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F: A Novel Hardcover – August 26, 2014
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A New York Times Notable Book, an NPR Best Book of 2014, and a New Yorker Favorite Book of 2014
"Daniel Kehlmann’s strange and endlessly provoking novel, F (Pantheon, translated by Carol Brown Janeway), is several things at once: it is a mutilated family saga (a dubious father and three hopeless sons); a comic novel about faith and the absence of God (and, lest that not seem remarkable enough, I’ll add that it is a comic German novel about the absence of God); and a not merely clever meditation on what a fictional self is. Not merely clever but suggestive and powerful, because, like Jose Saramago, Kehlmann is interested in using metafictional questions to ask metaphysical questions. For him, the question “What is a fictional self?” leads to the question “What is this self we choose to call real?” In certain lights, F can seem a conventional tale of family woes, shaped around the life stories of the three failed Friedland brothers, Ivan, Eric, and Martin. Each, in different ways, is a fake or a fraud (one of the things “F” stands for in the book, along with “faith,” “family,” and “Friedland”). And there is pleasure to be had from reading the book in this way: these individual stories are full of detail and vitality. But the deepest delights—delights that offer consolation in a faithless or fake world—are to be found in the novel’s beautiful and cunning construction, and in its brilliantly self-interrogating form." —James Wood, The New Yorker (Favorite Books of 2014)
“As with Thomas Pynchon’s ‘V,’ or Tom McCarthy’s ‘C,’ in Daniel Kehlmann’s subtly yet masterly constructed puzzle cube of a new novel, readers and characters alike exist for a time in that hazy uncertain land, where there is not only the desire but the need to solve for x—or, in Kehlmann’s case, ‘F’ . . . translated deftly from the German by Carol Brown Janeway . . . ambitious . . . elegant.” —Joseph Salvatore, New York Times Book Review
“Kehlmann’s prose is sophisticated and often dense, his musings on religion, art and life are intellectually rigorous, and his plotting masterful in the linking of the story’s separate narratives with overlaps that, when revealed, surprise and shock the reader. . . . Kehlmann’s rendering of life’s mysteries. . . allow the reader a window to another world. . . as if looking (and listening) through clear, highly polished glass).”—NPR, All Things Considered
“F is Daniel Kehlmann’s most technically accomplished novel yet.” —Anthony Cummins, The New Statesman
“A comic tour de force, a biting satire on the hypnotised world of artificial wants and needs that Huxley predicted, a moving study of brotherhood and family failure, F is an astonishing book, a work of deeply satisfying (and never merely clever) complexity that reveals yet another side of a prolifically inventive writer who never does the same thing twice. That one of its central motifs is the Rubik’s Cube is highly apt. . . . Yet F is also much more than an intricate puzzle: it is a novel of astonishing beauty, psychological insight and, finally, compassion, a book that, in a world of fakes and manufactured objects of desire, is the real article, a bona-fide, inimitable masterpiece.”—The Times Literary Supplement
“Each son’s tale reads like a satisfying novella, and the three eventually dovetail in a way that surprises without feeling overdetermined. . . . [Kehlmann] shows off many talents in F. He’s adept at aphorism, brainy humor and dreamlike sequences. And he keeps the pages lightly turning while musing deeply. . .’”—The New York Times
“[A] lollapalooza of a family comedy, diabolically intricate in its layering of concurrent narratives and dryly hilarious at every mazelike turn. . . . F is splashed with vivacious, hilarious characters and incidents that, with distance and time, transmogrify into something quite sinister indeed.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“The hallmarks of [Kehlmann’s] style are speed, wit and a nuanced appreciation of the absurd. He often writes about geniuses and fools and the thin line between them. He’s a specialist in the kind of irony that tells us more about a character, and ourselves, than sincerity ever could.”—Guernicamag.com
“A testament to the fact that conceptual novels need not be devoid of people and that family novels need not be devoid of ideas and that some darkly funny, smart absurdity is always a good idea. Well worth a read.” —Flavorwire.com
“F gets an A.” —Harold Brubaker, Philadelphia Inquirer
