Daniel Kehlmann
translated by Carol Brown Janeway
Pantheon ($21.95)

by Eric Iannelli

When Daniel Kehlmann—one of the few authors of the past decade for whom the label Wunderkind is apposite—was recently asked by the fawning host of the German literary discussion program Literaur im Foyer to single out his favorite compliment of all those he’s received, he said it came from an American friend who had once spoken with the late John Updike. As this friend was praising Kehlmann’s breakthrough work Measuring the World to Updike, the veteran author said it would be difficult for the young newcomer to meet readers’ and critics’ expectations when it came time to write his second novel. Kehlmann’s friend informed Updike that this was actually his sixth book, not his second. Updike paused and then replied, “He’s safe.”

Me and Kaminski (Ich und Kaminksi, 2003), Kehlmann’s fourth novel, dates from a time before Kehlmann was “safe” in his success from Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt, 2005). It is recounted by the arrogant, self-serving art journalist Sebastian Zollner, who has been tasked with writing a biography of Manuel Kaminski, erstwhile protégé of the fictional Richard Rieming. Kaminski, once advanced by Picasso and Matisse, is now an aging, effete curmudgeon with a reputation as faded as his eyesight.

The title of the book alone is revealing: “me” precedes “Kaminski” because Zollner coldly views Kaminski as little more than a vehicle for his own career; deference, whether a matter of grammar or a polite formality, would simply never occur to him. One oft-cited passage in particular is indicative of Zollner’s character, not to mention the plot and Kehlmann’s prose style:

My book should not come out before [Kaminski’s] death and not too long afterward either, for a short time it would be at the center of all attention. I’d be invited to go on TV, I would talk about him and at the bottom of the screen it would show my name and biographer of Kaminski. This would get me a job with one of the big art magazines.

What Zollner lacks in likability—and his lack here is indeed profound—he makes up for in honesty. He pulls no punches about his self-interested scheming or the high esteem in which he holds himself. (Given room enough for exposition, one could also argue that this is little more than a brittle front for his own sense of fraudulence.) These qualities manifest themselves again and again in pivotal episodes such as when Zollner decides to shanghai Kaminski and parade him around a minor art exhibition: “The evening had been a real success, they’d all seen me with Kaminski, everything had gone well.” Yet this crude honesty seems at times gratuitous, nudging Zollner in the direction of caricature.

The heavy-handedness in Kehlmann’s portrayal of Zollner is in fact a larger failing of Me and Kaminski,with its ancillary satire of the schmoozing and pretentiousness of the art scene, and the bromidic parable that emerges once Zollner takes to the road with Kaminski in search of the latter’s long-lost (and, to the artist’s ambivalent surprise, still living) love. Kehlmann could have applied to his own work the lesson that he has allowed Kaminski to learn over his career—namely, easing up on the force of his own brushstrokes and the overt symbolism that strips the ending of some of its poignancy.

While not as nimble a feat as Measuring the World, the novel that sparked this sudden interest in Kehlmann’s back catalogue, or as ambitious as Kehlmann’s latest, Ruhm (Fame, 2009), Me and Kaminskiis nevertheless a fun, engrossing, worthwhile read. Its appeal is rooted in the author’s assured storytelling and generally deft characterization, particularly with regard to Kaminski himself, as well as incidental figures such as Miriam Kaminski, the artist’s stalwart daughter, and the looming presence of Hans Bahring, Zollner’s arch-rival.

For the English translation, Carol Brown Janeway, whose best-known work is perhaps Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader, takes small liberties, occasionally combining Kehlmann’s shorter, more staccato sentences; more oddly, she has stripped the text of umlauts (Zollner should ideally be Zöllner) and prettified the few English exchanges in the original to sound more natural, which seems to misrepresent Zollner’s inordinate confidence in his own dubious abilities. Kehlmann’s indubitable abilities as an author, on the other hand, are manifest in Janeway’s unobtrusive translation.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2009 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2009