FAME: A NOVEL IN NINE EPISODES
By Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon Books, $24 175 pages
At age 35, Daniel Kehlmann is already well-established as a successful novelist with an international fol-
lowing. When “Measuring the World,” his first big book, appeared in 2007, British critic Daniel Johnson went happily out on a limb: “Daniel Kehlmann has it in him to be the great German novelist that the world had given up waiting for.” Three novels later - “Me and Kaminski,” “Ruhm” (not yet translated from German) and now “Fame” - that prediction appears to have been a safe bet.
Why such praise for “Measuring the World”? Well, in its first 10 months, it sold 660,000 copies, and in so doing climbed past J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown on best-seller lists. Not bad for a 31-year-old author whose “fantasy had been sales of 40,000, maybe 50,000.”
The many international prizes Mr. Kehlmann has won are not the result of just the books noted above. The prolific author has written five others: three novels, a collection of short stories and one volume of essays. But “Measuring the World,” “Me and Kaminsky” and “Fame” are the only ones that have been translated into English (all by the very able Carol Brown Janeway).
Having reviewed “Me and Kaminsky” for this newspaper in 2009, I can attest to the book’s arresting power. When one thinks of German novelists, Gunter Grass and Thomas Mann come to mind - but not if one thinks of German novelists who use humor. Nor does one think of magical realism, that favorite of Latin American writers also embraced by Daniel Kehlmann.
“I wanted to write a Latin American novel,” he told one interviewer. “But I’m not from Latin America. I can’t write like Marquez, who has a beautiful woman putting the washing on the line and suddenly being caught up by the wind and flying away. But I could have the Latin American atmosphere and playfulness and absurdity and anything could happen. I’ve written a Latin American novel about Germans and German classicism.”
His reference was to “Measuring the World,” whose story involves two famous German scientists - the Enlightenment figures Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss - who set out to measure the world and frivolity ensues.
“Fame” is different, built with nine stories. Each centers on a different figure, but some of them are reference points in the other eight tales. Several of the characters have fame but don’t really want it, while others want but can’t get it. It’s all very much like life, but the fun, if that’s the right word (for “Fame” is darker than “Measuring the World” or “Me and Kaminsky”) often turns into something quite different.
In “Voices,” a man who gets a cell phone only because his wife and children insist, receives calls, increasingly angry calls, for someone else, from several people. When he complains to the phone company, he’s told that’s impossible. So he starts answering the calls. Nothing good comes of it.
However, my favorite story in the book is “Replying to the Abbess.” It introduces Miguel Aristos Blanco (an acknowledged dig at Paulo Coehlo), the world-famous, enormously successful and therefore very rich author of self-help books. But though his books truly save peoples’ lives, Miguel is having trouble saving his own. But what would happen if he were to commit suicide?
“He had a vision of the Church congresses and their tables of books from which his would be banished, he had a vision of bookshops with holes in their shelves, he had a vision of shocked priests and blanching housewives, bewildered doctors’ wives and all the middle-ranking employees on five continents, to whom there would be no one left to say that their suffering had meaning.”
In another tale, a world-weary actor is so tired of being famous that he’s happy when delirious fans mistake one of his many “imitators” for the real thing. And then so does one of the imitators, and it takes. The real actor finds himself locked out, not just of his home, but of his life. Be careful what you wish for.
There’s more than enough realism to demystify the magic. In “The East,” a not-so-famous writer agrees to be a last-minute substitute for a more famous literary colleague on a jaunt to a still-backward Eastern European country, and when she gets there and gets lost, they have only his name on the official documents, not hers. It’s a scary tale.
Less scary but no less effective is “A Contribution to the Debate,” in which a young man who lives on - no, lives for being on - social media goes almost insane when denied access for an extended time. Soon his fixation becomes an obsession, and he comes to believe that if the famous writer he chances to meet would only put him in a story then he would find his only true reality. Through subtle and understated irony, Mr. Kehlmann makes a few of these people so believable that they could easily wander off into Stephen King land.
Asked in a recent interview whether his new book is a reaction to his own celebrity, Mr. Kehlmann said he thought not: “Yet the question of fame, of celebrity, and what it does to people, how it distorts their self-image, is a question that has always interested me. I don’t think that the questions of fame which most interest me in a literary way have anything to do with the kind of huge and surreal fame that can come to an actor or to a sports person. This kind of fame does not come to a writer, thank God.”
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.