F is for family. F is for fortune. F is for fraud. F is for fate.
From the internationally acclaimed author of Measuring the World, here is a dazzling tragicomedy about three brothers whose father takes on the occult and both wins and loses.
Arthur is a dilettante, a wannabe writer who decides to fill an afternoon by taking his three young sons to a performance by the Great Lindemann, Master of Hypnosis. While allowing one of them to be called onto the stage and made a spectacle of, Arthur declares himself to be immune to hypnosis and a disbeliever in all magic. But the Great Lindemann knows better. He gets Arthur to tell him his deepest secrets and then tells him to make them real. That night, Arthur empties the family bank account, takes his passport, and vanishes. He’s going to become a world-famous author, a master of the mystical. (F is for fake.)
But what of the boys? Martin, painfully shy, grows up to be a Catholic priest without a vocation. (F is for faith, and lack of it.) Eric becomes a financier (F is for fraud), losing touch with reality as he faces ruin, while Ivan, destined for glory as a painter, instead becomes a forger. (F is for forgery, too.) They’ve settled into their life choices, but when the summer of the global financial crisis dawns they’re thrown together again with cataclysmic results.
Wildly funny, heartbreaking, tragic, Daniel Kehlmann’s novel about truth, family, and the terrible power of fortune is a fictional triumph.
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||6.30(w) x 7.60(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
I’ve already been hearing the sobbing for some time. At first it was a sound in my dream, but now the dream is over and the sobbing is coming from the woman next to me. Eyes closed, I know that the voice is Laura’s, or, rather, that suddenly it’s been hers all along. She’s crying so hard that the mattress is shaking. I lie there motionless. How long can I pretend I’m asleep? I would love to give up and sink back into unconsciousness, but I can’t. The day has begun. I open my eyes.
The morning sun pushes through the slats of the blind and draws fine lines in both carpet and wall. The pattern on the carpet is symmetrical, but if you look at it for a long time, it captures your attention, gripping it until you can’t shake free. Laura is lying next to me in perfect peace, breathing silently, sound asleep. I push back the blanket and get up.
As I’m groping my way down the hall, the memory of the dream returns. No doubt about it, it was my grandmother. She looked tired, worn out, and somehow not complete, as if only a portion of her soul had managed to force its way through to me. She stood in front of me, bent over, leaning on a walking stick, with two ballpoint pens sticking out of her bun. She opened and closed her mouth and made signs with her hands; she was determined to tell me something. She looked unutterably weary, lips pursed, eyes pleading, until in the next moment some change in the dream washed her away and I was somewhere else, surrounded by other things. I will never know what she wanted to tell me.
I shave, get into the shower, and turn on the hot tap. The water is warm, then hot, then very hot, which is how I like it. I tip my head back and let the water beat down on me, listen to the noise, feel the pain, and forget absolutely everything for a moment.
It doesn’t last long. Already the memory comes crashing back like a wave. Perhaps I can hold out for another couple of months, maybe even three, but not longer.
I turn off the water, get out of the shower, and push my face into the terrycloth of the bath towel. As always, my memory reacts to the smell, calling up images: Mama taking me to bed wrapped in a towel, Papa’s tall figure outlined by the ceiling light, his tousled hair in silhouette, Ivan already asleep in the other bed, our sandbox where I always knocked over the towers he built, a meadow, a worm he found that I split in half, and he cried and cried. Or was it the other way around? I put on my bathrobe. Now I need my medication.
In my study everything is normal. This calms me. The desk with its big screen, the Paul Klee on one wall and the Eulenboeck on the other, the empty files. I have never worked here. Even the drawers are empty and not one of the reference books has ever been opened. But when I sit here and pretend to be lost in thought, no one comes in, and that counts for something in and of itself.
Two Thropren, a Torbit, a Prevoxal, and a Valium—I can’t begin the day with too much, because I have to be able to up the dose if something unforeseen occurs. I swallow them all in one gulp; it’s unpleasant and I have to use all my willpower to conquer the gag reflex. Why I always take them without water, I have no idea.
