PEN World Voices Dispatch 2: Fame and the Writer (Talk with Daniel Kehlmann)

My second recap from the PEN World Voices festival is of a talk with German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. This was originally posted on The L Magazine website here; the full text is below.

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Originally slated as an event wherein “three successful European writers engage in a conversation about the alienating effects of seeing one’s life reflected in the public eye,” Thursday’s “Fame and the Writer,” panel at the NYU Deutsches Haus ended up–due to last minute scheduling complications–being a much more intimate (and occasionally more literal) discussion between Deutsches Haus director, Martin Rauchbauer, and German-Austrian author Daniel Kehlmann. Kehlmann’s 2005 novel, Measuring the World, has been an immense success for the young author (still under 40), selling nearly two million copies and making him one of the most widely read authors in the German-speaking world. Kehlmann’s follow up book, Fame, a ‘novel in nine episodes,’ has met with equal commendation, although its literal reception as a commentary on celebrity has surprised the author somewhat. The title Fame he explained, was intended to carry a little irony in the wake of his surprising success–like when Sean Connery said he’d never be in another James Bond movie and then returned in Never Say Never.

“These strong, resounding one word titles have such a force,” he said, referencing Martin Amis’ novel Money and Lion Feuchtwanger’s 1930 novel Success, “it makes it difficult to see that there are many motives and themes” that go into a novel. “I’m not complaining,” he assured. “It’s just interesting.”

Kehlmann differentiated between the idea of fame and that of celebrity, the latter of which he thinks is “not a very interesting phenomenon.” When he said that he didn’t honestly have much to say on the subject, Mr. Rauchbauer countered with a passage from Fame in which a famous actor meets his own impersonator, who seems to have better ideas about how to be the celebrity than the man himself. Kehlmann, acceding that the passage was, in fact, examining the idea of celebrity, then explained that he was interested in the experience of detachment that everyone has from their public self–the sense that “deep in our heart we are completely different than people see us.” This isn’t true just of celebrities, he said. “It’s just amplified for them. But philosophers have [shown] that the person we really are is the person we develop and put in the world. That is our true self.”

The conversation then shifted to a discussion of the reception of literature in the public eye and the an author’s obligation  to promote his/her work via book tours, festivals, and readings. Acknowledging the irony of having this conversation while himself at a festival, Kehlmann admitted that “I do think the way literature is organized in society–and many other authors have agreed with this–goes too much in the way of events…What any moderately successful writer does is spend one or two years writing a book and then one year explaining it…You spend all this time putting these things together and then you have to go publicly disassemble them.”

Kehlmann then read another short, humorous passage from Fame, in which an author explains–in response to the ubiquitous question, “where do you get your ideas?”–that he gets all of his ideas while in the bathtub. He had never understood this question, he said, even though it was what he was asked most frequently. Until one day he realized that ‘where do you get all your ideas?’ was simply “what became of the equally dreary question in the 70s and 80s, ‘why do you write?’” The question of an author’s intentions in creating, Kehlmann said, had “some social and political relevance. But in a time now when people are less concerned with writers trying to change the world, the focus has shifted.”

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