Daniel Kehlmann is fast becoming one of my favourite contemporary authors. Me & Kaminski is the fourth of his novels I have read, along with Fame, Tyll and You Should Have Left. I love the sharp playfulness of his novels and although Me & Kaminski feels slighter than the other books of his that I have read, I still enjoyed it’s diverting charms.
“At means nothing. Everything’s an illusion. And you know it and you have to go on.”
This satirical novel is a keen glimpse into the art world, going behind the scenes of gallery openings, reputations and academic studies to reveal a slightly more grubby portrait of self-important artists and their even more self-important acolytes all vying for attention.
Sebastian Zollner is a journalist and art critic. He is not a likeable man and amusingly gets into an argument with every person in the service industry he comes into contact with. Belligerent, arrogant and impatient, he has decided that he is going to write a biography of the legendary (depending on whom he asks) painter Manuel Kaminski. This decision seems more based on the fact that Zollner’s arch rival Behring has already written about Matisse and Freud, rather than any particular love Zollner has for Kaminski’s work.
First I had thought 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.
The ailing Kaminski, once a student of Matisse and friend of Picasso, is now practically blind, living in a secluded village in the Alps with his protective daughter Miriam and – as Zöllner’s is pleased to hear – may not be alive before the book is published, his death making for a handy selling point.
Zöllner has few scruples, and shows little hesitation in bullying his way into Kaminski’s house. His egomania doesn’t allow him to consider that Kaminski might in reality not be quite the legend he thinks he is. When he can’t get any good information from Kaminski he does some snooping and finds out that Therese, the love of Kaminski’s life, who was thought dead, is in fact alive and well and living on Germany’s east coast. Sensing a scoop that he can centre his biography around, Zöllner and Kaminski set off on a road trip to bring about a romantic reunion.
What follows is part art-world skewering and part road trip caper as Zöllner and Kaminski encounter unscrupulous car thieves, caring prostitutes and angry ex-wives. The art world send-up peaks at an absurd exhibition opening where everybody scrambles for Kaminski’s attention, even though none of them seem to remember any of his work.
Everyone says something different, almost everything is forgotten, and they all contradict one another. How am I supposed to find out things?
What lends the comedy some gravitas is the character of Kaminski himself, who, despite his age may be more astute and manipulative than at first he seems. His cryptic half-sentences suggests that Kaminski is the only one in the whole novel who is aware of the absurdity of the world in which he has found himself.
The final reunion with his lost love Therese, is a gorgeous blend of the comic and the tender. As he interrupts her watching an episode of Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the reader gets a touching glimpse at a relationship that could have been. Zöllner might not get the drama he was hoping for, but what he gets is something much more important.
Me & Kaminski is an accessible and humorous road trip into the worlds of art and journalism, satirising both. Although it could be seen as a little predictable, and lacks the depth of other Kehlmann novels I’ve read, it still makes some good philosophical points along the journey, exploring the nature of artistic legacy and reputation with a light touch.
I have two more of Kehlmann’s books in the 746 – F and his acclaimed best-seller Measuring the World. I am very much looking forward to both.
READ ON: IbOOK
NUMBER READ: 309
NUMBER REMAINING: 437
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!