Portrait of Daniel Kehlmann

The Inventor of Truth

copyright: Sven Paustiancopyright: Sven PaustianA novel about two scientists turns a moderately successful writer into a best-selling author. In Measuring the World, Daniel Kehlmann sets up a perfidious and well thought-out interplay of fiction and reality – the guiding theme of his work.

By the time Daniel Kehlmann walked up the steps to the Göttinger Observatory for the first time, he had almost finished his latest book. With his fictional version still in mind, he crossed the actual rooms of the historical halls where once the mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss had done his research. In one corner was an old telegraph machine that Kehlmann had in fact just used in a scene in the novel. But as he stood in front of the original apparatus he realised that the machine would not have been fully functional during Gauss’ lifetime. Kehlmann came to a halt – but then decided that he would leave the telegraph in his novel precisely as he had imagined it: ready to use. Daniel Kehlmann calls this „the inventing of truth.“

This game of deception between fact and fiction, science and art, is a guiding thread throughout Kehlmann’s work. In Der fernste Ort, a young man re-invents himself from scratch; in Ich und Kaminski, the real life of an artist clashes with his biography; and the fact that his very first novel, Beerholms Vorstellung, had a magician as its main protagonist, a man who suspends the laws of nature by means of card tricks, seems in retrospect very prescient. In Measuring the World, the author has the discoverer Alexander von Humboldt complain about novels „that lose themselves in lying fairytales, because their author binds his nonsense to the names of historical personages.“

„Not written by a German at all“

This tongue-in-cheek tone might well account for the success of his historically themed novel about Gauss and Humboldt, two scientists whose discoveries shape our perceptions to this day. Measuring the World, written with an enigmatic wit and a lack of verbosity, a verbosity that often lies dangerously close to this theme, was a turning point for Kehlmann. The book cracked the magic ceiling of one million copies sold in 2007; it was at the top of the bestseller lists for months and has been translated into 42 languages. In the autumn of 2008 a start was made on the stage version, and even the film rights have been sold. The Guardian newspaper commented with astonishment that the book read as if it had not been written by a German at all – and that was considered a compliment!

The „happy catastrophe“ bestseller

Kehlmann, born in 1975 in Munich, has himself has been a little shocked by the novel’s success and says so regularly. In interviews and thank-you speeches, he comes across as a charming master of understatement and self-irony as he dissects the list of his non-successes before coming to the „happy catastrophe“ of his bestseller. He donates his prize money to médecins sans frontières instead of piling it up in his bank account. In one interview he explained, „If you say that success is like winning the lottery, then it takes away any responsibility.“

But of course Kehlmann’s „happy catastrophe“ is not something which happened entirely by chance. Kehlmann had already written five novels beforehand. The culture pages of German newspapers finally took notice of his fifth novel, Ich und Kaminski, Kehlmann’s cynical slating of art critics. He scatters clever mathematic witticisms across the pages of most of his work, scientific profundities sparkle here and there. In a collection of essays about books, Wo ist Carlos Montúfar?, Kehlmann mulls over classics such as J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, argues over the influence of editors on the language of an author, effortlessly quotes Schopenhauer and above all makes one thing clear: this author is no lightweight; he has a way of getting to the bottom of things; he is a collector of facts, a perfectionist. That he is writing his doctorate on Kant is all part of the picture. Chance really doesn’t really come into it.

„It would please me to have written a book.“

Kehlmann’s language reflects this thoroughness, you could even call it directness - embellishments are just not his thing. On the whole, his texts do not contain superfluous adjectives and subordinate clauses that meander forever: „Telling the story means injecting tension where there isn’t any initially, creating developmental structure and consistency at a point where reality has none to offer,“ he once wrote in an essay.

Kehlmann, brought up in Austria, seems to be pragmatic about success. His father, he once explained, was a stage director and so he understood all about fast turnover in the arts scene. „I always knew that I would be happy to have written a book,“ Kehlmann wrote in Wo ist Carlos Montúfar?. Even if he has no financial worries thanks to his moneyspinner, we can expect him to maintain his sceptical stance and sense of self-irony. His next book will be out in 2009. The publishers say it will be intricate: a novel consisting of nine stories, and a game of appearance and deception – of course. And the title of this book: Fame.  

copyright: Rowohlt Verlag + Quercus Publishing

Beerholms Vorstellung (1997), Rowohlt 2007
Unter der Sonne, Suhrkamp 2000
Der fernste Ort (2001), Suhrkamp 2004
Mahlers Zeit (2001), Suhrkamp 2006
Ich und Kaminski, Suhrkamp 2003
Die Vermessung der Welt, Rowohlt 2005
Wo ist Carlos Montùfar?, Rowohlt 2005

Measuring the World, Pantheon (USA)/Quercus (UK) 2007 (Engl.)
Ruhm, Rowohlt 2009; sold to France, Italy, the Netherlands and Croatia
Me and Kaminski, Pantheon (USA)/Quercus (UK) Herbst 2009 (Engl.)
Yo y Kaminski, El Acantilado 2005 (Span.)
La medición del mundo, Emece Editores 2007 (Span.)
La misura del mondo, It’Art 2008 (Ital.)

Anne Haeming
is a freelance writer for print and online media

Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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September 2008
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