by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway.
Quercus, 258 pp., £16.99, October 2014, 978 1 84866 734 1
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Daniel Kehlmann​ ’s new novel, F, takes the risk of starting with a set piece. The first sentence runs: ‘Years later, long since fully grown and each of them enmeshed in his own particular form of unhappiness, none of Arthur Friedland’s sons could recall whose idea it had actually been to go to the hypnotist that afternoon.’ The risk is that a memorable opening section, elaborately orchestrated, leaves a novel with nowhere to go, or at least with the obligation to start all over again, as happens in books as different as Enduring Love and Underworld. Kehlmann compounds the risk (as McEwan and DeLillo do not) by resuming the narrative a couple of decades on, which has the effect of widening the gap between those first thirty pages and the rest of the book, turning it into something close to a crevasse.

There are hypnotists who act as therapists, privately consulted, and there are hypnotists who are showmen. The hypnotist in the novel is an old-fashioned stage performer (though this is isn’t made immediately clear) who goes by the name of the Great Lindemann. This is a day that will mark a brutal discontinuity in the Friedlands’ family life, and a moment when narrative particles throng together like sand grains at the neck of an hourglass. Here is another overlap with the world of McEwan’s fiction, the uneasy harnessing of short story machinery – brute Before and After – to give shape and power to a full novel.

The Friedland family was broken even before the afternoon at the hypnotist’s tore it apart. The oldest boy, Martin, has only known his father since he was seven (he’s 14 now), and has had to accept twin half-brothers barely younger than he is, living proof of his redundancy from a father’s point of view. His father, Arthur, is a philosophically minded writer whose new wife earns a substantial income as an ophthalmologist, relieving him of the vulgar need to publish (though his stories appear occasionally in magazines) or to earn a living by other means. Arthur maintains some sort of contact with Martin without displaying any actual warmth, warmth not being his style in relationships anyway.

Running across the street to join the rest of the estranging family group, Martin is nearly run over and feels a sense of bifurcation, a fork in the path of fate that is likened to the dividing of a zygote. ‘Martin felt as if his existence had split in two. He was sitting here, but he was also lying on the asphalt, crumpled and still. His fate seemed as yet undecided, both outcomes were still possible, and for a moment he too had a twin – one there outside, slowly fading away.’ This is only the second page of the novel, but already themes are crowding in (fate, twins, ghosts). Twinship is treated symbolically almost before the twins themselves – Eric and Ivan – have made their appearance.

Kehlmann isn’t afraid to switch viewpoints and to break his chosen timeframe, in a way that would tend to fritter away the tension in a less confident performance:

This was some years before [the twins] started dressing identically too. This phase, in which they liked people to be unable to tell them apart, would only end when they turned 18, a short interval during which not even they themselves were entirely sure which of them was which. Thereafter they would repeatedly be overcome by a feeling that they’d each lost themselves at some point and were now leading the other’s life, just as Martin from now on would never be able to rid himself entirely of the suspicion that he had died that afternoon on the street.

Three pages into the book, and three of the characters have been announced as haunted or displaced, and its major theme – the precariousness of identity – could hardly be more distinct if it had been played by a marching band.

One of the twins (it’s Eric) clearly sees the fissures in the people around him:

Whether it was the teachers, or other pupils, or even his parents, they were all divided within themselves, all torn, all half-hearted. None of them could stand up against someone who had a goal and really went after it. That was as sure as sure could be, as sure as five times two equals ten, or that we’re all surrounded by ghosts whose shapes are visible only occasionally in the twilight.

This is a disconcerting pair of comparisons, very far from identical twins, and they make a syncopated impact, seeming to claim that ghosts are real but also suggesting that numbers are not.

To be torn and half-hearted doesn’t sound fun, yet being one of twins, divided on the outside but overlapping internally, is hardly a stabler state of being. Words surface in Eric’s mind that he doesn’t know, and he is party to dreams that aren’t his: ‘Ivan’s dreams were brighter than his own, somehow more all-encompassing, and the air in them seemed fresher.’

Only the boys’ father seems secure in himself, making no concession to what is expected of him. Arthur is startled rather than traumatised by his oldest son’s near-accident, and doesn’t exactly help any of the boys absorb what has just happened. One twin tries to make sense of it by suggesting God is involved.

‘If God knows he’s going to be run over, he’ll be run over. If God knows nothing’s going to happen to him, nothing will happen to him.’

‘But that can’t be right. That would mean it doesn’t matter what anyone does. Daddy, where’s the mistake?’

