Journalists, Art Critics as Fictive Prey

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 15, 2009 | Go to article overview

Journalists, Art Critics as Fictive Prey


Byline: John Greenya, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In 1990, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm caused a huge flap with her comment that Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible. He is a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse. Lots and lots of people (most of them journalists) cried foul, but with the passing of the years there's been a grudging reassessment of her premise, and many now feel there was, and is, a great deal of truth in what she said.

German writer Daniel Kehlmann may be almost 40 years younger than Ms. Malcolm, but he knows whereof she spoke. Sebastian Zollner, Kehlmann's protagonist in Me and Kaminski, comes across as the living - well, OK, fictional - embodiment of morally indefensible journalism. Having stumbled into art criticism, Zollner believes that the best way to enhance his own stature is to diminish, and, should he be so fortunate, destroy, the reputation of an iconic figure.

I'd known for quite a while that it was time for me to write a book. My career had begun well, but now it was stagnating. First I had thought that maybe I should do a polemic, an attack on a famous painter or movement; a total trashing of photorealism, maybe, or a defense of photorealism, but then photorealism was out of fashion. So why not write a biography?

As his prey, to employ Janet Malcolm's conceit, he chooses Manuel Kaminski, a legendary painter who, reportedly going blind, now lives as a recluse in a small, unnamed town up in the mountains. A tell-all biography of Kaminski, especially if there is dirt to be uncovered - and featured - in the book, could make Zollner's reputation and remake or destroy Kaminski's. Sebastian is ready, willing and quite able to be "a kind of confidence man, preying on people's vanity, ignorance, or loneliness, gaining their trust and betraying them without remorse.

Armed with an imaginary book contract and article assignments from several major newspapers, Sebastian Zollner writes Manuel Kaminski and announces himself as his biographer. Not bothering to wait for an answer - it could be no! - he takes a train up to the mountainous area where Kaminski lives, cared for and protected by his daughter, Miriam.

The book opens with Sebastian on the train, and it immediately becomes clear that he is not one of nature's noblemen. He insults his fellow passengers almost gets in a punch-up with the conductor and tells a waitress in a coffee shop that it's nice to be up in the country where there are no intellectuals. Not far into the tale, the reader learns that Sebastian's girlfriend is kicking him out of her apartment, and the reader is immediately on her side.

When Zollner gets to Kaminski's house, the artist doesn't know what to make of him, and Miriam gives him a decidedly chilly reception, but that doesn't stop him from taking off on a flight of fancy. "It might be nice to live here. I pictured it: Miriam was roughly fifteen years older than me, but I could live with that, she still looked good. He wasn't going to be around much longer, we'd have the house, his money, and there'd certainly be a few remaining paintings.

I would live here, administer the estate, maybe set up a museum.

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