Posts Tagged ‘daniel kehlmann’

‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann – Tyll the Trickster and Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen During the Thirty Years War


‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann  (2017) – 342 pages                     Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

‘Tyll’ is brilliant. But don’t take my word for it. Let me quote this Good Book:

A dragon that had been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports of people having sighted dragons with extreme skepticism, for a dragon that let itself be sighted would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”

Olearius rubbed his forehead.

In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

The perfection of this reasoning is why I read novels.

Above all, ‘Tyll’ is a playful fiction which was fun for me to read.

‘Tyll’ takes place during the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), an especially grim and superstitious era of European history. An estimated 8 million people died from battle injuries, starvation, or disease. Most of the war took place in what is now Germany, Czech Republic, and Austria. The war started out as a religious war between the Catholics and the Protestants but got all mixed up. Frederick II as Holy Roman Emperor tried to impose the Catholic Church on even the Protestant states of northern Germany. The war started in 1618 with the Defenestration of Prague when the Bohemian Protestants threw the Emperor’s representatives out of a window. Later Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden descended into Germany with his mercenary army and won some major battles before he himself was killed. Even though France was mainly a Catholic country, they sometimes fought on the Protestants side against their old enemies of the Holy Roman Empire. The war ended in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia. The result of all this war was inconclusive.

There are two main characters in ‘Tyll’. The first is Tyll Ulenspiegel. He is a tightrope walker, a juggler, an actor, and an all-around trickster. He and his girl friend Nele keep popping up everywhere, performing for the beleaguered peasants as well as the displaced royalty. Tyll and Nele also dance for their audiences:

We could dance fairly well, we celebrated often, but none of us could dance like them; watching them, you felt as if a human body had no weight and life were not sad and hard. We too could no longer keep still, and we began to bob, jump, hop, and spin.”

The other main character is Elizabeth Stuart the Winter Queen or as she is known here, Liz. Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of English King James I, winds up the Queen of Bohemia through marriage. The terms Winter Queen and Winter King are derisive because Frederick V was only King of Bohemia for about one season, and now they are wandering around central Europe trying to find someone to intercede for them, and they are considered a joke. However I suppose Elizabeth Stuart had the last laugh as her progeny ruled England as the House of Hanover for over 200 years.

‘Tyll’ consists of set pieces which all fit together into an attractive puzzle.

It is most of all a sometimes light, sometimes black comedy which entirely suits the Thirty Years War. This novel is fascinating at the sentence level, a real accomplishment for both the author and the translator. Daniel Kehlmann brings a smart playful quality to his fiction that makes his writing well nigh irresistible.


Grade:    A+



‘F’ by Daniel Kehlmann – How Do We Mediocre People Live?

‘F’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2013) – 272 pages     Translated by Carol Brown Janeway


‘F’ raises some of the major questions of life, yet somehow manages to be playful.  At the same time it is a well-constructed work of fiction.

‘F’ is about a father and his three sons coming to terms or not coming to terms with our post-modern world.  Not that the modern world before had been all that great what with the Great Depression and World War II.

But in the post-modern world, even the priests don’t believe in the sacraments they perform or even in God.  Many businessmen and politicians cheat and defraud but are rarely punished.  And of course the art world and museums are rife with hype and fakes.  ‘Sheer noise triumphs over quality.’

36fac0f98daab33866b736ced92788b1The father Arthur is an author who walks out on his family to pursue his writing after an auto-suggestion from the hypnotist, the Great Lindemann. The sons grow up.  One son Martin is a fat priest who still is intrigued by the Rubik’s Cube, one son Eric is a stock broker living the high life but contemplating suicide, and one son Ivan is a gay artist and art critic.

‘F’ is by no means what I would call a ‘straight line’ traditional novel.  It is definitely post-modern.  It resists any simple plot explanation and it raises a lot of questions it doesn’t answer.  That is a good thing.  Each of the sons gets to tell his story.

One of the many questions ‘F’ asks is ‘How do people who are mediocre manage to live their lives?’  Ivan wrote his dissertation on ‘Mediocrity as an Aesthetic Phenomenon’.

“Ivan often wondered how people with no particular gifts put up with their existence.” 

Each brother has his own way of dealing with Ivan’s question — how do you live with mediocrity, why do you keep on going?   The general answer in ‘F’ seems to be that we fake it.

“If I kept on painting, I would be average at best.  Would that be terrible? Most people are average by definition.”

Although the tone of ‘F’ is light and playful, it is not an easy novel. However it is a rewarding one.  I had to listen to the entire novel twice to get its full effect.  One chapter is a story, ‘Family’, the father Arthur wrote.  He has no memory at all of his own father, but he traces his ancestors back to medieval times. The story seems to point out how random and stupid fate is that we are here today.

18339155So what does the ‘F’ stand for?  My best guesses are ‘Fate’ or ‘Fake’.  Maybe the two are interchangeable in our post-modern world.


My review of ‘Fame’, Daniel Kehlmann’s previous novel, can be found here.


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