‘There is no God,’ said Arthur, ‘that’s the mistake.’

These boys are in their early teens – but clearly Arthur doesn’t believe in making them wait to taste the full bitterness of maturity. When they arrive at the show, Arthur seems well informed about the workings of such entertainments, telling the boys not to worry. They won’t be called on stage. He has no worries about himself either, telling them that hypnotism doesn’t work on him, as if this was a physical fact rather than a conviction, a character reference supplied by himself, his own assessment of the impregnable workings of his rationality. He is wrong on both counts. It seems wrong to reveal so much, but bear in mind that the whole section is over by page 32. Even if in some perverse way this really is the novel’s climax, impossibly situated, everything afterwards flows from the scene in the theatre.

When Ivan is called on stage, with two other children, he obeys the hypnotist’s commands (as he feels) out of politeness. ‘Ivan saw the other two lift their feet. He could feel all eyes on him. He was sweating. So what could he do? He lifted his foot. Now they’d all think he was hypnotised.’ When Arthur is asked on stage in his turn, he declines but is persuaded by the pleas of his sons to change his mind (‘Why do children find everything embarrassing?’). On stage he explains his unsuitability. ‘I’m the wrong person. You want someone who feels awkward at first, and then chats with you and tells you things about himself, so that you can turn him into a joke and make everyone laugh. Why don’t we skip all that? You can’t hypnotise me. I know how it works. A little pressure, a little curiosity, the need to belong, the fear of doing something wrong. But not with me.’

The Great Lindemann isn’t the first hypnotist in German literature, with one obvious predecessor being Cipolla, who puts on a show in an Italian resort town in Thomas Mann’s 1929 story ‘Mario and the Magician’. (Why a magician rather than a hypnotist? Because he is prevented by police regulations from describing his act accurately.) Cipolla is mildly deformed, not so much humpbacked as hump-bottomed, and very unattractive, what with his coiffure like an old-fashioned circus director’s, but rhetorically assured and undeniably magnetic. He too encounters some resistance, when a rebellious audience member defies Cipolla to make him dance (a trick he has worked with others already):

You saw the young man move his neck round in his collar; at the same time one hand lifted slightly at the wrist, one ankle turned outward. But that was all, for the time at least; merely a tendency to twitch, now sternly repressed, now seeming about to get the upper hand. It escaped nobody that here a heroic obstinacy, a fixed resolve to resist, must needs be conquered; we were beholding a gallant effort to strike out and save the honour of the human race.

The story has plenty to say about the psychology of crowds and the struggle to maintain individual identity. As the narrator says of the unwilling dancer,

It is likely that not willing is not a practicable state of mind; not to want to do something may be in the long run a mental content impossible to subsist on. Between not willing a certain thing and not willing at all – in other words, yielding to another person’s will – there may lie too small a space for the idea of freedom to squeeze into.

The struggle between Arthur Friedland and the Great Lindemann is much more even. Either could be the predator: the flinty rationalist or the bland stealer of minds. To start with, certainly, Arthur has the advantage, his suggestibility perhaps muffled by a self-absorption approaching autism: when everyone else is convinced that the air-conditioning has broken down, and that the heat is unbearable, he consults only his internal thermostat. When Lindemann circles closer, Arthur continues to track his approach: ‘You’re focusing my consciousness on itself, aren’t you? That’s the trick. My attention is focused on my own attention. A slip-knot, and suddenly, it’s impossible.’ Then Lindemann asks him about his sons, and he betrays the smallest possible sign of sentimentality, indicating that the names Ivan and Eric come from Arthurian legend. Then Lindemann switches the conversation to Arthur’s work and his affectation of indifference to its success.

Lindemann’s revenge is sly rather than cruel, a sort of judgment of Solomon, but the judgment of a faintly nasty Solomon. He instils into Arthur the suggestion (which he is instructed to forget) that he must put his work first, which does him a favour in a certain sense but also claims a lasting and subtle dominion, taking away his autonomy even while returning it to him enhanced. Presumably he doesn’t anticipate that Arthur’s very tenuous sense of connection to family, to the twins let alone to his firstborn, will immediately be jettisoned, even though it was his marginal vulnerability as a father that got him on stage in the first place, and then into the hypnotist’s power. Arthur unexpectedly drops the twins off at Martin’s address, leaving them for their mother to retrieve, and none of them sees him again for years.

