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Try the Right Angle

By (August 1, 2017) One Comment

You Should Have Left
By Daniel Kehlmann
Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin
Penguin Random House, 2017

There is nothing more terrifying than the familiar turning against us. In his tenth work of fiction, Daniel Kehlmann employs this terror of the ordinary to tell the tale of a family holiday going dreadfully wrong. Barely a hundred pages long, You Should Have Left follows an unnamed narrator, a screenwriter struggling to complete a new screenplay, his wife Susanna, an actress, and their four-year-old daughter Esther while vacationing in an isolated house in the German Alps. The setting is idyllic, but soon enough the vacation home is transformed into a house of horrors and events are spinning out of control. Instead of ghosts or monsters, however, Kehlmann uses the distortion of science to tear a peaceful world apart.

The German-Austrian author has always been interested in science and he has used scientific themes before in his fiction. Most notably, of course, in his bestselling novel Die Vermessung der Welt (Rowohl Verlag, 2005, translated into English as Measuring the World by Carol Brown Janeway, Pantheon Books 2006) in which he re-invented the lives of two giants of German science – the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the geographer Alexander von Humboldt – and their ill-fated meeting at a scientific conference in Berlin in 1828.

But already in two previous novels, which unfortunately are not available in an English translation, Kehlmann played with the concept of scientific certainties. In his 1997 debut Beerholms Vorstellung (Beerholm’s Performance) science and the quest for truth are the driving force of the plot: the magician Beerholm turns to religion after his failure to comprehend the mathematical implications of infinity. And science plays an even bigger, and darker, role in Mahlers Zeit (Mahler’s Time), published two years later, in which the protagonist, the young scientist David Mahler, believes he has uncovered the secrets of time and as a result, loses his mind.

Now, Kehlmann takes it a step further by making science the central culprit of a horror story. What if scientific certainties – like the rules of geometry governing right angles – were no longer valid? What would happen if, so to speak, two plus two no longer equals four? Thus, Kehlmann’s novella explores the classic tale of the haunted house but the author gives it a modern, scientific twist.

The book opens with the narrator’s family on the way to their holiday destination. Yes, there are palpable tensions in the marriage – the couple “yelled at each other” on the drive up the mountain – but there is nothing out of the ordinary happening, yet. After the quarrelsome drive, the family settles in the new house, which, to the narrator’s surprise and delight, “looks even better in reality than in the pictures on the Internet”, and the narrator hopes that the holiday will not only solve the relationship-problems but will also help salvage the screenplay for the sequel of his success-movie Besties:

It is fitting that I’m beginning a new notebook up here. New surroundings and new ideas, a new beginning. Fresh air.

Everything seems to be as it should be: the narrator is working on his screenplay, while his daughter is playing outside, and in the evening, he and his wife are enjoying the beauty of the night sky:

Then we stood side by side at the livingroom window and looked into the night: thousands upon thousands of crystal-clear points in the black velvet, below them the contours of the two glaciers faintly glowing, and behind our house there must have been an especially full moon, because the slope in front us was almost as bright as day from the white light.

But the peaceful atmosphere is, of course, deceitful. Kehlmann gives the reader a sense of the horrors to come when the narrator reports a nightmare he had that same night, although he doesn’t understand why he would have “a dream like this after such a blissful evening”:

An empty room. A naked lightbulb on the ceiling, in the corner a chair with only three legs, one of them broken off. The door was locked, what was I afraid of?

The woman. Her narrow eyes were very close together, on either side of the root of the nose, which had a deep wrinkle down the middle. Her forehead too was wrinkled, and her lips were slightly open, so that I could see her teeth, yellowish like those of a heavy smoker. But what was awful were her eyes.

She stood there while my fear grew unbearable. I was trembling, I had difficulty breathing, my eyes were watering, my legs went weak –

Even though it was just a dream, the narrator observes that “the fear was as real as fear can be”. Still, the next day is spent as if nothing had happened and Kehlmann entertains the reader with the narrator’s humorous observations about his young daughter:

Meanwhile Esther was telling us about a friend from preschool who is named either Lisi or Ilse or Else and either took a toy away from her or gave her one, at which point the teachers did either nothing at all or just the right thing, or something wrong; little kids are not very good storytellers.

These musings are nothing more than a brief comic relief, however, and Kehlmann makes sure that the interludes of normalcy never last for long. When the narrator drives down to the village to do groceries later that day, for example, he has difficulties navigating the treacherous serpentine road:

The sun was blinding, and the valley sprang from my right side to my left and, at the next hairpin bend, back again. I broke out in a sweat.

At the next turn the car slid too far out, I stepped on the brake, it came to a stop just in time. Was I too close to the edge of the road? There was no barrier.

