Monday, 15 June 2015
Me and Kaminski by Daniel Kehlmann
Published in German 2003
Translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway
I was going to sit down, but right then in came Miriam and, I recognized him at once, her father.
I hadn’t expected him to be so small, so tiny and shapeless compared with the slim figure in old photographs. He was wearing a pullover… one hand was on Miriam’s arm and the other on a white walking cane. His skin was brown, creased like old leather, his cheeks sagged loosely, his hands seemed enormous, his hair a chaotic halo. He was wearing threadbare corduroys and gym shoes, the right one was undone and the laces dragged behind him. Miriam led him to a chair, he groped for the armrests and sat down. She remained standing and watched me.
“Your name is Zollner,” he said.
I hesitated, it hadn’t sounded like a question, and I was struck, quite inexplicably, by a momentary shyness.
observations: I read Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World a few years ago (pre-blog days). It was not a promising concept: a fictionalized version of the lives of mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, by a German intellectual wunderkind. I approached it with caution. In fact it was one of the best books I read that year: a mesmerizing look at the worlds of the two men – one travelling endlessly, the other staying at home, both of them, exactly as in the title, measuring the world. It was hilarious (of all things you wouldn’t be expecting), beautifully written, spell-binding and affecting.
So I’d been meaning to read something else by him, and this was it (he has a new book out at the moment, called F: A Novel, which might be next on my list). Me and Kaminski would be a great introduction to the author: it is short and sharp and (again) funny, and you could read it in a few hours. It’s narrated by Sebastian Zollner, art critic and writer, who is hoping to make his career by writing about Kaminsky, an elderly, reclusive, once-famous artist. Zollner is a dreadful man – crass, rude and with no idea of the effect he is having on those around him. He worms his way into the house, and then ends up taking a roadtrip with the artist. So it’s a strange mixture of Henry James’s Aspern Papers (and its modern-day equivalent, Robert Plunket’s sublime My Search for Warren Harding), and all those films and novels where an unlikely pair, separated by age, go off on a quest together.
It is plainly a satire on the art world, and art studies, and art history, but would make anyone laugh. I loved Kaminsky’s bitchy remark that ‘there are more of Marc [Chagall]’s originals than there are copies.’ Later, he is describing a ‘horrible dream’ about painting to Zollner, and says, crushingly, ‘you were also there, but that part I don’t remember.’
The picture is of Henry Fitch Taylor, from the ever-entrancing Archives of American Art at the Smithsonian. There is more on the art world in Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, here on the blog, illustrations from the same source.
An elderly artist also features on the blog in Death of a Ghost by Margery Allingham.