You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Short but not sweet

Cover image I’m a great fan of Daniel Kehlmann’s fiction which is why I was so keen to see his first play, The Mentor, premiered in my home town’s Ustinov Studio a couple of months ago. There I was all agog, tickets at the ready only to be too unwell to attend on the night but I gather from H that it was excellent. Consolation arrived in the shape of a new book by Kehlmann, albeit a very brief one – too short to call it a novella, more of a short story. It’s about a writer who takes himself off with his wife and daughter to a remote retreat in the hope of getting a grip on the screenplay that seems to be eluding him.

Our unnamed narrator is writing a sequel to the comedy whose royalties pay the household bills, much mocked by his actor wife in their recurring cycle of bicker and make-up. Susanna’s the one who booked the modern, mountain-top house from which our narrator stares out at stunning views while she and their four-year-old, Esther, play outside. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling – a strange, narrow-eyed woman appears in them, morphing into Susanna, then back again. Rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Outside the shop, a woman in sunglasses tells him to ‘get away’.  Meanwhile, back at the house, it seems that our narrator is not the only one haunted by bad dreams.

Kehlmann’s story starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his narrator is trying to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of the living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. There are many familiar tropes here even for those of us who rarely read horror – that missing reflection, messages obliquely communicated, dreams becoming waking nightmares – all adroitly handled so that they’re deeply unsettling rather than stale. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, but I’m persuaded towards the former. There’s that face morphing into Susanna’s and the house is the same age as Esther not to mention the way in which it ends. Either way, it’s a riveting read.

23 thoughts on “You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Short but not sweet”

  1. I have this on my e-reader, it sounds exactly my cup of tea: writer struggling to write, domestic non-bliss, a dash of unsettling darkness… Perfect combination!

  2. I too have this on my Kindle and look forward to it very much. It will be my fourth Kehlmann novel. All are so different from each other, but good in their own ways. What a shame that you missed the chance to see the play; I just saw it advertised in this week’s Guardian and was going to ask you if you knew about it!

    1. They are, aren’t they. Such an inventive mind. I can give you a second hand recommendation of The Mentor from H who enjoyed it very much as did the friend who used my ticket.

      1. I found your blog BECAUSE I saw the play last night!
        As is often the case, I have nobody to discuss it with so please go to see it!!!!

          1. Yes and no.
            It has been directed in the style of TV sitcom with lots of flaying of arms and melodrama.
            I would have preferred it more naturalistic and let the dialogue speak for itself.
            I read an interview where Daniel Kehlmann said he learnt to write humour from watching the Simpson where Homer Simpson’s lines are underplayed as opposed to leaving a gap for laughs (German style)
            When Benjamin Rubin asks “What font did you use?” It was delivered with great flourish and ruined the humour for me.
            But then I am a nit picker!!

          2. Not at all, but I’m sorry to hear that. I wonder how Kehlmann’s approach to humour goes down in Germany and Austria. In his novel Measuring the World there is quite a lot of what you could almost describe as slapstick humour.

  3. This sounds completely different from the other Kehlmann book I read! I’m glad you read it – I’ve been curious about it. And I had no idea it was so short.

  4. Why have I heard of Daniel Kehlmann? Fascinating review, Susan. I haven’t read horror for a long time (James Herbert pretty much did me in: oh, The Rats!) but you’re right, it sounds like he’s riffed all the typical horror tropes but managed to keep them fresh irrespective. Sounds like an intriguing read.
    And what a shame to have missed the play. I can only imagine how gutted you must have been.

    1. Thanks, Belinda. I think The Mentor may have been getting a bit of attention having recently transferred to London although you may have come across reviews of Kehlmann’s fiction in the blogosphere. I think he’s quite a favourite in some parts of it. I was very sad to have missed it but pleased that H enjoyed it, at least.

  5. Like you I’ve liked all of Kehlman’s previous work. I’ve just ordered this and I’m looking forward to reading it. I would have loved the chance to see his play – translated drama (apart from the classics like Ibsen) is so rare.

    1. That’s true. I know it’s playing in London, now, but perhaps it will be taken on tour. I hope you enjoy the story as much as I did. I’ll be interested to see what you make of it.

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