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.