Ghosts in the Picture

Adam Mars-Jones

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):

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