Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes by Daniel Kehlmann (translated from German by Carol Brown Janeway)

When I decided to read Daniel Kelhmann’s Fame, I was expecting a novel that spanned the entire length of the book, with chapters the author referred to as “episodes.” It did say “A Novel in Nine Episodes” on the jacket cover. So imagine my surprise when it turned out to be more like a short story collection than a novel, though all characters from the nine episodes were related or connected in some way, and each plot or setting is an antecedent or aftermath of the other. And while this did kind of saddened me a bit, the stories did make up for it. This book did not disappoint.

Originally written in German and translated to English by Carol Brown Janeway, Fame presents the different stories of seemingly random people, each dealing with the subject of fame, anonymity, what is true and what is real: the computer technician who accidentally got a pre-assigned phone number and has been getting phone calls addressed to a famous actor; a widely respected author who realizes that all his bestselling books are rubbish, wondering whether he ought to keep up the pretense for his readers or end it all; and the telecommunications department head leading a double life between his family and his mistress, getting deeper and deeper into his labyrinth of lies. Each main character is related to the others, each story connected by a single detail or so, each episode dealing with the concept of identity (or lack thereof).

While Kehlmann’s storytelling is vividly dark (and sometimes funny, as in the case of the forum post recounting one man’s quest to make an impression on the author he ran into during a conference), Janeway does a superb job of keeping Kehlmann’s paradoxes of what it is to be famous and satire intact.

A certain favorite of mine would be “The East,” where an author of detective novels attends a conference in an obscure location and gets left behind when the delegation is sent home. Despite being a well-known author, her fame is of no use in a third-world country where nobody speaks any other language but their own, and where she is left with virtually nothing, not even her identity.

Fame is haunting and melancholic, where people clamor for fame, avoid it, flirt with it, give up to it, each of them with a different take on what it means to be recognized.

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