Jonathan McAloon

Existential Blows

, Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Ross Benjamin), Riverrun, 2020,
pp. 352, £18.99 (hardcover)
Measuring the World, Fame, F, Daniel Kehlmann (trans. Carol Brown Janeway), Riverrun, £8.99 (paperbacks)

Time and the novelist both have death within their gift. In the GermanAustrian writer Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Fame, translated into English ten years ago, an elderly woman begs and bargains for her life. Rosalie has terminal cancer, and exists within a short story by the fictional author Leo Richter. Richter, also a creator of dense metafictions, lives in Kehlmann’s novel as a character on the page, a malevolent omnipotent presence, and through extracts of his work. Unhappy with being created only to be killed off, Rosalie reminds her author that one day he too will have to die. Then he ‘won’t understand why an exception can’t be made’. It’s different, he tells her. ‘I’m real!’. ‘Are you?’, she asks.

But as she enters a Swiss assisted suicide clinic, her author has a change of heart. Rosalie escapes with not only her life, but with a second youth: she has been restored to her twenties. As the intrusive narration of Leo Richter makes clear, though, this reprieve is so temporary as to be pointless. Rosalie will cease to exist within a paragraph, when the story ends. The gift of life doubles as a joke. Elsewhere in Fame, which is a collection of disjunct episodes that build on one another, a popular spiritual guru and self-help fraud feels the need to perform the ultimate prank on his readership and the world’s faithful. To shoot himself: ‘how could he resist the temptation to deliver such a blow to them!’

In his latest novel, Kehlmann seeks out the Germanic archetype of such pranks, such existential blows. The legendary travelling jester Till Eulenspiegel first appeared in print in a 1510 chapbook, where he mocked the powerful and conned people into eating his shit. He also had a good line in escaping retribution, though Eulenspiegel, who was believed by these first storytellers to have lived two hundred years prior, would not be able to escape the Black Death. Or so the tales say. There is a tradition of shifting Till through time, though, as if he is too tricksy to be bound by his death and his era. In 1867, Belgian novelist Charles De Coster dropped him into the Reformation, and a century later Kehlmann has moved him into the most devastating premodern war in European history: the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). ‘Pristine barbarity and wildness’ was how Friedrich Schiller described this culmination of a century’s unrest between Protestant and Catholic powers in Germany, which he saw as ultimately clearing space for a future Enlightenment. Kehlmann concerns himself with the time itself, in which twenty per cent of the German population died. Armies the size of which Europe had never seen lived off the land for decades, taking whatever was there for themselves and marauding with impunity. For the commoners, it was a case of dying by the sword, by hunger or diseases these armies brought everywhere with them. In the meantime, more people were being executed for witchcraft than ever before, often blamed for bad weather or the failure of crops. It is under such circumstances that Tyll grows up, though his story itself comes to us in achronological fragments from the point of view of scholars, invented nobles, Elizabeth Stuart (daughter of James I) and her unfortunate husband Frederick, whose acceptance of the Bohemian crown was seen as the great catalyst for the war, and whose three-month tenure on the throne earned him the nickname the Winter King.

The story begins with death: a young child, Martha, sees Tyll Ulenspiegel perform, imagining telling her grandchildren about the famous jester. Only pages later ‘the future that had a moment ago been hers dissolved: the husband she would never have and the children she would never raise and the grandchildren she would never tell about a famous jester one morning in spring, and the children of these grandchildren, all the people who now would not exist’. The war claims them instead: her descendents, her memories and the capacity to tell stories. At this point the voice, not to be taken up in the rest of the book, is revealed to be the communal narrative of one wiped-out village: ‘We remember, even though no one remembers us, because we have not yet reconciled ourselves to not being.’