“A tightly constructed exploration of filial tension and adult struggle. . . . a novel about ordinary people’s self-discoveries. . . as Kehlmann’s characters lay bare their troubled souls, we get a view that is comic and affecting”—Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Kehlmann is a writer of great craft and imagination.” —Adam Lively, The Sunday Times
“With the wizardry of a puzzle master Daniel Kehlmann permutes the narrative pieces of this Rubik's Cube of a story—involving a lost father and his three sons—into a solution that clicks into position with a deep thrill of narrative and emotional satisfaction. Kehlmann is one of the brightest, most pleasure-giving writers at work today, and he manages all this while exploring matters of deep philosophical and intellectual import. He deserves to have more readers in the United States.” —Jeffrey Eugenides
“F is an intricate, beautiful novel in multiple disguises: a family saga, a fable, and a high-speed farce. But then, what else would you expect? Daniel Kehlmann is one of the great novelists for making giant themes seem light.” —Adam Thirlwell
About the Author
Daniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975 and lives in Berlin and New York. His works have won the Candide Prize, the Doderer Prize, the Kleist Prize, the Welt Literature Prize, and the Thomas Mann Prize. Measuring the World was translated into more than forty languages and is one of the greatest successes in postwar German literature.
Top customer reviews
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For example, from the Guardian's review:
"These people include his lover Heinrich Eulenboeck, an artist with a true calling but only mediocre ability. What kind of world is it that plays such a trick on a person? “How do you live with that, why do you keep on going?” The answer seems to be love."
Ivan talks about several failed love affairs but I never caught that Eulenboeck was one of them. And love? Where'd that come from?
The closest to my interpretation was from NPR:
"(A)ll three brothers are fraudsters of one kind or another, and through them, Kehlmann, with dry wit, philosophical wonderings and relentless pessimism, examines the detail of lives lived without integrity."
Fraudsters, yes, but in a way that indicts all of society.
The key, for me, is the hypnotist who re-appears throughout the book, first as the famed entertainer, then a failed entertainer and finally as a seer who cannot see (i.e., he's physically blind.) In the first chapter, Ivan is called on stage to be hypnotized. He believes he isn't but he goes along with the hypnotist's commands because he doesn't to want to disappoint the audience. Later, the hypnotist explains that hypnotism isn't about mind control:
"Hypnosis, he said, did not involve a single phenomenon but a cluster: the readiness to submit to an authority, a common vulnerability, a general openness to suggestion. Only occasionally were more mysterious operations of the conscious mind involved,"
Each of the sons exploits that "vulnerability" to live their hallow lives. Only Ivan at the end does one authentic act and is killed for it. Not only killed but his body is never discovered, erasing his true self from even posthumous existence.
Then you have the coda about Mary, the daughter of one of the brothers. We meet her climbing trees she's forbidden to climb yet convincing her distracted mother that she doesn't -- continuing the family's pattern of fraudulent self-presentation. One last scene has her approaching one of her uncle's paintings, getting so close that the image dissolves to where even the white of the canvas comes through. This could be about just the artifice of art, but I suspect we're intended to see the artifice of society in the image.
The writing (in translation) is dense but enjoyable. The book is humorous but not in a laugh-out-loud comedy sort of way. The philosophical digressions about religion, business and art are interesting although I suspect the author is more aware of the art world than the other two. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys thought-provoking fiction.
I liked two of the narrators (the priest and the artist), but was put off by the crazy narrator. Digging through his insanity quickly becomes drudgery and not at all interesting. The child narrator has some fine technique: Kehlmann somehow manages to make the child both innocent (as a comment on the adults) but simultaneously limited and lacking (naturally) a more comprehensive world view.
Character motivation seemed forced to me, particularly the actions of Ivan (the painter) that lead to his death.
The satire and irony of the stories can be fun, but not engaging.