A novel’s opener doesn’t need to be explosive to be termed memorable. Some writers, such as Munich-born Daniel Kehlmann, pack just as powerful a punch with a small-scale event whose impact we know will have slow-burning but far-reaching repercussions. Kehlmann’s latest novel, the cryptically titled “F,” begins low-key: One day in 1984, failed novelist Arthur Friedland takes his three sons to see the Great Lindemann, Master of Hypnosis. When Arthur is entranced on the stage he starts spouting candid home truths. Later, when his family is asleep, he packs his bag, empties his bank account and disappears.
We fast-forward to the present to learn how Arthur’s children have grown up and developed without their father. Each subsequent section is devoted to a different son, and each tells a different story. Martin, the eldest, is now a priest who eats chocolate in the confessional and yearns to win the Rubik’s cube championship. Eric is an investment banker who, having tasted success and abused many privileges, is fast coming undone. His twin, Ivan, is at ease with his sexuality but deeply frustrated regarding the limitations of his artistic talent.
Kehlmann delineates each man’s doubts before highlighting the true source of their woes: Martin, though a man of the cloth, doesn’t believe in God; Eric has squandered millions of a client’s money; Ivan equates greatness with happiness and buckles under the weight of unrealistic ambitions. When Arthur arrives back on the scene as a bestselling author, he is by far the most content of them all. But was his ruthless, family-wrecking quest for self-fulfillment worth it?
Last year David Gilbert’s “& Sons” also examined the relationship between a withdrawn writer father and his very present offspring. Kehlmann’s treatment is lighter and his prose less poetic (including the story-within-a-story penned by Arthur), but “F” is still a tightly constructed exploration of filial tension and adult struggle.
While the sections slyly dovetail into one another, each emerges as a unique entity, with Martin’s tale emerging as the most comic, Eric’s the most interesting and Ivan’s the most emotionally fraught. “How good it is to be able to work,” he tells himself, before hitting us with his real state of mind: “Sometimes I get the suspicion I could be a happy man.” In contrast, Martin knows that attaining happiness is a question of faith: “As soon as I believed in God, everything would fall into place.”
Kehlmann misfires only twice — underwhelming with his father-sons reconciliation scene and overreaching with his breakdown of Arthur’s “merry experiment” of a novel in which the central character — F — is the reader.
Kehlmann’s most famous novel to date, “Measuring the World” (2006), touched on the discoveries of two famous scientists. “F” is more a novel about ordinary people’s self-discoveries, and as Kehlmann’s characters lay bare their troubled souls, we get a view that is comic and affecting.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.