Again, Kehlmann relieves the tension, this time by making the narrator question his driving abilities. But once in the village, we get a first concrete hint that there is something else going on, that there might be something wrong with the house. Casually, the shop-owner inquires whether “anything has happened yet?” The narrator then learns that there has been another house “in the same spot” but that the owner tore the old house down and built a new one.

The narrator presses for more information but the shop-owner isn’t forthcoming. Instead, he adds a present to the narrator’s groceries:

A gift, he said, and put something down in front of me. I was a small triangle ruler made of transparent plastic, like the ones I had used in school.

Thank you, I said, but our daughter is still too little for –

Try the right angle, he said.

Back in the mountains – no incidents occur on the drive up – the narrator starts to work, trying to pretend, once more, that everything is normal. But Kehlmann increases the pace and soon the events in the house become too terrifying for the narrator to ignore. Rooms are changing location, the faucet in the bathroom is not “where it should be”, a painting in the hallway disappears and reappears. And when the narrator uses the triangle ruler he had been given earlier, he discovers that even the basic rules of geometry and right angles do no longer apply.

Like science, the distortion of a reality that – at first glance – looks normal and ordinary, is a recurring theme in Kehlmann’s work. “A writer,”, he states in his essay Wo ist Carlos Montúfar?, “plays with realities.“ And Kehlmann’s protagonists always live in a reality which is pushed to its boundaries when the book progresses. In Beerholms Vorstellung, for example, the magician starts to believe that his magic tricks are real and in Mahlers Zeit, the main character is convinced that he found a way to suspend the passage of time.

In the novella, the true extent of the twisted reality becomes clear only when the narrator realizes that he cannot see his own reflection in the window:

I see an empty glass next to the crumpled bag – here in the room, there in the reflection.

Only I don’t see myself. In the room in the reflection there’s no one.

At first, the invisibility only lasts for a second or two, but soon the intervals become longer and longer. In short, half-finished sentences, the narrator tries to document the nightmarish consequences of a broken-down reality in his notebook:

It’s happening again.
It must be an optical
But it’s not stopping. I see it. And still see it.
Write it down. Have to take a picture of it, but I don’t know where my phone

Kehlmann constantly plays with the reader’s perception, never fully revealing whether there is indeed something wrong with the house or whether, like in Mahlers Zeit, it’s the protagonist’s mind that is unravelling. Despite this ambiguity, Kehlmann is able to make the narrator’s struggle against the house feel real. This battle against forces beyond the protagonist’s control is yet another familiar theme in Kehlmann’s novels. Not surprising for an author who draws his main inspiration from E. L. Doctorow – especially from Ragtime – as Kehlmann stated in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung in 2011.

Once the narrator realizes the extent of the danger he and his family are in, he tries to escape. But it turns out that leaving the house is easier said than done. The question whether the narrator will be able to save his family, and if yes, at what cost, is driving the second half of the book until its chilling conclusion. Kehlmann’s crisp, unadorned style and his preference for short sentences successfully enhance the breathless horror of his protagonist.

And for the most part, Ross Benjamin’s translation succeeds in preserving the author’s stylistic idiosyncrasies. Kehlmann’s language doesn’t present many translation difficulties in the first place: there is no linguistic fluff and neither does Kehlmann use the paragraph-long sentences that made German literature so (in)famous. Still, there are some examples that show that the translation leaves room for improvement.

In the German original, the narrator’s success-movie is titled “Allerbeste Freundin” (literally: Very Best Friend), and the decision to choose the very colloquial abbreviation Besties for the English translation instead of, for instance, Best Friends for Life, is at least questionable. Another small irritation is caused by the translation of the word “das Kind” (the child) with ‘kid’ which doesn’t convey the same distance between the narrator and his daughter at the beginning of the book.

A more troublesome issue is a ‘trick’ used by the translator which seems to be fashionable nowadays when translating contemporary literary fiction. During the narrator’s fight with his wife, Susanna – who has a degree in German literature – argues that there is nothing wrong with comedy but, clearly, Besties doesn’t fall into the same category as Twelfth Night or The Importance of being Earnest. If the comparison to plays by Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde strikes you as odd, it should. In the German original, the two plays are Minna von Barnhelm and Der Zerbrochene Krug, two comedies written by Lessing and Kleist respectively. Is it too difficult for English language readers to cope with the titles of two German plays, even if those titles are unfamiliar to them?

These minor grievances aside, the English-language reader will be as captivated by Kehlmann’s story as the German audience. Which only shows that in the hands of a talented writer it only takes a hundred pages to thoroughly spook us.

Britta Böhler teaches legal ethics at the University of Amsterdam and is the author of the novel The Decision.