Kehlmann’s​ 2005 novel, Measuring the World, is his great success to date, both in the marketplace and also in terms of its mastery of tone – much more consistently managed than F. The books are almost caricaturally different. Measuring the World is a historical novel apparently on the most standard model, a retelling in fiction of celebrated and well-documented lives. Despite the sharpness of the contrast the two books share a basic theme, the precariousness of rationality. The evenly matched subjects of Measuring the World are Alexander von Humboldt, born 1769, geographer, naturalist and explorer, notably of Latin America, and Carl Friedrich Gauss, born 1777, hardly less prodigious as a mathematician and inventor. At first the structure of the book, with chapters describing their adventures in alternation, seems more a matter of craft than artfulness, pure narrative carpentry, seeking the advantage of cross-grained storytelling, the known advantages of plywood as a provider of economical structural strength.

The two men are at opposite ends of the spectrum of temperament, with Humboldt always moving restlessly forward while Gauss tries to make a nest for himself and to stay there, undisturbed. This was an extraordinary period of advancement in German science, with the unifying ideals of the Enlightenment charged with something both complementary and subversive, the heroism and grandeur of romanticism. Those dates of birth bracket the arrival on earth in 1772 of another polymath, Georg Philipp Friedrich Freiherr von Hardenberg, known as Novalis, though he was reborn from the narrow point of view of Anglocentric culture in 1995, with the publication of Penelope Fitzgerald’s final novel, The Blue Flower, based on his short and extraordinary life. Perhaps it’s only another sort of Anglocentric narrowness to imagine that Fitzgerald’s book had some influence on Kehlmann’s. It was certainly translated into German in the 1990s, not coals to Newcastle but perhaps a diamond returned to the mine, although it’s only more recently that Fitzgerald’s reputation has gained ground in that part of the world, with the help of reissues.

Measuring the World is entirely lacking in the tenderness that made The Blue Flower so remarkable, and makes no attempt at it. Kehlmann and Fitzgerald share the ability to give lightness to historical detail without compromising its authority, but his delicacy here is of another sort, the perfectly judged undertone of disrespect that takes his heroes’ physical and intellectual adventures to the very edge of spoofery. In the opening section, set in 1828, Gauss (at Humboldt’s insistence) reluctantly makes the journey from Göttingen to Berlin to attend the German Scientific Congress – the only conference, in fact, that he ever attended. As he steps out of the carriage he is embraced by Humboldt and time seems to stop. The reason is the presence of a protégé of Humboldt’s called Daguerre, who has been called on to fix the moment on a light-sensitive silver iodide plate and ‘snatch it out of the onrush of time’. ‘Just a moment, whispered Humboldt, a mere 15 minutes, tremendous progress has been made already. Until recently it had taken much longer, when they tried it first he had thought his back wouldn’t hold out under the strain.’

Their tableau, this semi-frozen moment, is broken by a policeman demanding to know the meaning of this unauthorised gathering. The image turns out to be hopelessly blurred. Humboldt throws the plate out of the window and hears ‘a dull crash as it landed in the courtyard. Seconds later, like everything else at which he had ever failed, he had forgotten it.’ Humboldt had an older brother, Wilhelm, of equal promise (and eventual distinction as a philosopher and diplomat). Kehlmann recounts how their widowed mother sought advice about their education from the most illustrious possible source, Goethe.

The latter’s response was that a pair of brothers in whom the whole panoply of human aspirations so manifested itself, thus promising that the richest possibilities both of action and aesthetic appreciation might become exemplary reality, presented as it were a drama capable of filling the mind with hope and feeding the spirit with much to reflect upon.

Nobody could make head or tail of this sentence.

Goethe, who seemed for so long to personify the greatness of his epoch, must now have his reputation downgraded as other figures gain in lustre. The majordomo of the Humboldt household decides that what Goethe means is that one boy should be educated as a man of culture, the other as a man of science. But which should follow which path? He tosses a coin.

If Novalis’s life (he was 28 when he died) was a brief candle, then Gauss and Humboldt (Gauss lived into his late seventies, Humboldt his late eighties), were candles that burned down to the stump, guttering and throwing grotesque shadows. Consistently the emphasis falls on what these great men ignore or discount, their blind spots as much as their moments of vision. Measuring drives out fear, numbers keep disorder in check.

Early in Humboldt’s first major expedition there is an apparition:

Shortly before Tenerife, they sighted a sea monster. In the distance, almost transparent against the horizon, the body of a snake rose from the water, coiled itself twice, and stared at them with eyes that showed in the telescope as being made of gemstones. Filaments as thin as beard hair hung down around its jaws. Seconds after it submerged again, everyone thought they must have imagined it. Sea mists, perhaps, said Humboldt, or bad food. He decided not to write anything down.

