Posts Tagged ‘daniel kehlmann’

‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann – A Family Falling Apart


‘You Should Have Left’ by Daniel Kehlmann   (2016) – 111 pages                   Translated from the German by Ross Benjamin

Since I am a big fan of the four previous Daniel Kehlmann novels that I have read, ‘Measuring the World’ and ‘Fame’ and ‘F’ and ‘Tyll’, I must warn you not to start with this novella ‘You Should Have Left’ as your first Daniel Kehlmann read. It does not represent his real talents.

In ‘You Should Have Left’, our narrator writer is working on a screenplay, a comedy called “Besties 2” about two young teenage girls Jana and Ella. It’s a sequel. Our young writer is on Alpine holiday with his wife Susanna and four year-old daughter Esther, but he’s also here to work on that screenplay.

The novella starts out warm and playful as Kehlmann works usually do, and I started out really into reading it. Of course the screenplay he is writing is typical bad Hollywood fare, but he has to go through with it.

In a movie it’s funny when a life falls apart, because the people say clever things while it’s happening, but in reality it’s only dismal and repugnant,”

Lives fall apart. That’s what actually happens in this novella. Soon things aren’t at all warm and playful. Our narrator surreptitiously listens to the messages on his wife’s cell phone, which, I suppose, is always a terrible thing to do. His wife Susanna leaves.

Then we have scenes of quiet horror, strange men showing up unexpectedly in rooms, pictures on the wall that weren’t there before, a woman shouting “Get away quickly” as he drives by in his car. However to me these edgy scenes were unconvincing, because they didn’t fit the warm beginning or lead anywhere. One time after he leaves his daughter’s room, he sees a strange man in his daughter’s room on the child monitor and then realizes it is himself, and the camera must have a time delay.

Although parts of this novella were effective and fun to read, it ultimately left me lost as to what was going on. It is too fragmented. I am not sure what really happened or what point the author was trying to make. It starts out lighthearted, but the later parts containing elements of horror seemed out of place.


Grade:    B-



The Top 12 List of the Favorite Fiction I Have Read in 2020


This being the year of the lockdown, I had time to read a couple of lengthy doorstop novels (‘The Maias’ and ‘Life A User’s Manual’) just like I used to do before I began writing regular blog posts. Also this year I discovered that there was some amazing fiction from the past which I had missed previously.

Click on either the bold-faced title or the cover image to see my original review for each work.


The Maias’ By Eça de Queirós (1888) – ‘The Maias’ is a jaunty vastly pleasurable trip in mid-to-late 19th-century Lisbon, Portugal society with some lively quick-witted companions. Readers new to Eça de Queirós can start with the short novella ‘The Yellow Sofa’ to determine if you like his style of writing or not.


‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar (2020) – ‘A Burning’ is a vivid powerful novel which focuses on one of the major crises in our world today, racial hatred. ‘A Burning’ is a world-changer if enough people read it and take it to their minds and souls.




‘Hamnet’ by Maggie O’Farrell (2020) – A most intense depiction of family life and death in the late 16th century. Imagine an entire novel about William Shakespeare that contains not one line from his plays or his sonnets.




‘Tyll’ by Daniel Kehlmann (2017) – ‘Tyll’ is 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.


Missionaries’ by Phil Klay (2020) – ‘Missionaries’ is a novel about the United States’ never-ending, misbegotten wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Colombia, and now Yemen. It is most focused on the drug wars in Colombia. ‘Missionaries’ opened my eyes to what is really happening in this world. It is a novel that will change your entire worldview.


‘Woe From Wit’ by Alexander Griboedov (1823) – From the very first words in the prologue of this verse play in four acts you can tell that it is going to be sharp and special:

Fate’s a mischief making tease,

That’s her character in brief,

a fool is blissfully at his ease,

a man of spirit comes to grief.


‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ by Gail Honeyman (2017) – Someone could argue that the story in ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ is not very sophisticated. I do not see sophistication as a necessary or even desirable attribute of literature. Rather I see stating situations as simply and clearly as possible as one of the hallmarks of good literature, and that ‘Eleanor Oliphant’ does. Eleanor Oliphant’ is a poignant and affecting story.


‘Hurricane Season’ by Fernanda Melchor (2016) – ‘Hurricane Season’ is not for the squeamish or easily offended. The characters in this novel tell the truth about some very rough things. They are angry and the words they use are coarse and direct. Read ‘Hurricane Season’ if you are brave and honest enough to take it.



Other People’s Love Affairs’ by D. Wystan Owen (2018) – These eloquent stories go deeper into the circumstances and the psyches of their main characters than most stories do. People in them almost connect but not quite. This is a collection of short stories which will move you if you are willing to be moved.


‘Such a Fun Age’ by Kiley Reid (2020) – ‘Such a Fun Age’ is a novel with a light touch that captures the dialogue of people socializing, whether it be a group at a party or dinner or just two people alone. Rather than an individual character contemplating a problem or situation, we get the interplay of many voices. What this novel really excels in are exchanges between groups of young women, whether young mothers or young single women. Kiley Reid’s enthusiasm for her story rubs off on the reader.


Indelicacy’ by Amina Cain (2020) – ‘Indelicacy’ is a powerful novella about creativity. Can a woman who cleans toilets and mops floors for a living have strong ambitions to be a writer? ‘Indelicacy’ answers that question with a resounding “Yes”. ‘Indelicacy’ is a novel about the struggle to create. One gets the impression that Amina Cain carefully chose each precise word in this unusual novella ‘Indelicacy’. It is a work that captures you on a visceral level rather than an intellectual level, which is always a good thing.


‘Life A User’s Manual’ by Georges Perec (1978) – I just cannot leave this novel off my year’s best list even though at times I loathed, loathed it and at other times I loved, loved it.






Also this year I read two excellent works of non-fiction – ‘The Splendid and the Vile’ by Erik Larson and ‘Chronicles: Volume One’ by Bob Dylan.





My favorite collection of poems in 2020 is ‘Failing Heaven’ by Charles Behlen.










‘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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