An un­set­tling, Gothic hall of mir­rors

Daniel Kehlmann is a for­mi­da­ble ob­server with a flair for ar­tic­u­lat­ing dys­func­tional be­hav­iour You Should Have Left

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS & BOOKS - Eileen Bat­tersby Poem Leanne O’Sul­li­van

By Daniel Kehlmann, trans­lated by Ross Ben­jamin River­run, £10

It seems too good to be true; the per­fect hol­i­day home com­plete with a brand new teddy. Ev­ery­thing works; the moun­tain views are spec­tac­u­lar. For an all-too-hu­man scriptwriter, with an edgy ac­tor wife and a tod­dler in tow, never mind the pres­sure of a late dead­line, it could be the idyll in which to write the elu­sive se­quel to his com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful movie Besties, the story ap­par­ently of a friend­ship- turned- ri­valry be­tween two young women.

“It’s fit­ting that I’m be­gin­ning a new notebook up here. New sur­round­ings, new ideas, a new be­gin­ning. Fresh air,” records the ha­rassed un­named nar­ra­tor of You Should Have Left; a hint of de­spair­ing hope al­ready au­di­ble in his voice as he ag­o­nises over the words he has cho­sen to de­scribe his per­sonal sen­sa­tions to him­self.

Added to that, he is a nat­u­ral wor­rier. Within sen­tences of re­veal­ing that his daugh­ter “turned four” the pre­vi­ous week, he is com­ment­ing on the dan­ger­ous road lead­ing to the house. That and the fact his wife is a “hor­ren­dous” driver ig­nites yet an­other ar­gu­ment.

Mu­nich-born, in­ter­na­tion­ally-based Daniel Kehlmann ex­ploded on the lit­er­ary scene with his fifth novel, Mea­sur­ing the World, a stylish En­light­en­ment romp fea­tur­ing the ex­plorer and nat­u­ral­ist Alexan­der von Hum­boldt jux­ta­posed with math­e­ma­ti­cian Carl Friedrich Gauss, which was pub­lished in Ger­many in 2005. It quickly took Europe by storm, while the English trans­la­tion by Carol Brown Janeway, which was pub­lished two years later, made him fa­mous at 32.

It was fol­lowed by Fame in 2010, only a year af­ter its Ger­man pub­li­ca­tion. It is an episodic nar­ra­tive cen­tring on mankind’s lat­est tyran­ni­cal mas­ter – the mo­bile phone. In Janeway, Kehlmann had found a close friend and the per­fect col­lab­o­ra­tor ca­pa­ble of con­vey­ing his hu­mour, lin­guis­tic panache and sub­tle lev­els of emo­tional in­tel­li­gence.

The part­ner­ship was bril­liantly con­sol­i­dated with F, a poignant fam­ily tragi­com­edy about three broth­ers and their self-ob­sessed es­tranged fa­ther. The Ger­man edi­tion was pub­lished in 2013, and fol­lowed within a year by Janeway’s in­tu­itive trans­la­tion, which was widely ac­claimed as a Book of the Year. It was to be her fi­nal project with Kehlmann.

You Should Have Left, his first book since her death in 2015, is wry, eerie and in­creas­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing. Ross Ben­jamin ef­fec­tively con­veys the cryp­tic qual­ity of the con­ver­sa­tional nar­ra­tive be­ing ut­tered by a man who may be ac­tu­ally los­ing his mind, or, then again, merely in the throes of a great idea.

The cou­ple bicker away with Su­sanna, the wife, ex­ploit­ing her ac­tor’s voice in scor­ing points. Her ca­reer may be in de­cline but she glee­fully ridicules his work and, as he records in his notebook: “. . . al­ways has to bring up clas­sics to re­mind me that she had a de­gree in comp lit and classical stud­ies, whereas I’ve never at­tended a univer­sity”.

He no­tices ev­ery­thing; pos­si­bly be­cause he is in a height­ened state, look­ing for any­thing that will trig­ger a story. Hon­est enough to ad­mit re­gret­ting that he can’t iden­tify birds by name; he says he knows noth­ing about the re­spec­tive child­hoods of the char­ac­ters he in­vented in his pre­vi­ous screen­play. “I told the stu­dents at the film academy last year that you should know ev­ery­thing about your char­ac­ters, es­pe­cially where and how they grew up,” he con­fides to his notebook, “but I only said it be­cause it’s in the text­books.”

