Nothing is Real – F by Daniel Kehlmann

FDaniel Kehlmann first impinged on my consciousness thanks to the consistently brilliant reviews of ‘Measuring the World.’ On the back of that acclaim I read and loved his tale of discovery, reputation and ultimately, reality. Fame, a series of interconnected short stories, was a little less coherent, though still enjoyable. His latest novel ‘F’ will no doubt polarise readers, but I think it’s another excellent work of fiction. All three are linked by the themes of faith, reality and existence.

F has a deceptive lightness to it. The words are very easy to read, almost fluffy. It took me a while to realise that between the lines something significant was going on. The story is about three brothers; Ivan and Eric, twins, and their half-brother, Martin. Their father, a failed writer and general shirker, abandoned them suddenly one day after taking them all to see a stage hypnotist.

The novel then reopens many years later. Their missing father is still absent from their lives but looms large as the author of worldwide bestselling self-help books; books that centre around the idea of self and existence. (One book is called My Name is No One) The brothers meanwhile have become a priest, a stockbroker and an art-dealer. All are pedlars of promises whose livelihoods and reasons for getting up in the morning rely on faith. Faith in God, faith in the money markets and belief in art experts’ suppositions about quality. All three rely on faith, and for all three their faith is suspect. These are three lives built on lies.

‘F’ is arch in tone. Other reviews suggest it is trying to be too clever, though there is disagreement whether this is by design or accident. Personally, I don’t really agree with either camp. I think this is an elegant work of fiction that poses interesting questions about the things we take for granted in life. Art and business, two things that are almost polar opposites, but Kehlmann shows, with a small amount of sleight of hand, they are rooted in similar faiths. He also demonstrates that whilst blind faith in God is pilloried by many sections of modern society, we are, when it suits, happy to believe in things equally uncertain.

The most interesting aspect of the book was the examination of Martin and his faith, or lack thereof, in God. As a non believing, non Catholic husband to a Catholic wife, raising Catholic children, I found it fascinating. An intriguing poke behind the scenes, in an irreverent yet respectful way. Kehlmann poses (and offers answers to) many questions I have thought to myself but never dared to ask anybody in the church, lest I offend them. There is a wonderful rationalisation of the Eucharist that is worth the entry fee alone.

The whole novel has something of a nihilistic outlook on life. The central tenet, that the bulk of life rests on lies, is merely the start. In a rather fragmented section of the book, Kehlmann traces one of his character’s ancestors back over multiple generations. This device explores the idea how quickly we are forgotten. I could tell you very little about my grandparents, and nothing at all, beyond their names, about my great-grandparents. Anybody who has spent any time tracing their family tree will know how quickly families, our flesh and blood and the reason for our existence, are lost in the mists of time. We know facts about them, but nothing about their personalities. The idea that our struggles, our hopes, fears and dreams, our successes and our failures,will be forgotten by our children’s children is a rather depressing one. In essence Kehlmann seems to be saying our existence is meaningless.

Except of course it isn’t. Perhaps from the perspective of a universal observer, existence is futile, but in the heat of battle with this thing called life, our presence is anything but meaningless. We make connections with one another all the time. Small differences, often unrecognised, always ultimately forgotten, but significant in myriad ways. If F tells is anything, it’s that life might feel meaningless and whatever we believe in may be based in lies, but we are here, we are alive and we all put our faith in something. How you do that is entirely up to you.

Overall, I thought F was a fascinating read. I don’t think the arch style will suit everybody, and neither will its ‘nothing is real’ core, but as contemporary authors go, Kehlmann is as fresh and invigorating as anybody. Highly recommended.

Many thanks to the team at Quercus and Tory Lyne Pirkis for sending me a copy of this book. 

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