Already I can feel them working. It’s probably my imagination, nothing could work that fast, but is that important? Indifference settles over me like cotton wool. Life goes on. One day you’ll lose it all, the name Eric Friedland will be abhorred, those who still trust you will curse you, your family will fall apart, and they’ll lock you up. But not today.
I’ll never be able to tell anyone how much I hate this Paul Klee. Lopsided diamonds, red on a black background, and next to them a windblown, truly pitiful little matchstick man. Even I could have painted it. I know I’m not supposed to even think such a sentence, it is utterly forbidden, but I can’t help it, even I could have painted it, it would have taken me less than five minutes! Instead of which I paid seven hundred and fifty thousand euros for it, but a man in my position must possess a very expensive painting: Janke has a Kandinsky, Nettleback of BMW has a Monet—maybe it’s a Manet, what do I know?—and old Rebke, my golf partner, has a Richard Serra on the lawn, huge, rusty, and always in the way at garden parties. So I asked Ivan two years ago to get me a picture too, it just had to be something that was a sure thing.
He immediately pretended he didn’t understand me. He likes doing that—it amuses him. What did I mean, “sure thing”?
“Sure thing,” I said, “means that it impresses everyone. That no expert has something against the artist. Like with Picasso. Or Leonardo. One of those guys.”
He laughed at me. He likes doing that too. Picasso? There were hundreds of experts who didn’t take Picasso seriously, and if you chose one of his wrong periods, you’d be criticized willy-nilly. Almost no one had a good word to say about his late work, for example! But Paul Klee, you could get one of his, no one had anything against Paul Klee.
“No Leonardos on the market. Take Klee.”
Then he attended the auction for me. At half a million he called me to ask if he should keep bidding. I would like to have yelled at him. But what if he thought I couldn’t even afford a matchstick man? For a while it hung in the salon, then Laura suddenly didn’t like it anymore. So since then it’s been hanging over my desk, staring at me in a pushy way and doing damage in my dreams. I can’t sell it, too many people have seen it in the salon where I have of course pointed it out to them, look at my Klee, what do you think of my Klee, yes of course it’s genuine! As soon as the investigators start work, one of their first questions will be where the Klee is. Art is a trap, nothing more, cleverly dreamed up by people like my brother!
Still in my bathrobe I go along the hall and down the stairs to the media room. There’s a screen and a video beamer. The black cubes of the speakers are powerful enough to service a football stadium. A soft leather couch sits in front of it.
The remote is lying on the table. Without thinking about it I sit down, reach for it, and press a couple of buttons. The screen hums into life: the early-morning TV programming—a nature film. A dragonfly lands on a stalk. Its legs are no bigger than a hair, its wings tremble, and its antennae touch the rough green. Interesting, but it reminds me about the camera.
There’s one hidden in one of the appliances. It would be strange if there weren’t one, because they’re so easy to conceal, I would never find it among all the lenses. I push another button, the meadow disappears, to be replaced by some undersecretary standing behind a lectern and talking so fast that you’d think everything must hang on his finishing as fast as possible.
“No,” I say. “No, no, no, no. No!”
Luckily that helps. He slows down.
But unfortunately he’s noticed me. Without stopping talking, he casts a swift glance in my direction. He did it very unobtrusively, but it didn’t escape me.
I hold my breath. I must not make a wrong move now. Without question it’s crazy, I know it, the broadcast with the undersecretary is a recording, nobody gives press conferences this early in the morning.
But I also know that he looked at me.
“Totally calm. Always keep calm.”
With cold terror I realize that I said it out loud. I can’t make this kind of mistake. And the undersecretary, whose name I suddenly recall—he’s called Obermann, Bernd Richard Obermann, and he’s responsible for power or education or something—heard it, for a mocking smile appears for a moment on his face. I don’t let anything show; I don’t lose my cool so easily. Keep calm, I say to myself again, but this time silently and without moving my lips, behave as if everything’s fine! Somehow I have to manage to look away from the screen. I concentrate on the edge of my field of vision, and then somewhat blurrily I see something on the carpet, a disturbance in the symmetry: a red wine stain. Damn it, this carpet cost thirty-five thousand euros!
My fury helps me to look away from the screen. Out of the corner of my eye I register that Undersecretary Obermann has disappeared. Some harmless man is now talking into the microphone and has no interest in me. Quickly I lift the remote, the picture flames up for a moment and is gone.