This fantasticated instance of cognitive dissonance, the inability to process what you can’t categorise, is amplified in a later piece of dialogue:

The water level must have been higher long ago, said the soldier.

Not that high, said Humboldt. Evidently the cliffs were once lower. He had a teacher in Germany whom he was hardly going to dare tell about this.

Or there were flying people, said the soldier.

Humboldt smiled.

Lots of creatures flew, said the soldier, and nobody thought that was odd. While on the other hand nobody had ever seen a mountain rising.

People didn’t fly, said Humboldt. Even if he saw it, he wouldn’t believe it.

And that was science?

Yes, said Humboldt, that was exactly what science was.

Kehlmann knows how to play fast and loose with Humboldt’s documentation of his travels without altogether forfeiting its potency as source material. He enriches the record with judicious contradiction. After a terrifyingly close encounter with a jaguar, Humboldt prevents his travelling companion Bonpland from shooting, on the grounds that the jaguar had let him go. He will spare the animal that spared him, despite Bonpland’s disgust at such superstitious behaviour. Afterwards Humboldt decides ‘to describe events in his diary the way they should have happened: he would claim they had gone back into the undergrowth, guns cocked, but had failed to find the animal.’ The invention complicates the texture of a character who elsewhere sets a high value on knowledge rather than on the life that yields it up to him, examining for instance in Trinidad ‘everything that lacked the feet and the fear to run away from him’, a drily witty deployment of that normally feeble rhetorical trope, zeugma. In Trinidad he had ‘measured the colour of the sky, the temperature of lightning flashes and the weight of the hoar frost at night, he had tasted bird droppings, investigated earth tremors and had climbed down into the Cavern of the Dead’.

A major part of Kehlmann’s method, as that last sentence suggests, is a briskness constantly verging on comedy. Even a total eclipse of the sun he takes at a canter, dispatching it in a dozen lines. Even if the event had dawdled there was no guarantee that Humboldt himself would have seen it. He didn’t look up from his instrument, needing to fix the constellations in the sextant while also tracking the exact time. He consoles himself that his priorities were the right ones, since ‘this place was now fixed for ever in the maps of the world.’ Briskness of pace comes close to its limit, surely, in a late-life conversation between the Humboldt brothers.

The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look. Still boys?

You knew?


Neither of them spoke for a long while, then Humboldt rose and they embraced as formally as ever.

Five words to exhaust the topic of a lifetime’s shame and secrecy – this must be a record.

Gauss’s desires, meanwhile, are more conventional, though pursued with a hopeless clumsiness. Having fallen in love, and having asked Johanna, the woman of his choice, to marry him a number of times, he decides to kill himself. Only as he is removing the stopper from the little flask of poison does he realise that something’s wrong. ‘He closed the bottle, thought harder, still couldn’t work out what it was. Then suddenly it dawned on him that what he had read was her acceptance.’ At the wedding reception he stands up, swallows, and says ‘he had not expected to find anything like happiness, and fundamentally he didn’t believe in it even now. It seemed to him to be something like a mistake in arithmetic, an error, and he could only hope he would not be caught out. He sat down again and was surprised to see people looking blank.’ He misses the birth of his first child, and takes some time to understand what the formula ‘It’s a boy’ might denote. Absorbed in his research, he hasn’t heard that there’s a war on, and is just leafing through a stack of old journals to catch up on current events when news of the defeat at Jena arrives. He theorises that Napoleon wins battles by being the first to announce with absolute authority that he has done so. Then he wonders if he (Napoleon) has heard of him (Gauss).

It’s wonderful that all this high comedy doesn’t supersede the scrupulous evocation of the past, and that these two egotists, both in their different ways so wide-eyed and so blinkered, should be given moments of eloquent pathos. Here’s one from Gauss, doubling as a warning to any reader of historical novels: ‘It was both odd and unjust, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.’ And one from Humboldt: ‘Nobody had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.’