Kehlmann has set his story at a time when people had a simple (though far from easy) understanding of, and link to, the existential: a time when people were surrounded daily by death and the threat of not existing, even before war was factored in. We meet Tyll as he practises tricks as a boy a few years before the war’s outbreak: he tightrope walks and performs sleights of hand, like slipping a handful of stones into a mill hand’s groats: ‘The right moment is quickly missed, but if you’re attentive, you can sense it. Then a unicorn could run through the room without the others noticing.’ He is the son of Claus Eulenspiegel, an inquisitive miller who reads scholarly texts and doubles up as the local healer. All of Tyll’s many siblings died at birth or shortly after. ‘You always have to keep a distance between you and your children,’ thinks Claus, ‘they simply die too quickly. But with each year that passes, you get more used to such a being. You begin to trust, you allow yourself to be fond of them – and suddenly they’re gone.’ One day Tyll meets a young stranger who asks about his father. ‘Does he have opinions? Does he read?’ This stranger turns out to be a Jesuit inquisitor who tries and hangs Claus for witchcraft, forcing Tyll to flee with his friend Nele, a baker’s daughter who wants more from life than marrying a farmer’s son. They become travelling performers.

The scatology that usually accompanies the Till Eulenspiegel of legend is barely present. Instead we have a comedy that is purely verbal and sideways (though Tyll remains a physical acrobat, too). The book’s eponymous hero is rarely central to the action, but appears at the margins of each of its sections before escaping, just as he pops up throughout Germany. It’s as if the book enacts his own career of dramatic entrances and exits. Sometimes it goes further, and gives the impression that Tyll only fleetingly appears even in his own life. Viewed from the outside, he has an ‘agility of soul’ visible in his face. Some of the formative episodes in his life he can’t remember. Others he voluntarily suppresses, with the reader only offered a glimpse. He is a cypher even to himself. ‘Nefarious prank[s]’, as well as frantic escapes, are alluded to but not explained. And we remain unsure, as is he, whether he is touched by the ‘the great devil’ or merely amoral and sceptical of God: if not of His existence – Kehlmann gives none of his characters the modern luxury of rational atheism – then His motives. Viewers of his tightrope act ‘suddenly understood what lightness was […] understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one’.

That Tyll has appeared in Kehlmann’s work seems almost fated. The name of the mythic Jester reflects Kehlmann’s own artistic concerns. Eulenspiegel translates as ‘owl glass’, or ‘owl mirror’. In Fame, Leo Richter is described as ‘the author of intricate short stories full of complicated mirror effects […] that were flourishes is empty virtuosity’. Mirror games that begin, at this point, to play out to the very edge of exhaustion. Further to his character Rosalie breaking the fourth wall to demand a reprieve from death, Richter backs out of giving a talk in a Central Asian country and asks a crime writer friend to step in. ‘I’m here instead of Leo Richter,’ she says upon arrival. ‘They sent me his ticket. I’m replacing him.’ When she gets lost, none of the authorities will believe she is who she says she is. A man who recognises Richter at a corporate function tries to get him to include him in a future story, finally accepting that ‘I’ll never, ever, be in a story,’ only to appear as a dramatically unflattering character in the next chapter: a Richter short story embedded in the text. In 2013’s F, possibly Kehlmann’s finest novel to have been translated into English, identical twins Ivan and Eric Frieldland had a period ‘during which not even they themselves were entirely sure which of them was which’. Having lied to a woman he is having an affair with about his wife, Eric ‘sometimes [feels] this version is actually true, as if it were playing out in a parallel universe exactly as I’ve told it’. Ivan is obsessed with trompe l’oeil effects in art, and eventually paints works under the name of a mediocre artist he has discovered, bringing his amanuensis fame from the shadows and effectively becoming a forger of a whole oeuvre which is his own original creation. (The works themselves are technically astounding satires on the fakeness of the art world.) When one twin is in mortal danger later, a vision will appear to them both, mistaking one for the other. The one who is dying will be instructed to save his brother, and given his own location, while the safe twin will be rebuked for not staying out of trouble. Their father Arthur abandoned his family to write novels, which, when they came, indulged in all the virtuosic mirror games of his fake novelist predecessor Leo Richter (‘the reader would be enjoying the text were it not for a persistent feeling of somehow being mocked’).

