Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Daniel Kehlmann's Tyll - All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.

One of the new books I read last year, Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll (2017 in German, 2020 in Ross Benjamin’s English) was from the future.  I accidentally bought an Advanced Reader’s Copy – “Not for Sale” the cover declares.  But surely at this point I can think of myself as an Advanced Reader, in English, at least.  Maybe an Intermediate Reader in French still.

Tyll is the merry prankster, a German medieval folklore figure who wreaks havoc with his honestly not-so-merry pranks.  He has some importance in German literary history because Tyll stories were among the early products of German printing.  Some old Tyll leaflets appear on page 4, along with those about “the Ship of Fools and the great priestly folly and the evil Pope in Rome and the devilish Martinus Luther of Wittenberg and the sorcerer Horridus and Doctor Faust and the hero Gawain of the Round Table and indeed about him, Tyll Ulenspiegel, who had now come to us himself.”

In the novel Tyll is about the archetype Tyll come to life for another tour of central Europe, this time during the Thirty Years War (a new round of the evil Pope versus the devilish Luther).  Perhaps the spirit of Tyll inhabits a boy with a talent for juggling and tightrope walking.  Perhaps that boy consciously takes on Tyll’s identity.  If the spirit of Tyll has returned, it is not clear why.  The world of the Thirty Years War is irredeemably awful.  Juggling and ventriloquism can’t solve that problem.  But the novel puts Tyll in the background, mostly, of a number of other people’s stories.  He gives them little nudges, sometimes just by existing.

If I understand Michael Orthofer’s more thorough review, he would like the novel to have been more about Tyll himself.  But it is not.  It is more about the meaning of Tyll.

All this is true, he says, even what has been made up is true.  (126)

The world was once enchanted, and then became disenchanted, by science and bureaucracy and so on, argued Max Weber and many others.  The world of Tyll is still enchanted, in the sense that everyone believes in magic and religion, and the representative scientists are experts in crystals, or dragons, or, in the case of Athanasius Kircher, literally everything.  Kehlmann has some fun with Kircher’s cat piano; I would include an illustration if I could stand the cruelty.

Using the irony of a novel about a magician, Kehlmann seems to be arguing for disenchantment, for a little less magic in the world, for less religion, or at least less religious war, and for modern science, not Kircher’s science:

Kircher had grasped early on that one had to follow reason without being flustered by the quirks of reality.  When one knew how an experiment had to turn out, then the experiment had to turn out like that, and when one possessed a distinct conception of things, then, when one described them, one had to satisfy this conception and not mere observation.  (264)

A good novelist is likely all right with mere observation.  It is not so “mere” in the hands of an artist.  We can have as much enchantment as we want, by means of art.

The book I read begins with a letter to the Dear Reader from Dan Frank, the Editorial Director of Pantheon Books, that is filled with guff, especially the closer: “Whether you are a fan of Neal Stephenson, Jorge Luis Borges, George R. R. Martin, or Margaret Atwood, you will be captivated by the unique and original vision of Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll.”  Stephenson wrote books set in the same century, which is something, although leafing through Quicksilver I will say that Kehlmann is rather lighter on his feet; Borges has me stumped; I have not read Atwood but looked up descriptions of her most famous books and am again baffled; as for Martin, Tyll does not have much in common with the only book of his I have read, the morally instructive Sandkings (1981) but does feature a Winter King and a Winter Queen and lots of characters who are murdered in the usual horrible ways.  I guess Martin fans like that?

I assume this letter is just part of the ARC, not the soon to be published version?  You people who get free books, do they usually come with this nonsense?  How can you stand it?


  1. he was probably thinking of "The Aleph"... Simplicius Simplissimus by Grimmshausen: i almost read it once, but as you say, the grimness of the 30 years war...

  2. I have no idea if you saw this or not, but a relevant quote from "The Aleph" can be found if you follow the link, up above, that I attached to Athanasius Kircher. Kircher, like the character in the story, wrote books about everything. "Everything" as a concept.

    I did not notice, nor did my wife, who read Tyll in German, anything too specific that looked like it was meant to refer to Grimmelshausen's novel. But the two novels kind of work in the same violent world. Simplicius Simplicissimus is the stranger book.

    If anything, Tyll reminds me a bit of Günter Grass, especially The Flounder. And some parts, like that one bit I quoted, about the made up stories being true, have a strong Gaiman flavor.

