Daniel Kehlmann’s Fame: The Self in the Cyber Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daniel Kehlmann (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

Daniel Kehlmann is a very funny, very philosophical young fictionist from Germany who will make you want more like him — and more playfully engaging books like his Fame, a novel in nine linked short stories, or “episodes.” A number of reviewers who seem not to have read the book suggest that Fame is all about celebrity, which it’s not at all. It’s an imaginative probe into the YouTube universe and the always-online feel of our emergent cyber-humanity — into cell-phone effects on our self-hood, or Facebook effects on our fantasies. It is also a storyteller’s bright-eyed rumination on what the digital range and speed of our lives have made possible, or impossible, in stories themselves. The new taken-for-granted info tech has realized the yearning in endless fairy tales, for example, for telepathy: if only I could whisper a word to the lost beloved… It has enabled double-lives and resurrections that used to happen only in dreams and miracles. At the same time, the ways we connect now have collapsed, among other things, the “big goodbye” scene in prose or on the movie screen. How could we summon a surge of tears nowadays hearing Ilsa tells Rick, “We’ll always have Paris…,” when we know that two minutes later, in today’s world, would come the first text message?

Flickering in the Kehlmann background are deeper, more delightful riddles. One of the central stories in Fame introduces Rosalie, an older woman with terminal cancer, making her way to an assisted-suicide clinic in Zurich. En route she rebukes the author of her story and pleads with him to save her: “Is there no chance, she asks me. It’s all in your hands. Let me live.” To which the author replies: “This isn’t a life-affirming story. If anything, it’s a theological one.”

Kehlmann’s theology, in our conversation, is richer than what we’ve often heard about authors playing God with their characters:

Any story puts me, as the writer of the story, into the godlike position of creating people to make their life difficult, to make them suffer because I have a plan for them. The plan is just to get the story as good as possible. There is a kind of teleology in getting the story right, because all the things happening to a character, causing pain to the character, ruining the life of this character, they are there for the greater good of getting a good story. And so this is exactly the same position in classical theology where the theologian tries to justify god: we are told that yes, you are suffering, but you are suffering because there is a plan. You might not understand this plan, maybe you never will, but you should trust that there is such a plan and that’s why you should accept your suffering.

When I made Rosalie protest against this, and tell the writer “don’t do this to me. I don’t care about your plan,” it wasn’t just a metafictional game. It was a very real point that in the face of basic human suffering the whole idea of a bigger plan justifying all that seems ridiculous. To me this was a very serious theologically, philosophically charged story which also had a very personal twist because Rosalie is also telling the writer “one day all this will happen to you, you will be in pain, you will be dying, you will hope that somebody, against the plan, will just save you and it will not happen.” It’s true, and she was not just talking to some abstract writer, at this moment she was talking about me and the fact that it will happen to me too.

… Even when I started the story, I had always intended the ending that the writer interferes and ruins the story and saves the character. Then the writer also says “I hope someday somebody will do the same for me.” I think, well, as you say in English, “fat chance!”

Daniel Kehlmann with Chris Lydon at the Harvard Bookstore, Cambridge, September 20, 2010

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  • Druthers

    What an interesting interview. A large room for the mind to wander in.

    I have often thought how our lives are like the episodes of a multigenerational story in which we, if we are curious, know what happened in the preceding episodes but will forever ignore those that come after ours.

    We are blocked in our episode just as the characters of a book are printed onto the page. It might be called the glue of time.

    I’ll certainly read Daniel Kehlmann’s books and am so very pleased that I listened to the program.

  • nother

    Great stuff. But I come away from this interview feeling that the more things become different, the more they stay the same. I know that’s not a revolutionary idea, but it’s what pops into my mind every time I hear someone elucidate on the mysterious comings of our – now continual – information age. New technology cannot change my capacity to be jealous, embarrassed, prideful, or pissed. It provides a new medium for my emotions, but it does not generate them. It connects me to people and some of what they possess, the good the bad and the ugly. I am not my facebook profile, and if you think I’m am, then that’s your problem not mine. Let me buy you a beer sometime.

  • Rob Crawford

    I listened to this while chugging on my bike in the Alps. What amazes me about you, Chris, is the freshness and sense of inspiration in your conversations – I feel as if I could do new things, that I should try new avenues, from the guests you have. There is no one else like this that I have ever listened to on talk shows.

  • nother

    I second that, Rob.

  • Bryon

    The discussion of Rosalie reminded me of Robert Coover’s Universal Baseball Association, Inc., J. Henry Waugh, Prop. (1968)

    I read it ages ago, but recollect that it had similar themes. Do you know this book Chris?

  • Nother, as attracted as I am to the idea that these technologies you and I use are not having a profound effect on our minds, I still have to wonder. I think of Nicholas Carr, who was on the show just recently; his whole argument is that in fact what is at stake in this age is our ability to think the way that long, intimate interactions with static text provokes — that is, deeply, considerately, carefully. Neal Postman also put forward a similar argument a couple decades ago in talking about the effect of television on democratic discourse. I think that if we use new technologies with the kind of discipline and critical thought that you seem to employ (“I am not my facebook profile”), we can get the best effects out of them and few of the bad.

    Kehlmann gets us to think; and that’s why his work really excites me. We can all believe what we want, but stories give us all sorts of room for debate.

  • It was a very real point that in the face of basic human suffering the whole idea of a bigger plan justifying all that seems ridiculous