About​ a quarter of a century after Arthur Friedland’s disappearing act, when the narrative of F takes up again, his sons are all having trouble believing in the destiny they feign. Arthur himself reappears from time to time without warning, not so much restoring contact as sharpening the edge on his absence. Martin is now a priest, having chosen Catholicism over Protestantism because of the perceived advantage of its emphasis on forms and rituals over actual faith, the area where he feels himself to be hollow. He’s overweight, in fact a compulsive eater who devours snacks in the confessional – so much for the forms. The Rubik’s cube that functioned as a marker of period in the earlier section (though also an emotionally charged object, by virtue of being one of Arthur’s rare gifts to Martin) is now largely a marker of his immaturity. Catholics are supposed to have rosaries in necklace rather than polyhedral form. The fact that he still takes part in competitions with the cube, though daunted by new tricks such as smearing the facets with vaseline for faster handling, makes his attachment to an old toy worse rather than better.

Arthur’s books are now famous and widely read – ‘popular’ not quite the right word since they scour the psyches of their readers. His first to be published, My Name Is No One, is more or less a novel, its protagonist identified by the letter F, and tonally ambiguous: is it ‘a merry experiment and thus the pure product of a playful spirit, or is it a malevolent attack on the soul of every person who reads it? No one knows for sure, maybe both are true.’ The three people who killed themselves after reading the book had presumably made up their minds, though it’s a modest body count set beside the suicide accolade accorded to The Sorrows of Young Werther. The second section of the book, as paraphrased, isn’t plausibly merry or playful:

Nobody inhabits the brain. No invisible being wafts through the nerve endings, listens within the ears, and speaks through your mouth. The eyes are not windows. There are nerve impulses, but no one reads them, counts them, translates them, and ruminates about them. Hunt for as long as you want, there’s nobody home. The world is contained within you, and you’re not there.

Paraphrase attenuates the whiff of sulphur supposedly clinging to Arthur’s books, and direct quotation has the effect of dissipating it entirely. One section of F, called ‘Family’, reproduces what is described as ‘his strangest story’, an autobiographical sketch in genealogical form, going back generation by generation to the Middle Ages, and striking the same cheery note: ‘People think the dead are preserved somewhere. People think their traces are inscribed on the universe. But it’s not true. What’s gone is gone. What once was, is forgotten, and what has been forgotten never returns.’ It seems unwise to reproduce verbatim such a standard piece of adolescent nihilism. Better to hint at its destabilising power. And what are ghosts doing in this would-be reductivist world-picture? Ghosts are traces inscribed on the universe pretty much by definition.

Eric is now an investor working for rich clients. This development follows rather too closely from the sketch of him as a boy earlier in the book: ‘Eric had known quite early on that he wanted to be different from his father. He wanted to make money, he wanted to be taken seriously, he didn’t want to be the kind of person that people secretly pitied.’ Except that Arthur is now rich, taken seriously and indeed admired, while Eric, having embezzled on a large scale (not particularly skilfully), is scrabbling to square the circle of his own dishonesty. There is black comedy in the sections of the book devoted to Martin and Eric, but it seems perfunctory compared to the rich humour in Measuring the World, imposed from above rather than bubbling up from below.

Of the brothers only Ivan has made some sort of accommodation with reality, leading a life of modest mischief and expressiveness. In the course of a loving relationship with an older painter called Eulenboeck, he took charge of his career, telling him what to say in interviews and launching him late in life onto the art scene. As executor and trustee after Eulenboeck’s death he continues to manage his lover’s reputation, and is in a strong position to paint new Eulenboecks posthumously, to fit titles in a catalogue raisonné published in the artist’s lifetime. In other words, F after its first section becomes a story of family damage, with everyone hollow and haunted.

Understandably the brothers have had a strong interest in locating the Great Lindemann, if not the agent of disastrous change then certainly its catalyst. In a scene narrated in flashback Ivan manages to get an interview with Lindemann, supposedly for a student publication, and of course what he wants to know is what everyone wants to know about hypnotism. Can it make you do things you don’t want to do? Does it sidestep the will or actively intervene, even deform it? Lindemann explains hypnosis as not a single phenomenon but a cluster of them: ‘A person could lose superficial control of their own will for short periods … He used the word “superficial”, he then explained, because under normal circumstances nothing someone didn’t wish to experience or do could be induced in them through a trance. Only rarely was anything spiritually profound stirred into life.’ Ivan asks for clarification but Lindemann starts to complain about the low fees he gets and the arrogance of TV executives. All this is less suggestive than the basic premise, of a man allowed to express his nihilism thanks to an inner glow imparted to his subconscious by a stranger. It’s also less sophisticated than what Cipolla says in Mann’s story: ‘Freedom exists, and also the will exists; but freedom of the will does not exist, for a will that aims at its own freedom aims at the unknown.’

