Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Reading Daniel Kehlmann

Daniel Kehlmann (born in 1975) is the star of German literature. His historical novel Die Vermessung der Welt (published in the US by Vintage as Measuring the World) sold more than 1.4 million copies in Germany alone.
The English newspaper The Guardian wrote in an article about Kehlmann: "For decades German fiction has enjoyed the reputation of being serious, worthy and a bit dull." This is a bit of an exaggeration; there are even within the last few decades quite a few German authors who have not been very serious, and sometimes not even dull.
Besides this, is being serious really a crime in literature? Whether serious or not, Kehlmann is hailed as the new ambassador of German literature.
In a review on Measuring the World Tom LeClair wrote in The New York Times Book Review that Kehlman "can measure the woes of failing bodies and flailing minds, no small achievement for a man of 31."
His novel Me and Kaminski (also published in the US), about a petty journalist who hopes to become the biographer of the painter Kaminski, is a better novel than Measuring the World but not too many critics noticed this. The reviewer ought to be an agent of justice but sometimes he has a day off.
And despite The Guardian's claim that Kehlmann brings light into the seriousness of Germany literature one immediately notices that Kehlmann is serious, but in a Nabokovian sense of the word.
In an essay Kehlmann quotes Goethe, who said about Faust II that it was a "very serious joke." For Kehlmann, this is what literature is and should be and it is hard to argue with his way of thinking. Unless you believe that a joke can never be serious. Which is a respectable worldview among fanatics, but I doubt it if literature should be happy with such a philosophy.
Last week I interviewed Daniel Kehlmann in a theater in Amsterdam. We spoke about his new novel, Ruhm (Fame). The book is more about the necessity of lying and its consequences than it is about fame. It is a very entertaining and funny novel, and I hope it will be published in the US soon.
Kehlmann remarked: "I got attacked because I made fun of some of my characters, but isn't a novelist entitled to make fun of some is characters? After all, he created them."
After a few seconds of silence he added: "According to Schopenhauer, pity is the highest virtue."
I said: "Perhaps not for a novelist."
Kehlmann thought about this and then he said: "No not for a novelist."
There is a distinction between empathy and pity, but a novelist with too much pity is in the wrong business.