I say these mirror effects are played out to the very edge of exhaustion. At no point, when reading Kehlmann, do you think he is playing over his readers’ heads. His are genuinely readable novels that don’t skimp on intelligence, complex structural ingenuity or articulacy. They usually feature experts in some order of knowledge. They all contain existential puzzles. Tyll is essentially composed of bravura set pieces. A surreal suffocation scene down a mine shaft and a delirium scene where a king dies from the plague in the snow are both excellent. Conventions of the fairy tale are taken apart and put together as a form of compromise. A passage of sustained ingenuity imagines things from the point of view of an aristocrat who will decades later write up his war experiences in a florid memoir. The narrative fills in what he will omit for the sake of vanity, specifying which other parts will be invention or falsehood, and outlines its reception by readers and then, later, academics.

Elizabeth Stuart, Queen of Bohemia – possibly the closest thing
Kehlmann’s latest novel has to a centre – loved the court theatre of her father, where she saw Shakespeare himself perform his late works. She longs to live within that grandeur, and sees her life as a performance, a fiction projected back from the future on the past: ‘She thought of the great dramatist, the hovering magical power of his sentences; she felt as if she were surrounded by the shades of future historians, as if it weren’t she who spoke but the actress who later, in a play in which this moment occurred, had the task of portraying Princess Elizabeth Stuart.’ This comes at the moment she persuades her husband to accept the Bohemian crown: a dreadful political move, but one befitting the ambition of dynast from a great royal house. Macbeth is, after all, the ‘best’ play she has seen: ‘If she persuaded her husband, the world would take one course, and if she didn’t persuade him, it would take another course.’ Shakespeare was similarly fond of projecting his historical figures forward from their own present to the time of their dramatic reception. Cleopatra, before her suicide, imagines being forced to watch ‘Some squeaking Cleopatra boy my greatness/ I the posture of a whore’ as she is paraded through Roman streets in triumph. Shakespeare’s poetry has been kind to her, though, and her eventual portrayal in front of the Jacobean public atones for the one she imagines.

This sort of historical irony is Kehlmann’s stock-in-trade, and is the formal basis of Measuring The World, the novel that knocked Dan Brown and J.K. Rowling off bestseller lists, and made Kehlmann, by some metrics, the bestselling post-war German author. It follows the lives of eighteenth-nineteenth-century luminaries Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. One is a high-born explorer and scientist who catalogues large tracts of Central America, the other is a low-born mathematician who stays at home and makes revolutionary discoveries in the fields of number theory, astronomy and magnetism. Both will contribute to the Enlightenment. The following thought comes two pages into Kehlmann’s translated oeuvre, and now looks like a declaration of intent:

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-àvis the future […] Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.

Kehlmann is interested in how time makes the most promising humans look like clowns. Everyone but the clowns. Important historical figures wander around imagining a future age, with equal humour resulting in these predictions being either dead on or way off. ‘One day this is what all people would experience,’ Gauss thinks while he rides one of the first hot-air balloons. ‘Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead.’ Just as frequently his theories expose the limits of human brilliance. After a disastrous appointment with a barber surgeon who extracts the wrong tooth, Gauss envisages a time with ‘doctors for teeth’: so far so good, but his predictions are only accurate to a point. ‘Soon the world would no longer be full of the toothless. And everybody wouldn’t have pockmarks, and nobody would lose their hair.’ In Tyll, Athanasius Kircher, the young Jesuit who entraps and condemns Tyll’s father to death, effortlessly dispels some superstition, and at the same time insists coolly and confidently that the world will end in a hundred years. He reappears later as his illustrious, established polymath self, this time looking for a cure for the plague, ‘which will then be administered to the Pope and the Kaiser and the Catholic princes […]. As well as perhaps to those Protestants who deserve it. To whom exactly will have to be negotiated. In this way, perhaps, we can end the war.’ He intends to make this cure from the blood of an invisible dragon supposedly living in Holstein. ‘About one thing there was no doubt: as long as the world existed, people would read Athanasius Kircher,’ thinks a rival scholar. Reading up on the obscure figure now, we find that Kircher made his reputation on a prolific and learned series of poetic mistakes: about the nature of the world, medicine, alchemy, the ancient Egyptian language and the existence of dragons. At the same time, he rightly hypothesised that diseases were caused by microorganisms.

