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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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.