Me and Kaminski, Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Carol Brown Janeway). Pantheon. 208pp, $21.95.
The young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann, born in 1975, seems obsessed with the notion of greatness. In his 2005 novel Measuring the World, Kehlmann made an unlikely comedy out of the lives of naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. To Kehlmann, their great intellectual gifts add up to little more than a cosmic joke: because Humboldt and Gauss possess greater powers of depth and insight than nearly all of their contemporaries, they also understand the ultimate futility of their attempts to render the world comprehensible. Both men live to see their breakthroughs superseded by the discoveries of others—yet both also continue to devote themselves in old age to their research, clinging to whatever small pleasures they can still locate in work itself.
Measuring the World became an international bestseller that propelled its author to European stardom. Critics received the book with tremendous enthusiasm, anointing Kehlmann an important new voice in German language literature, although, given the novel’s skepticism about the value of achievement and fame, its tremendous critical and commercial success must be something of an irony for Kehlmann.
His earlier novel Me and Kaminski—published in German in 2003, and now newly available in Carol Brown Janeway’s English translation—also mounts a sustained attack on the idea of greatness, but it stands apart from Measuring the World by tackling the notion within the context of the art world. Workmanlike, unsubtle, repetitive, and sometimes outright clumsy in its construction, Me and Kaminski labors in the shadow of other writers’ work, offering scant evidence of the ample literary and comedic gifts displayed in the far superior Measuring the World. All the same, the book makes for a fascinating document: it serves as a portrait of an artist who has realized the limits of his own gifts, and who is prepared to give up on the self-conscious pursuit of greatness in order to simply get down to work.
The first-person narrator of Me and Kaminski is Sebastian Zollner, an ambitious journalist in his early thirties who hopes to make a name for himself by writing the autobiography of a famous but reclusive painter named Manuel Kaminski. Zollner is pretentious, vain, rude, condescending, and thoroughly stupid—an empty-headed and insufferable man who has convinced himself that he is destined for great things despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. His greatest accomplishment to date has been publishing purposefully uncritical art reviews in newspapers, in hopes of ingratiating himself with the artists and gallery owners whose success he bitterly envies. When Kaminski’s daughter and caretaker Miriam grants Zollner the opportunity to interview her about her father’s life and career, he abuses her courtesy, sneaking into their house while she is away and then taking the sick and decrepit Kaminski on an ill-advised road trip in search of a long-lost love from the artist’s distant past.
Throughout the book, Kehlmann attempts to play Zollner’s stupidity and self-serving audacity for laughs, but fails largely because his protagonist is so thoroughly a caricature. Zollner’s exaggerated idiocy quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome, and Kehlmann is far more successful when he instead presents Zollner as an object of pity. In a remarkable sequence, Zollner finds himself helplessly lost in a cave, which he has decided to visit because it is a place in which his hero Kaminski once underwent a formative experience. After wandering off the path and finding himself in complete darkness, Zollner panics and then almost immediately gives up, certain that he will die. But not long after, another group of tourists comes along, and its leader rescues Zollner, having heard his weeping from only a few feet away. In this incident, Zollner is pathetic, but no more so than many other people would be under similar circumstances, and his failure to extricate himself serves as a far more compelling and sympathetic method for demonstrating his personal failings than any number of buffoonish antics.
Unsurprisingly, Kaminski has a great deal to teach Zollner—and equally unsurprisingly, Zollner is very slow to learn. Although Zollner imagines that he will be able to piggyback on Kaminski’s fame in order to launch his own career, Kaminski himself recognizes the transience and impermanence of his own accomplishments and reputation. He understands that, even among the relatively few people who admired him in the first place, he has already been nearly completely forgotten. He is skeptical to the extreme about the value of his artistic legacy, and he does his best to disabuse Zollner of the notion that artistic greatness is a matter of any significance whatsoever. “Importance isn’t important,” Kaminski says near the novel’s end. “Painting is important.”
This is, of course, the same conclusion that Gauss and Humboldt arrive at in Measuring the World—the idea that a person’s work itself is far more valuable than any end it might serve, or any recognition it might receive. But while Measuring the World presents this idea in a highly sophisticated and consistently entertaining manner, Me and Kaminski simply repeats it ad nauseum. Kaminski’s declaration on the relationship between an artist’s work and reputation might have resonated more if he hadn’t also earlier said things such as, “I’m not one of the greats . . . but sometimes I was pretty good,” and “Ambition is like a childhood illness. You get over it and it strengthens you.” Kehlmann also places similar ideas in the mouths of several of Kaminski’s friends and associates, and after the tenth or fifteenth time the dense and self-interested Zollner fails to receive the message, it becomes difficult to sustain much interest in Kehlmann’s ideas.
The problem of the repetition is compounded by the fact that these themes are hardly original. Me and Kaminski contains many echoes of The Ghost Writer, the first of Philip Roth’s famous novels about his alter ego Nathan Zuckerman. In The Ghost Writer, Zuckerman makes a pilgrimage to the home of reclusive short story writer I.E. Lonoff, where he fantasizes about exploiting him in service of his own literary ambition. Like Kaminski, Lonoff holds little regard for his critical and popular reputation; he has thus isolated himself so that he can focus on the day-to-day labor of creating art. And although Zuckerman shows signs of much greater intelligence and genuine artistic commitment than does Zollner, he also has difficulty appreciating his idol’s advice due to his absorption in his own ambition. Kehlmann’s treatment of this kind of subject matter in Me and Kaminski is far less substantial than Roth’s in The Ghost Writer—and Kehlmann’s book is also considerably less funny.
Still worse, Me and Kaminski also owes a greater debt to a source that is perhaps even better-known than The Ghost Writer. At a key point in the novel, Zollner experiences a moment of revelation when Kaminski, who is almost entirely blind, guides his hand in a drawing. It’s a moment that most likely would have been dragged down by its overwrought symbolism even if it weren’t also nearly identical to the climax of Raymond Carver’s “Cathedral”—one of the most famous, influential, and widely anthologized short stories of the 1980s. Perhaps Carver is not widely read in Austria, but all the same, Kehlmann’s symbolically leaden passage amounts to a disastrous misstep.
Kehlmann’s failures in Me and Kaminski are, in the end, fairly easy to forgive. As clumsy and repetitive as the novel often is, it is also refreshingly honest: few young writers are as forthright about their own ambitions, or as clear-eyed about the limited scope of their own abilities. With Measuring the World, Kehlmann took a giant step forward in terms of the range of his literary achievement—it is a vastly superior book, expertly crafted, rich with ideas, and also genuinely funny and entertaining. But perhaps Kehlmann needed to write Me and Kaminski first, if only to wrestle his personal ambition into submission so he could get down to the unglamorous, laborious, and terribly ephemeral work of producing good fiction. One hopes its cool reception will not sour publishers’ taste for translating future work from Kehlmann.
Ryan Michael Williams is a librarian and freelance writer. His reviews have previously appeared on PopMatters, and are forthcoming from Rain Taxi and ForeWord. He also blogs on books and other topics at GoodReadings.
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