  3. The ARCs I've come across haven't had any letter. I assume this is a sign of a higher status book, rather than the hopeless ARCs they're willing to send to me...but yes, that combination of authors, Dan Frank might as well have said: did you read a book last year? Then you should buy this!

    Various things I've seen about this make it sound interesting to me, but I read Kehlmann's Measuring the World, which generated a lot of raves, and was underwhelmed. It felt, and I hate the term, probably because I worry it applies all too well to me, anyway it felt middlebrow...

  4. Good point. This letter is actually bound in - it is the first page of the codex. High status!

    Wuthering Expectations has a "no free books" policy, so I am pretty ignorant.

    Compared to Borges or Grass, Tyll is middlebrow. How much work do you have to do, and how much does the author do for you? Middlebrow is a good descriptive word. Kehlmann is more of a high middlebrow, I guess, by nature of the subject matter.

  5. Yes, I've seen letters like that in ARCs. I'm not sure where some publishers and publicists get the idea that some of these comparisons ("reads as if it were written by the lovechild of Plato and Iris Murdoch!") are useful. As you note, most of them are ridiculous!

    I've read (in whole or in part) three Kehlmann books and the only one I finished was You Should Have Left, which was very short, creepy, and suspenseful. Measuring the World and F were, to borrow reese's word, underwhelming. I found them dull, probably because they somehow felt derivative, all too typical, with nothing new. Maybe Tyll is worth trying? I have tremendous respect for translator Ross Benjamin so, hm.

  6. The Editorial Director's ghostwriter was right, I should acknowledge. I like Borges, and I liked this novel. I mean, I wasn't "captivated" - turn it down a notch, will ya?

    Measuring the World sounds like my kind of book, in that it appears to be full of stuff, historical stuff, but I never read it, so who knows. Maybe it is my equivalent of a "beach book."

  7. Review copies do often come with a publicity sheet of some kind. I mostly ignore them but if they are blank on one side they are useful for taking notes and of course double as a bookmark. :-)

  8. That would be better. This letter is bound into the book. It is part of the apparatus now, an artifact for future Kehlmann scholars to interpret.

  9. The reference to Borges is merely code, just as Tolstoy means it's a long family epic, Proust means it's so long it's had to be split over multiple volumes, and Chehkov means it has three sisters in it. Borges means it reads more like a scholarly work about a story than a story.

    I have a copy of Till Eugenspiegel c16th edition, which I keep meaning to read. I'll now read it and compare it to this book I haven't read.

  10. "Warning: This book was written in a facility that also processes metafiction." Yes, that is what I fear "Borges" means. Or worse, poking around online, it means "magical realism."

    Yes, please read the, or a, old Till and see what is really in it. See how "merry" it is.

  11. I signed up for an ARC thing with a small Canadian press, so that's my experience. (Plus one or two I found in used bookstores.) If you're willing to read obscure books and you have a blog, I don't think it's that hard to come by them.

    I eventually gave it up because I couldn't bear to pan books that were going to otherwise die of their own obscurity...

    I stole middlebrow from Dwight Macdonald's essay (the essay actually kind of irritated me) though I see the term is older than him. Mostly it irritated me because I am middlebrow...

  12. My argument against free books, that is a post I will never write.

    Middlebrow is a great, useful term and it is a shame that so much negative weight got piled on it. I am happy to see its modest comeback. Jonathan Rose's Readers' Liberation has some great historical chapters on the rise and fall of "middlebrow."

    I am pro-middlebrow. Pro-lowbrow, too. Art can be found in any of them.

  13. Geez, I can't handle links anymore. My post about Readers' Liebration is here.

  14. Macdonald's argument is anti-middlebrow in favor of either low or highbrow as I remember. But as you note on the Rose post, there's a lot of interesting things that carry moral weight and sell well and have intellectual heft but are still easier than Malone Dies and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. Go Oprah.

    Nevertheless...I don't remember Measuring the World fondly. I might try Tyll, though.

  15. I used "lowbrow" differently than Macdonald. He meant, I don't know, folk dancing, and I mean superhero comics and Buddy Holly and Psycho - I'm trying to stay near 1960 - which he called "masscult" and considered poison. Grumpy old Troskyist. No pop sensibility at all.

    1. Ha, yes. He probably hated 'Notes on "Camp"' which appeared in what was by then his former magazine. Grumpy is right.

    2. Macdonald was a film reviewer for quite a while, so I looked up his view of Hitchcock before including that example. I mean, who knows? But I had guessed right.