Kehlmann is a for­mi­da­ble ob­server with a flair for ar­tic­u­lat­ing dys­func­tional be­hav­iour. Ben­jamin’s fluid, savvy trans­la­tion is alert to the fact that ev­ery word has rel­e­vance, each hes­i­ta­tion and mi­nor pause adds to the build­ing ten­sion.

While the adults snarl at each other, lit­tle Es­ther chat­ters mer­rily: “. . . telling us about a friend from preschool who is named ei­ther Lisi or Ilse or Else and ei­ther took a toy away from her or gave her one, at which point the teach­ers did ei­ther noth­ing at all or just the right thing, or some­thing wrong; lit­tle kids are not good sto­ry­tellers.” Not like Kehlmann.

The house may not have se­crets but the place does. When the nar­ra­tor braves the dan­ger­ous road to col­lect sup­plies from the only shop in the vil­lage, he is warned by the grumpy shop­keeper and then fears what else is be­ing said when an­other vil­lager ar­rives and fur­ther ex­changes are made in an in­com­pre­hen­si­ble di­alect.

Stephen King’s clas­sic The Shin­ing will come to mind, as may a more re­cent study in men­ac­ing ex­pe­ri­ences at va­ca­tion time – Sa­manta Sch­we­blin’s Man Booker In­ter­na­tional con­tender Fever Dream, trans­lated by Me­gan McDow­ell. Kehlmann re­ally suc­ceeds in keep­ing ev­ery­one guess­ing.

Long be­fore the nar­ra­tor opens one door to flee a room only to dis­cover that an­other door leads him back, it is clear sin­is­ter forces may be at work. All the while the tod­dler keeps her head as she has no dif­fi­culty in bal­anc­ing fan­tasy with re­al­ity.

Any­one who has ever been trans­fixed by the creepi­ness of baby mon­i­tors will shud­der at re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence. Fig­ures ap­pear at win­dows and the empty space of a de­serted moun­tain­side sud­denly ac­quires an in­tense claus­tro­pho­bia.

Set over five days, the novel is an ex­cur­sion into one man’s thoughts; his imag­i­na­tion is at war with his re­spon­si­bil­ity and the ter­ror is real. So is the hu­mour: as the nar­ra­tor pre­pares to lie to his pro­ducer about the progress he has made on the script, the lit­tle girl be­gins to wail. “Just a minute, Daddy has to talk on the phone, stop cry­ing!” The pro­ducer, still on the line, waits for the nonex­is­tent plot out­line. The nar­ra­tor senses a lack of trust.

Hav­ing walked around in cir­cles in the dark, fa­ther and child are back in the house which re­fuses to re­lease them. The nar­ra­tor is aware of a man hav­ing been in the room with them: “. . . he wasn’t stand­ing on the floor but on the ceil­ing, and he was look­ing down at me as if he wanted to ask for help. But he was only here briefly, and I’m so ex­hausted that I might also have imag­ined him.”

Wel­come to a hall of mir­rors; the nar­ra­tor could be en­ter­ing a hell all of his own mak­ing. Or then again, per­haps he is in con­trol? Daniel Kehlmann cer­tainly is in com­plete mas­tery of an en­ter­tain­ing Every­man’s post­mod­ernist Gothic guar­an­teed to un­set­tle.

Eileen Bat­tersby is lit­er­ary cor­re­spon­dent. She will be in­ter­view­ing Ed­mund White and John Boyne, and also read­ing from her novel Teeth­marks on My Tongue, at Fes­ti­val of Writ­ing & Ideas, Bor­ris House, on Sun­day, June 11th Amer­ica

Any­one who has ever been trans­fixed by the creepi­ness of baby mon­i­tors will shud­der at re­liv­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence

Keep­ing ev­ery­one guess­ing: Daniel Kehlmann’s thriller You Should Have Left is wry, eerie and in­creas­ingly ter­ri­fy­ing, with echoes of The Shin­ing. PHO­TO­GRAPH: SVEN PAUSTIAN

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