Quercus £12.99 (195pp) £11.69 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Me and Kaminski, By Daniel Kehlmann, trans. Carol Brown Janeway

A ghost in the gallery

When Measuring the World appeared in 2005, the prolific young Viennese writer Daniel Kehlmann not only seduced Europe's readers, but surprised them as well. Here, in a bonfire of the stereotypes, the German-language historical novel roared back to comic life with a crackle of jokes, satire, action and pathos, as Kehlmann set up a quickfire dialogue between the lives and minds of the explorer Humboldt and the scientist Gauss.

Me and Kaminski (which begins amid the lush pastures of the Alpine slopes) also promises, if not a slaughter, then a teasing of some sacred cows.

Sebastian Zollner, a brazen critic who lacks both talent and shame, sets out to invade the privacy of an elusive, near-blind painter, Manuel Kaminski, in pursuit of a beans-spilling biography that will make the dim hack's name. From the boorish Zollner's first trespass into the artist's highland hideaway, we expect a gleeful massacre of media presumptions and art-world pretensions. To a degree, Kehlmann delivers on both fronts, and at his usual breakneck pace. The novel barrels along like a top-of-the-range BMW on a deserted autobahn. And that is just the scenario that unfolds when Zollner quasi-kidnaps the secluded maestro, a pupil of Matisse. With some near-slapstick escapades, he drives the shy icon into excruciating encounters with the chic Berlin art scene, and a long-lost sweetheart on the Baltic coast.

Yet Me and Kaminski begins to grip only when it turns off from the obvious route. As a narrator, Zollner, who informs his quarry that "Being famous means having someone like me", is simply too crass to convince. The critic or biographer as leech and wrecker has a proud pedigree (from Larkin and Nabokov, among others). Still, Kehlmann ought to know that when some treacherous sleuth comes to stitch him up, the villain will look more plausible than this dolt.

Neither does the smart-art satire really fly. The collectors and experts come cut from far too broad a cloth. And the gallery debacle has sketch-show sauce, but sketch-show crudity as well. Where Kehlmann really deepens his palette is with the portrait of Kaminski himself. Predictably, the artist turns the tables on every patronising parasite with a keen wit, cutting tongue and a clearer perspective than the deluded Zollner.

By the time that the wistful master pays a call on his old flame at her seaside house - as the baffled pensioner waits for Who Wants to be a Millionaire? on TV - the comedy has a touching, tender precision. At length, Zollner grows up as a narrator and fades into the wallpaper. The gear-shifting subtlety of this finale leaves you wishing that Kehlmann could have dumped the knockabout farce back on the hard shoulder long before.

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Save the Tiger: Meet the hunters tasked with protecting Russia's rare Amur tiger

    Hunters protect Russia's rare Amur tiger

    In an unusual move, wildlife charities have enlisted those who kill animals to help save them. Oliver Poole travels to Siberia to investigate
    Transfers: How has your club fared in summer sales?

    How has your club fared in summer sales?

    Who have bagged the bargain buys and who have landed the giant turkeys
    Warwick Davis: The British actor on Ricky Gervais, how the Harry Potter set became his office, and why he'd like to play a spy

    'I'm a realist; I know how hard this business is'

    Warwick Davis on Ricky Gervais, Harry Potter and his perfect role
    The best swim shorts for men: Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer

    The best swim shorts for men

    Bag yourself the perfect pair and make a splash this summer
    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Has Ukip’s Glastonbury branch really been possessed by the devil?

    Meet the couple blamed for bringing Lucifer into local politics
    Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

    Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

    Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
    Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

    Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

    When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
    5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

    In grandfather's footsteps

    5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
    Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

    Martha Stewart has flying robot

    The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
    Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

    Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

    Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
    A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

    A tale of two presidents

    George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

    The dining car makes a comeback

    Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
    Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

    Gallery rage

    How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players

    Eye on the prize

    Louis van Gaal has £500,000 video surveillance system installed to monitor Manchester United players
    Women's rugby: Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup

    Women's rugby

    Tamara Taylor adds fuel to the ire in quest to land World Cup