Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann trans Carol Brown Janeway

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Sebastian Zollner : is there a more unappealing narrator in the whole of literature? If there is, I haven’t been able to think who it is.

We first meet Kehlmann’s narrator and protagonist on a train journey and even though we don’t discover his name until p19 , his character becomes apparent pretty quickly. He is vain, rude, self-regarding and unkind ….  and this is a non exhaustive list. We also get a hint that he is physically unattractive as well following is aggressive confrontation with the train conductor.

But surely, I said, it’s the very least one can expect from a conductor. He wasn’t a conductor , he said, he was a train escort. I said I really didn’t care. He asked me what I meant. I said I really didn’t care what the job was called, it was superfluous anyway.He said he wasn’t going to let himself be insulted by me, I should watch out,he might just bust me in the chops.He could try, I said, I was going to file a complaint in any case, and I wanted his name. He wasn’t going to do any such thing, he said, and what’s more I stank and I was getting a bald spot. Then he turned and went away cursing.

I shut the door to the toilet and took a worried look in the mirror. Of course there was no bald spot; where on earth did that ape get an idea like that?

Zollner has been commissioned to write a biography of a once famous painter, Manuel Kaminski, or has he ? Nothing is quite what it seems in this supremely comic novel.

Kaminski was a protegé of Matisse, well sort of. After leaving Matisse, Kaminski returned to Paris and held a large exhibition of his work, that flopped. Kaminski was then struck blind and overnight his paintings became collectable and their value skyrocketed before he fell  back into obscurity.

Kehlmann has much fun with the pretensions of the worlds of art collection and criticism.

“Then Chromatic Light, the Walker, the street scenes. At first sight, fabulous. But not exactly subtle, thematically speaking.And let’s be honest if people didn’t know about him going blind…..” He shrugged.” You’ve seen the pictures themselves?”

I hesitated. I had thought about flying to New York, but it was quite expensive and beside – what were art books for? “Of course.”

Zollner foists himself on Kaminski ,now living a reclusive life in the care of his daughter. Oblivious to any hostility , Zollner then proceeds to sneak around Kaminski’s residence, studio and life before letting slip that Therese, the love of Kaminski’s life, is not dead as he believed her to be. Together Zollner and Kaminski embark on a fugitive road trip to allow Manuel to see her one last time before he dies.

Sebastian’s lack of self-knowledge is the mirror through which the world is reflected in the novel. What is the true value of art or love, what is the significance of memory are just some of the questions Kehlmann plays with here.

The words German and comic novel are, perhaps, not often juxtaposed but this is a very funny book cleverly constructed  and Zollner is an inspired creation.

This is my second and final review for German Lit Month. As usual, I had planned to read and blog more but real life got in the way. I have managed to track down a second hand copy of the Short Stories of Heinrich Böll, whose work I loved when I was studying German, and a read of Büddenbrooks is long overdue for me but hess are projects that will have to wait until 2015. I am definitely going to read some more Kehlmann as well.

 

10 thoughts on “Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann trans Carol Brown Janeway

  1. I liked this book a great deal, much better than the more famous Die Vermessung der Welt. I thought it was poignant. I’m glad you reviewed this and not a newer one. It’s not known well enough.

    • Yes it IS very poignant ….i actually got to like Zollner despite his faults….and the ending hints that you cant keep a bad man down ! Def want to read Measuring The World and im very sad i can no longer read in German !

  2. Oh, this sounds great, Helen! Kehlmann’s name keeps coming up so I’ll have to check him out at some point. There was an interview with him in the Guardian the other week. I don’t know if you saw it?

    • It was great . I did read that interview. The book was recommended by a German friend who was getting tired of all the Ostalgie around the fall of the wall. Very glad she pointed me in the direction of Kehlmann….will def be reading more!

  3. His name keeps popping up with GLM4. I’m definitely going to read something by him and this one sounds really good – I like nasty characters/narrators.

  4. This is not one that I know. I’ve enjoyed German Lit Month. I have one more book to review, which I should have posted tomorrow, but I’ve still got a few titles that I want to get to before the end of the year, so German Lit Month may end up being six weeks long for me.

    • Will look out for your posts. I really enjoyed German Lit Month too even if i didnt get through quite as much as I’d hoped. Kehlmann was a real discovery for me and will definitely read more .

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