Narcissism is trending, so Germany’s wunderkind Daniel Kehlmann (bigger there than JK Rowling) is in tune with the Zeitgeist in this tale of an ageing literary lion seeing off the threat of a cub writer by rubbishing the work he’s supposed to be nurturing. Literary legend Benjamin Rubin (F Murray Abraham) still dines out on the hit play he wrote in his youth – a lucrative meal ticket as he’s mentoring budding playwright Martin Wegner for just one week under a prize scheme that earns both writers €10,000.
There’s no denying the elegance of Kehlmann’s set up. First dibs goes to Rubin, who gets to establish his character with insecurities about being a one-hit wonder – his querulous nature flagged up by a list of demands, including his Scotch of choice. It’s enough to try the patience of ineffectual arts administrator Erwin Rudiceck, presiding uneasily over this battle of egos. The names suggest the European location of Kehlmann’s play (Rudiceck is Czech, Wegner German, Rubin alone could be a Jew from either side of the Atlantic), though Polly Sullivan’s lush villa setting (it’s Rudiceck’s incidentally), with its wonderfully pretentious chairs that ape huge sculptured hands, sits as well in New England as, say, in the old country of Mittel Europa. Aspiring artist Rudiceck is looking for approval for his own artistic oeuvre, monochrome mood pictures handily displayed on his phone.