Novelists tend to be unusually interested in causation: in the grand happenings, the apparent accidents, the seeming trifles, the particularities of character that can determine both the course of a human life and the shape of an individual personality. In some ways this interest is understandable: the act of making fiction – of trying to impose shape, pattern and meaning on the world – invites such questions, and it is these questions that we find at the heart of F, Daniel Kehlmann’s seventh novel.
When the book opens in 1984, the Friedlands – Arthur, his twin sons, Eric and Ivan, and Martin (Arthur’s son from another relationship) – are embarking on a family outing to see a great hypnotist named Lindemann. In the course of Lindemann’s show, Arthur, sceptical about the idea of hypnosis, is more or less bullied into taking to the stage, and subsequently reasoned, cajoled and coaxed into freeing himself from the inhibitions that have prevented him becoming a great writer. That evening, Arthur disappears, taking his passport and all of the family’s money with him. Shortly after midnight he sends his wife a telegram telling them that ‘they shouldn’t wait for him, he wouldn’t be coming back for a long time’. And so it proves: ‘none of his sons set eyes on him again until they were grown up.’
In the next couple of decades, Arthur establishes himself as an eminent writer. The chief source of his fame is a novella, My Name is No One, which features a protagonist named ‘F’ and makes the case that our existence is an illusion. It proves so popular that it sparks a wave of suicides (‘Between the two corpses lay a copy of Arthur’s book’).
When we rejoin the story, we do so by way of four elegant and intricately intertwined first-person narratives, each told from the perspective of a different family member. Martin, now a faithless priest, is grossly overweight, has a passion for the Rubik’s cube, spends much of his time thinking about food, and wonders what it means to live in a fatherless world (‘Galaxies expanding unbearably whirled in black nothingness, shot through with radiance, as space itself slowly dissolved into cold’). Eric is a heavily medicated financier who has managed to lose all of his money and do his clients out of millions, and is unfaithful to his wife. Ivan is an artist who can only paint when he does so under the name of another and whose career has forgery at its centre.
Each brother, then, is contending with a form of fraudulence, is wrestling with faith (Martin), with family and finance (Eric), and forgery (Ivan). And Arthur, who is afforded only a short first-person narrative, wonders about the nature of his identity by ruminating on his fathers, grandfathers, great-grandfathers and so on, all the way back to the remotest generation. These are individuals in search of meaning, asking what it means to live an authentic life; whether it is possible to choose our natures and our destinies; whether we exist at the mercy of fate (another f).
Kehlmann writes around these questions with insight and subtlety, and he is adept at building his thematic concerns into the texture of his prose (words such as ‘destiny’, ‘knowledge’, ‘belief’, ‘will’, ‘faith’ appear repeatedly) without making the reader feel manipulated or patronised. He is able to achieve this effect by affording primacy to language and character. Martin, Eric, Ivan and Arthur all sound entirely individual: they are rendered in prose that is particular to them. Martin is adjectival and reflective; Eric is fraught and spare; Ivan is perceptive and lyrical. Here he is in the street, during a threatening moment towards the end of the novel: ‘Two cars drive past, then one, then another two – at precise intervals, like Morse code.’ The strength of this simile comes not just from its precision but also from the fact that it is thematically apposite, both to the character in question and to the novel as a whole. To see passing cars in the form of Morse code is to see, perhaps to long for, a message that is not there and will never be there.
It is this sense of a world potent with significance that seems at once within our reach and beyond our grasp that forms the central concern of this most accomplished, humane and unsettling of novels – a work that registers what it is to feel so alive to ‘the terrible beauty of things’ as to feel the world is talking to us, and to face the related and still more painful truth that, though we feel we might know its language, ‘we understand not one word’.