German novelist Daniel Kehlmann has a penchant for the figure who wakes with relief from one dream only to discover he has passed into another. In Kehlmann’s excellent historical novel Measuring the World (2006), the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss finds himself “lying on the plank bed and dreaming that he was lying on the plank bed dreaming that he was lying on the plank bed and dreaming. Uneasily he sat up and realized immediately that he wasn’t yet awake.”
That book’s international success has prompted the translation of a 2003 novel, Me and Kaminski, whose narrator, Sebastian Zollner, has a similar experience in his ex-girlfriend’s apartment:
I pushed back the covers, got up, felt the carpet under my naked feet. A noise of shuffling feet came out of the cupboard. I opened it. Kaminski was sitting inside, huddled up, his chin on his knees, his arms wrapped around his legs, and he looked at me with bright eyes. He wanted to speak, but with his first words the room dissolved; I felt the weight of the covers on me.
Zollner is a tirelessly enterprising art critic who doesn’t much care for (or understand) art. The figure in the cupboard is Manuel Kaminski, the aging, reclusive painter whose biography Zollner has set out to write. No great interest in Kaminski’s work has driven Zollner to this task; he’s just reached the point in his professional life where he must write a book:
My career had begun well, but now it was stagnating. First I had thought maybe I should do a polemic, an attack on a famous painter or movement; a total trashing of photorealism, maybe, or a defense of photorealism, but then suddenly photorealism was out of fashion. So why not write a biography? I hesitated between Balthus, Lucien Freud, and Kaminski, then the first of them died and the second was reported to be already in conversations with [Zollner’s rival] Bahring.
A onetime protégé of Matisse, Kaminski has fallen into critical and commercial oblivion. Nonetheless, Zollner insists to his publisher that “only one small thing [is] lacking” to bring Kaminski back to public attention and make his biography a success: “He needs to die, of course.”
Obviously, Zollner is petty, coldhearted, and cynical. He’s also intellectually arrogant to an almost pathological degree, and his very single-mindedness leads him to ignore those things around him that might give him the success he wants so badly. He’s the sort of man who tells a waitress at a backcountry train station how relieved he is to find himself “among simple people,” and believes this to be a compliment. He is, in other words, the amusingly distasteful, utterly unreliable narrator recognizable to readers of Nabokov and his present-day disciples like Amis and Banville.
It remains far from clear, however, why such a character would tie his aspirations to an artist like Kaminski, who once stood poised at the doorstep of success but never managed to cross the threshold. As for the artist’s actual talent—beside the point to Zollner, of course—it’s impossible for the reader to judge. The most believable voice on the matter is Kaminski’s own. “I’m not one of the greats,” he acknowledges. “But sometimes I was pretty good. And that’s not nothing.”
This modesty is the product of endless disappointment, rather than Kaminski’s natural disposition. In fact, Zollner arrives in the mountain town where Kaminski and his daughter have lived in seclusion for twenty-five years to discover a man who was once in many ways like himself. “A young artist is a strange creature,” Kaminski tells Zollner. “Half crazed with ambition and greed.” But, he assures him, “ambition is like a childhood illness. You get over it and it strengthens you.”
As the tale progresses, Kaminski appears increasingly to be a sort of double of Zollner, seen across the years. (The double is, of course, another Nabokovian trope—as is the biographer as a shadow of his subject.) The dream state proves key to this device. Many chapters begin with Zollner waking in confusion, and Kaminski drags himself about in a pill-induced stupor. There is some suggestion that the two characters are dreaming each other, that Zollner represents the worst of Kaminski’s youth and Kaminski Zollner’s greatest fears of age. “I didn’t just need a good idea,” Kaminski says of his early struggles. “They’re a dime a dozen. I had to find . . . a way out of mediocrity.” Zollner comes gradually to understand that his own good idea—his biography of Kaminski—won’t be enough to free him from the nightmare of mediocrity.
The inescapable dream is emblematic of both Kehlmann’s strengths and his weaknesses. While philosophically and psychologically provocative, it’s also familiar, even hackneyed. The same is true of Kehlmann’s writing here, which charms and engages without ever quite surprising. We know these doppelgängers, the cynical biographer and the embittered artist. So, too, we expect that Zollner will come to draw Kaminski out of his seclusion, just as Kaminski will draw Zollner out of his self-absorption. We even know before Zollner does that he will finally wish Kaminski many more years of life, biography be damned—though Nabokov would never have stood for such a placidly sentimental turn.
It’s worth noting that we wouldn’t have the present volume in English had Kehlmann’s writing not improved so dramatically with Measuring the World. In that book, the author’s considerable talent was tested against (and roughed up a bit by) fresher material. Reading its predecessor from that vantage, we can take heart knowing the author found a way out of mediocrity.
Christopher R. Beha is an editor at Harper’s Magazine.