehlmann argued somewhat paradoxically, was the playfulness of art and the acknowledgment of the great cost, the blood, sweat, and tears, of cultural production. In great art, these opposites must coalesce.

Kehlmann's 2003 novel Me and Kaminski, which has just been published here in Carol Brown Janeway's smooth translation, is also a tightly composed and highly controlled work. Narrated seemingly without any great effort, Me and Kaminski purports to be a light, airy send-up of the ambitious young critic type who, tottering on the brink of despair on account of his own insignificance, decides to remedy his situation and achieve instant fame by outing the darkest secrets of an established cultural icon.

The moral villain in Philip Roth's Exit Ghost was one Richard Kliman who, under the guise of wishing to restore the now long dead writer E.I. Lonoff to the literary stature he deserves, craves to establish his own fame. The vehicle to accomplish both is to reveal Lonoff's incestuous relationship with his half-sister (as the biographer Steven Kellman revealed Henry Roth's incestuous relationship with his sister, causing Henry Roth's writer's block). Kliman stalks the narrator Zuckerman who, consumed by envy, is forced to recognize in the virile predator a version of his former irritating self.

In the hands of the 75-year-old Philip Roth, the theme of young critic and old artist turns into a moving essay not about the Jamesian theme of life versus art but about the impotent jealousy that the old harbor toward the selfish young, a burning envy that a feigned altruism barely conceals and red-hot rage cannot relieve.

Kehlmann, lacking Roth's perspective on old age, uses callous youth to his advantage and turns the parasitic critic into his narrator. Thus, when at the very beginning his critic Sebastian Zöllner awakens in a railway car from "unquiet dreams," the reader finds himself confined to the consciousness of a "monstrous vermin." These are Kafka's words from the opening of "The Metamorphosis," to which Kehlmann's opening paragraph alludes.

One of the great pleasures here is to discover along the way the multitude of hidden literary allusions to Borges and Nabokov and Kafka. Zöllner's name, the French douanier (as in Henri le douanier Rousseau), or the less poetic American "customs officer," alludes to lines by Bertolt Brecht that one ought to thank a Zöllner for forcefully demanding and extracting wisdom from the wise. Zöllner, the man who collects tolls from border crossers--that is to say, of dead and forgotten artists who wish to reenter life and fame--is a 31-year-old art critic for an undistinguished German newspaper. He is on his way to the reclusive mountain abode of a once famous but now forgotten painter, Manuel Kaminski, whose biography he wants to write.

Laced with juicy autobiographical nuggets that Zöllner wants to extract in a series of interviews from the (purportedly) blind and sick painter about his life in Paris and his studies with Matisse, Zöllner plans to release his biography and cash in right after Kaminski's death--that is, as he passes from one realm into another--and when attention to Kaminski is revived in the press.

When Zöllner arrives, he realizes that access to Kaminski is controlled by his daughter. He bribes the housekeeper to let him into the house while the daughter is away. He searches the house, finds a last series of abandoned paintings depicting grimacing faces in the cellar and some letters in the office, and finally, at the novel's halfway point, he faces the old man. Now the narrative takes off and, in a series of unexpected shifts, the painter takes the would-be critic for the ride of his life.

As Zuckerman in Kliman, the old painter recognizes in the young predator a version of his youthful self and knows the young man's game. He'd once played it himself. His purported blindness masks insight, whereas the critic's pretended insight masks total blindness to the games played in the arts. All is deceit and elusive reality.Mundus vult decipi. Painter and critic deserve each other, and their lives turn out to be parallels that meet on the brink of infinity. Kaminski's central work is a vast series of paintings depicting mirrors facing each other at odd angles, opening vistas into endless self-reflected emptiness.

At the end of Me and Kaminski, having raced from the southern to the northern border of Germany in pursuit of the past, painter and critic take leave of each other at the zero point of their lives. Destitute and deprived of all illusions, they part at the shore of the endless, blank North Sea. It is a scenic cliché, an enactment of one of Kaminski's paintings, pointing forward to his death and back to Goya's marvelous painting of a lone dog's head suspended on the border between light and dark. The allusion undermines the cliché: Only the cynic can play and survive the game of art.

Daniel Kehlmann's witty, learned, and hugely entertaining novel raises the hope that German literature is done navel-gazing, and once more ready to play in the big leagues.

Susanne Klingenstein is a lecturer in the Harvard/MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology.