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Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann

November 6, 2011 19 comments

Fame: A Novel in Nine Stories by Daniel Kehlmann. 2009. Original title: Ruhm. French title: Gloire.

This is my first read for the German Lit Month hosted by Caroline and Lizzy. I chose it after reading Guy’s review here. Fame is a strange exhilarating book. It’s made of nine different stories, each making sense as a stand-alone but taking an extra dimension when read among the others. Indeed, the stories bounce on each other, featuring recurring characters, one story explaining a detail included in another story or casually referring to an event that took place in another tale.

The recurring characters are a famous actor Ralph Tanner, an acclaimed writer Leo Richter and a successful writer of self-help books Miguel Auristos Blancos. They are either main characters in a story or side characters in others, impacting other people’s lives. It’s very well-constructed; it’s a real pleasure to cross-reference events, characters and to discover the network of relationships and events that tie them together. Seen Short Cuts by Robert Altman? That would be it.

Fame is a topic but not the only one. I enjoyed the interaction writer/character in Rosalie Goes Off to Die and in In Danger. Leo Richter isn’t a likeable character and his lover Elisabeth always fears she’ll end up as a character in one of his stories. I’ve always wondered how relatives and friends of writers handle that when it happens. Do they have the feeling that the author steals their lives and betrays them? Leo is a coward; he’s constantly ranting, moping and whining. And selfish too, not grateful at all that these readers who come and hear his lectures buy his books and allow him to pay the bills. He’s looking down on them, mocking their clothes, their questions, their conversation. There’s a huge gap between the quality of his literary work and the qualities of the man.

A recurring them is modern communications. It’s present in A Contribution to the Debate through Mollwitz, a nerd spending most of his awaken time commenting on forums and blogs. His avatar is mollwitt, the “translation” of his German name into English, as witz means witt. Several characters work for a cell phone company. It also explores the way we have the world within touch in our pocket with our web phone. We, bloggers know that, the virtual proximity with people we’ve never met and live on the other side of the planet.

Daniel Kehlmann also depicts the globalization of culture and of thinking through the Brazilian writer Miguel Auristos Blancos (Paolo Coehlo??) He writes self-help books and pseudo-philosophical works about accepting life and living in peace with yourself. His books appear in every story, in a way or another, whatever the country, whatever the décor or the social background of the characters. It made me think of bookstores in airport: look at them, you’ll find the same authors everywhere.

In How I Lied and Died, Kehlmann shows how cheating is easier with technologies and it reminded me of Jonathan Coe’s character who captures noises in airports to help cheaters make their spouse believe they are where they aren’t.

I’d like to focus a bit on Contribution to the Debate, probably my favorite story. It is a first person narrative by Mollwitz himself. It’s written in the language of nerds, full of English words. My mom wouldn’t understand half of it and I could imagine her complaining “Can’t they write in French? Don’t we have enough words?” Actually, I think the story can be pretty obscure for someone who doesn’t speak English and/or knows nothing about forums and blogs. (Since my mom meets both criteria, reading this would be like deciphering the Rosetta Stone). I wrote this – I who just learnt that the French word for “post” is “billet” – and then I wanted to include a quote and see how it looked like in English. (thanks Amazon “look inside”!!) So here is the opening paragraph of the story:

Là il va falloir que je re-monte en arrière. Sorry et : je sais bien que lithuania23 et icu_lop vont à nouveau se moquer de la longueur de ce post et bien sûr lordoftheflakes, ce troll, comme récemment dans son flame sur movieforum, mais je peux pas faire plus court et celui qu’est pressé, il a qu’à passer direct à la suite. Rencontrer des people ? Alors là attention !Je dois dire au préalable que je suis un fan hard-de-chez-core de ce forum. 24 carats, comme idée. Des types clean tels que moi et toi qui repèrent les celebs et en parlent : cool à profusion, vachement bien conçu, intéressant pour tout un chacun et ça fait aussi fonction de contrôle, pour ce qu’ils savent qu’ils sont scannés et peuvent pas se comporter comme je sais quoi. Ca fait des siècles que je voulais mettre un post ici, mais pas de problème, d’où problème. Or là-dessus le week-end dernier, et de suite, tous azimuts. Here I have to back up. Sorry: perfectly clear that lithuania23 and icu-lop will flame this posting for being too long; so will that troll lordoftheFlakes, just like he flamed on MovieForum, but I can’t do it shorter, and whoever’s in a hurry can just skip it. Meeting celebrities? Heads up!Must signal that I’m a huge hardcore fan of this forum. Platinium idea. Normal types like you and me who spot famous people and report on their sightings: chill, no? wicked idea, really well worked out, interesting to everyone and besides it acts like control, so they know they’re being scanned and can’t just goof off. Wanted to post here forever, only where to get the stuff. But then came last weekend, the whole load.

The English version has as many syntax errors and spoken language than the French but I think the French version is more obscure to the offline reader than the English. Unfortunately the “look inside” of Amazon Germany didn’t allow me to find the same quote in German. Are there all these English words in the original version or is it the work of the French translator? However, the reader understands that Mollwitz lives in an alternate reality as his real life is nonexistent. He lives with his tyrannical mother, has no friends and having a girl-friend seems out of the question.

The style varies from one story to the other, showing characters trapped in their lives and living through events due to the decisions made by other characters in another story. It’s full of spot on and witty remarks on life in general and on our modern world in particular. A delight.

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