With Arthur’s sons portrayed as solitary strivers, schematically exploring the possibilities offered by Faith, Money and Art, it’s permissible to echo Bonpland’s words when Humboldt kept his gaze away from the eclipse: ‘Did one always have to be so German?’ Arthur makes one crucial statement that is likely to sound odd to readers with even the faintest dusting of German: ‘“Fate,” said Arthur. “The capital letter F. But chance is a powerful force, and suddenly you acquire a Fate that was never assigned to you.”’ Wouldn’t the normal word for fate be Schicksal? And doesn’t every noun in German require a capital? In fact there’s nothing wrong with Carol Brown Janeway’s translation since Arthur uses the more solemn and Latinate word Fatum, and glosses it as ‘das grosse F’ – ‘the big F’, as cancer is ‘the big C’.

Both​ these books dramatise the fault lines within rationality, and the way that people are most affected by subjective impulses when they persuade themselves they have no personal motivation. So it’s downright peculiar that the world is presented in both books as containing non-human agencies. It’s not just the sea monster in Measuring the World. Humboldt’s mother walks alongside him in the Cavern of the Dead, and at a séance later in the book speaks through the medium to chide him for not acknowledging her. There is telepathy too. At one point, on an expedition to Russia, Humboldt makes a mental remark to Gauss, who replies aloud in Germany, to his wife’s bafflement: ‘I know you understand. You have always understood more, my poor friend, than you know.’ It may be that telepathic communication is no more inherently mysterious than the telegraph (something that Gauss invented but thought too trivial to patent or publicise) but so far the mechanism is mysterious.

In F, too, there are anomalies, even in the opening section, where Lindemann puts people into trances during which they experience whole lifetimes, from birth to death. There are ghosts here too, and not just in Arthur’s fiction. There’s a suggestion that even ghosts can’t always tell the twins apart, so that a guardian angel slips up in the passing on of a warning, but the small pleasure provided by this drollery doesn’t begin to offset the damage done to the book’s main business. If the world can’t be intellectually mastered it’s hard to care overmuch about the fault lines within rationality. They aren’t particularly relevant, and can hardly be tragic. The whole analytical apparatus of the mind can’t address the task it has set itself. If reality isn’t intellectually accessible other means must be considered.

One of the recurring themes of both books is the inadequacy of insight without empathy. This description fits both Gauss and Humboldt in Measuring the World, and both Arthur and Lindemann in F. They are negative figures who possess the dismal ability to subtract meaning from other people’s lives, without having any in their own. It’s a case of one minor Mephistopheles tempting another, and not a Faust in sight.

The supernatural element in these books, though fairly extensive, is not deeply rooted. It wouldn’t be difficult to remove it, in a process like the one for the elimination of remnant magnetic fields known to the generation that fought the Second World War as ‘de-gaussing’. It’s more of a problem that empathy, though its absence is noted, is nowhere cultivated. This isn’t the same objection as saying that the female characters are few and thinly developed, but there’s likely to be a connection. For all its accomplishment, F seems rather immature when set beside, say, Fifth Business, the first part of Robertson Davies’s Deptford trilogy, published in 1970, which ends with a stage hypnotist’s performance. Davies’s glorious novel takes for granted the fragility of the self that gives Kehlmann such trouble, and addresses itself to wholeness, in a way that shows the influence of Jung but could almost be traced back to Goethe and his notion of zarte Empirie – delicate empiricism, a prolonged empathetic gaze rather than a categorising reflex.

Davies borrows something from Hitchcock’s version of The 39 Steps to provide one of the most satisfying closing scenes in fiction, when an audience member calls out an unexpected question ‘Who killed Boy Staunton?’ The Brazen Head that is literally the mouthpiece of the novel’s hypnotist replies: ‘He was killed by the usual cabal: by himself, first of all; by the woman he knew; by the woman he did not know; by the man who granted his inmost wish; and by the inevitable fifth, who was keeper of his conscience and keeper of the stone.’ In Fifth Business people affect one another’s destinies however little they want to, and even violent death is a team effort. It certainly seems the sounder structural decision to use a public set piece like a stage hypnotist’s performance as a finale rather than a highly charged overture, but the reference point could as easily be Bach as Robertson Davies. Bach is the simplest name to invoke as a way of accounting for the formal unsatisfactoriness of themes first being braided together, then freely developed in isolation: it’s a falling-off of counterpoint. Bach wrote toccatas and fugues, not fugues and toccatas, and he had his reasons.

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