Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Hype, Hubris? Fame

Speaking of hype, last night saw the "premiere" of Daniel Kehlmann's new book, Ruhm (Fame). And your roving reporter teetered down the road to the Berliner Ensemble theatre to enjoy the spectacle.

And she wasn't the only one - the place was packed to the gills, with yours truly eye to eye with the putti and chandeliers up in the gods. Every single one of the 738 seats was occupied, and the audience was very mixed - fur coats rubbing shoulders with practical rain jackets in the cloakrooms. For some reason, people seemed rather aggressive. I was twice accused of being in the wrong seat, although I was perfectly entitled to be sitting in row 6, seat 6 of the upper circle (left).

Perhaps it was the flush of anticipation getting them all het up. Cameras were flashing, TV crews got under people's feet, the bar was jammed up with liggers, the mirrors in the ladies were crowded with lipsticking lovelies - in short, the atmosphere was tense. This was an Event with a capital E, people were there to see and be seen.

The show itself was almost subdued in comparison. No special effects, no music, no smoke and mirrors. The stage was set with three chairs and three tables, and Kehlmann was introduced by literary editor Sebastian Kleinschmidt – whose wife shares a passion for parrots with young Daniel, we learned. The man himself walked on to frenzied applause in a very nice suit (as far as I could make out), accompanied by the actor Ulrich Matthes, the narrator of the German Measuring the World audiobook. Matthes launched straight into the first story of the evening, which Kehlmann has referred to as his favourite of the nine making up the novel. Kehlmann himself read the second story, switching back to Matthes for a short portion of a third piece. There followed a fairly brief and painless interview with the gushing Kleinschmidt. Exeunt omnes.

My impression: it's good. It's clever, it's entertaining, it's humorous but not light-hearted. It seems to display the same healthy lack of respect for his characters as his other books - but at the same time a great deal of affection. And above all it has little in common with Measuring the World, being very much of today. Perhaps not world-moving stuff, but perhaps the genius, as Kleinschmidt fawned, lies in the book's structure - which we didn't find out much about, by the very nature of the event. The stories are interlinked in some way, dealing with writing, with fame and with death. The evening certainly whet my appetite for the book, and I will review it in the near future. Translation rights seem to have been sold for nine languages so far, but I expect that number will go up, considering Measuring the World made it into forty. And I have no doubt that we'll see an English translation at some point.

What I find most interesting is the huge publicity machinery behind the book. OK, it's cute to hold a huge flashy premiere for a book called Fame, in Berlin of all places. But it's not just that. Kehlmann is such a star, apparently, that the book's release merited an item on the evening news. And Spiegel magazine "leaked" a very positive review before the jealously guarded deadline - now that's a coincidence. Other reviews have been up and down, but I'm not sure whether that might be a gut reaction to all the hoo-ha. Let's hope pride doesn't come before a fall, as Kehlmann does come across as a genuinely likable normal guy, a writer's writer and a reader's writer.

1 comment:

David said...

I'm probably the only person who hasn't read Kehlmann yet, but I'll get around to it this year.

I have started Hundert Tage on your recommendation. Excellent!