A Conversation with Daniel Kehlmann, Author of F: A Novel
Magic (particularly hypnosis) plays a major role in F. Do you have a personal interest in and/or knowledge of magic?
Yes, I was actually a magician for a while when I was about twenty years old. I was serious about it, and for a few weeks (maybe even longer) I thought about turning it into a profession. Then I wrote a novel about a magician instead ("Beerholms Vorstellung", not published in English), and strangely - after that I had lost my interest in doing magic myself. In some weird way I got rid of the whole obsession by writing about it. Sometimes I feel sad about that.
Your three protagonists are brothers, all with very different paths (one is a priest, another is a business man, and the third is an artist), and their relationships with each other, and their estranged father, is of great importance in this book. How did you come up with these characters whose only link (it seems) is their blood? What does the notion of family really mean?
The notion of family means whatever we, as a society and as individuals, decide it should mean. It's a fiction, and like many fictional things it can be of tremendous importance to our lives. About the characters: I really wanted to write a character-driven novel. That was a new thing for me, I had never tried that before, so it took me several false starts and detours to find out who the three brothers really were, what professions and milieus they were in and what each one's particular problems were. And I also wanted to write about the phenomenon of twins. I was always fascinated by that: My twins have a lot of telepathic communication going on between them, they share thoughts, ideas, even dreams, but often they don't find out about it. Only the reader will know.
In F, you describe a few of the same scenes through different points of view. How did you decide which scenes to repeat via multiple perspectives?
That was a lot of fun! Isn't it amazing how in life the same conversation can mean completely different things to the two people who are parts of it, how many wrong notions of each other and misunderstandings are just a normal part of everyday conversations? I felt that this is something you can really do in a novel (and not on TV, for example) - coming back to the same situation and describing it through the eyes of a different person, giving the reader that other person's thoughts and fears and ideas. The most important scene in regard to this is a lunch Martin, the priest, has with his brother Eric. Martin analyzes a lot, he thinks he has a very clear picture of his brother and his thoughts and preoccupations. And then, much later, we go back to that scene, and it turns out everything Martin assumed was wrong - and Eric is just plain mad.There is an interesting section in the middle of the book that leaves the present and throws the reader into an extreme time warp by tracing the brothers' family back through many generations. How did you get the idea to do this?
It started out as a parody of the information overkill you get from traditional family novels. They always tell you loads of things about uncles and aunts and parents and grandparents, and often you are really not that interested and just want to get back to the main story. So I decided to write a chapter of meaningless information about the family going back to the middle ages. It was all supposed to be very experimental. But then it developed into a completely different direction: It became very serious and quite bleak. If you sum up people's lives in short paragraphs like that every single one of them turns into a story of disaster, suffering, sickness and death. It's really terrible. But it's also still funny, in a rather dark way. So I decided to go ahead, and then I handed the chapter over to one of my characters, the writer Arthur Friedland. Now it's his story, not mine any more. Well, it's still mine, I guess.What are some major authors (living or deceased) whose work you channel in your writing?
I was, I am and I always will be very much influenced by Vladimir Nabokov - but then who isn't? For F I was also quite influenced by Roberto Bolano - the openness of his novels, the daring ability to not turn them into something round and clear and conventional. I think without Bolano "F" would have turned out quite a different book. I am also very much influenced by Voltaire. His style was quite important for the style of Measuring the World, and I think F still bears the marks of his dark funniness.
What's next for you?
I am writing a new play and a new novel. I think the play will be finished earlier. But the most important thing is the novel.
Who have you discovered lately?
The wonderful, funny and brilliant Geoff Dyer. I loved Out of Sheer Rage. It's one of the best books about the writer's life ever written. Right now I'm reading his new book Another Great Day at Sea, and I am enjoying it a lot. He is very funny in a slapstick kind of way, but at the same time he is such a brilliant stylist, that even when he makes fun of himself he does it in such a beautiful way that it can take your breath away. The book is about an aircraft carrier, and I am absolutely not interested in aircraft carriers, and I don't think he is really interested. It's just a perfect exercise in beauty, wit and perfect style. How can you not love that.
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