‘F’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2013) – 272 pages Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
‘F’ raises some of the major questions of life, yet somehow manages to be playful. At the same time it is a well-constructed work of fiction.
‘F’ is about a father and his three sons coming to terms or not coming to terms with our post-modern world. Not that the modern world before had been all that great what with the Great Depression and World War II.
But in the post-modern world, even the priests don’t believe in the sacraments they perform or even in God. Many businessmen and politicians cheat and defraud but are rarely punished. And of course the art world and museums are rife with hype and fakes. ‘Sheer noise triumphs over quality.’
The father Arthur is an author who walks out on his family to pursue his writing after an auto-suggestion from the hypnotist, the Great Lindemann. The sons grow up. One son Martin is a fat priest who still is intrigued by the Rubik’s Cube, one son Eric is a stock broker living the high life but contemplating suicide, and one son Ivan is a gay artist and art critic.
‘F’ is by no means what I would call a ‘straight line’ traditional novel. It is definitely post-modern. It resists any simple plot explanation and it raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer. That is a good thing. Each of the sons gets to tell his story.
One of the many questions ‘F’ asks is ‘How do people who are mediocre manage to live their lives?’ Ivan wrote his dissertation on ‘Mediocrity as an Aesthetic Phenomenon’.
“Ivan often wondered how people with no particular gifts put up with their existence.”
Each brother has his own way of dealing with Ivan’s question — how do you live with mediocrity, why do you keep on going? The general answer in ‘F’ seems to be that we fake it.
“If I kept on painting, I would be average at best. Would that be terrible? Most people are average by definition.”
Although the tone of ‘F’ is light and playful, it is not an easy novel. However it is a rewarding one. I had to listen to the entire novel twice to get its full effect. One chapter is a story, ‘Family’, the father Arthur wrote. He has no memory at all of his own father, but he traces his ancestors back to medieval times. The story seems to point out how random and stupid fate is that we are here today.