Do I have to spell it out any more than the title? This is a review of Daniel Kehlmann’s new novel. It sold 160,000 copies in its first week in the shops. It made the evening news. There’s a poster for it hanging in the window of the scientific bookshop down the road from me. There is no escaping Ruhm.
My impression at the launch was that it’s a very clever book. And on reading it, I can certainly confirm that. It’s made up of nine interlocking stories revolving around three famous people – the writer Leo Richter, the actor Ralf Tanner and the Spanish-speaking writer Miguel Auristos Blancos, modelled on a certain bestselling Latin American author, as Kehlmann was happy to reveal at the reading. Between them are ordinary people whose lives become entangled with theirs in one way or another.
It’s not a revolutionary idea. Ali Smith’s Hotel World, for example, does a similar thing – as does the film The Edge of Heaven, to give a German example. And I’m sure the better-read can list all manner of other examples. But Kehlmann has done it rather entertainingly. Some of the links are fairly tenuous – Leo Richter watches Ralf Tanner getting slapped in public on YouTube, for example – but they do always raise a smile.
The book’s strength though, as those who know Measuring the World will guess, is in its characters. All treated with a healthy lack of respect, the author seems to like some of them more than others. There’s the calmly eloquent retired teacher who turns out to be a character in a Leo Richter story and tries to persuade the writer not to make her die in a Swiss euthanasia clinic. There’s the despairing doctor who goes on a tour of Latin America as Richter’s lover, forever fearful that he’ll steal the details of her life for his writing. Or Ralf Tanner, who ends up opting out of his life of luxury in favour of a job as his own lookalike – only he’s not very good at it.
And then there’s Leo Richter. Is he? Isn’t he? He’s certainly a very famous writer who gets invited to all sorts of dull readings and events. He is asked the same questions with alarming regularity:
“Why do they always ask that?” Leo whispered in the car. “Where I get my ideas? What kind of question is that, what am I supposed to say?”
“What do you answer?”
“I say I get all my ideas in the bathtub. They like that.”
He’s a fussy eater, a nervous flyer, a spoilt brat looking for material in everything he does. And then he takes it and manipulates his characters’ lives against their will. Not a very flattering self-portrait, to whatever extent it is one.
One theme running through the book other than fame is modern communications technology. Internet forums, mobile phones, YouTube, emails, HSDPA cards – this all appears self-consciously far removed from the nineteenth-century setting of Kehlmann’s last novel. Ultimately, though, all the trappings of modern life let down the characters, getting them stranded in the wrong places and the wrong lives. For one unfortunate soul (wrongly described in many reviews and on the book jacket as a blogger), posting insulting comments on web forums becomes an obsession and he is unable to cope with real life.
This story, incidentally, is the only one of any great stylistic interest, with the first-person narrator addressing his audience in his very own parlance culled from the net – a great challenge for a translator, as his language is dripping with embarrassing Anglicisms. Otherwise though, Kehlmann’s linguistic style, although varying slightly with each story, is fairly standard stuff. In fact it reminded me ever so slightly of Ingo Schulze’s Handy (Cell Phone), another collection of often interwoven short stories looking at the influence of mobile communication on our lives.
Ruhm is an entertaining read, and its attraction does indeed lie in its structure. It’s the kind of book one ought to read twice. But there was one thing that put me off reading it that second time. Kehlmann deliberately juxtaposes his famous, creative characters with good old salt-of-the-earth ordinary folk. Mountain guides in the Andes, market traders in Turkmenistan and a surprising number of men in technical jobs. It’s these technicians who disturbed me the most. The author sets them up as a kind of anti-artists, the opposite to writers, actors and painters. It's them of course behind all this awful technology in our lives, and it's their fault that it goes wrong. They lead dull, frustrating lives in loveless marriages or living with mum. They read Auristos Blancos’ claptrap, longing for a bit of excitement through an affair or an assumed identity. And they ask, “Where do you get your ideas?”
And although the writers, above all Leo Richter, don’t come off particularly well either, they are still portrayed as a class apart from – above – the rest of us mere mortals. Fame, Kehlmann seems to be telling us, may be less attractive than it appears, but those who have it deserve it.