What Kehlmann is good at capturing is the uncertainty, the sheer unknowability of what is to come. For the most part this is not an author looking smugly back and mocking his characters for their inability to divine the future. It is characters looking forward, with a mixture of insight, uncanny prescience and complete error, to a blackness they can’t fathom. Tyll’s father on the eve of his execution, in a scene that is heartbreaking and also deeply successful as a comic creation, attempts to think of the world going on as normal without him. ‘Only he can’t imagine it. For whenever he pictures a world without Claus Ulenspiegel, his imagination smuggles back in the very Claus Ulenspiegel it is meant to remove – as an invisible man, an eye without a body, a ghost.’ Kehlmann is often preoccupied with time’s aura, what it does to the people and art that constitute its passing. If my saying this is likely to evoke more sober Germanic literary figures like Walter Benjamin and W. G. Sebald, then perhaps Kehlmann is a sort of jester at this tradition’s court, holding up a trick mirror.

At the same time, we also see a comic level of prescience that plays straight to the stalls. Weaker historical ironies; time’s slapstick. In Measuring The World Humboldt eats a paste made of ants in the jungle and remarks, ‘Certainly a possible future solution to the food supply’. Much is made of America being a ‘back woods’, just as the inhabitants of Kehlmann’s early seventeenth century in Tyll find the idea of literary works written in German preposterous. Gauss’s foresights and predictions, too, are
put in the service of marking narrative time in a manner both satisfying and predictable. The reader can scarcely make their way through a major event in Gauss’s personal life without it being interrupted by a stunning inspiration or revelation about the trajectory of astral bodies or prime numbers. He pauses his wedding night to write down a mathematical formula. If history makes clowns of Kehlmann’s characters, it makes clowns of his readers, too.

Tyll doesn’t make good on the relentlessness of Kehlmann’s more mawkish, lighthearted ironies in Measuring the World which, no doubt, ensure his popular reputation in the face of his strong, challenging formal game. Rather it shows the constructive literary uses to which they can be put. The whole point of being a trickster is that, while a joke lands, it has an after-effect that is closer to deflation than straightforward satisfaction. Slapstick and a sour taste. The Till of legend was cast as a popular entertainer of medieval times, received by an early modern world in which a price must always be paid. A darker world with a joy in the underhand, coeval with the pillory: something the first readers of, say, Cervantes would have understood intimately. Artists and philosophers of Western European descent have spent the intervening centuries trying to purge this darkness of impulse from high culture. This last century has seen it phased out of popular entertainment periodically, only for it to be revived periodically too. Still, we will always be a world away from truly knowing what nourishment the stories of Till could have provided an early modern audience in Germany. The book, however, gives us a feeling of being close to what we might imagine we could expect from it.

Kehlmann began writing Tyll in 2012, long before the fracturing of the European Union, and completed it as it was happening. The book came out in Germany two years ago. One of the pleasures of reading this book is that it has such topical potential upon which it doesn’t capitalise or intrude. A world in which the Black Death takes out princes could well have felt uncanny, or at least made a reader feel like they ought to experience it as uncanny or prescient for the sake of the Covid-19 pandemic. At no point did I feel this pressure. And neither do we see Tyll die of the Black Death, the traditional end to the legend. Trapped in a mine during a battle, Tyll survives because of an urge to cheat death forever. And as the book closes, he is invited by Elizabeth Stuart – who has just made a glorious political turn fit for the stage, making good on her earlier mistakes – to return with her to England and live out the remainder of his life in safety and to die in his bed, rather than on the road. ‘But do you know what’s better? Even better than dying in one’s bed?’ he asks her. ‘Not dying.’

Everyone dies and nobody cheats death forever. Those are the rules:
in life, and insisted upon at every level of Kehlmann’s work. They apply whether you are a famous historical figure, an unnamed villager, or the creation of an author within a story. And yet it almost seems in this instance as if an exception can be made. So we leave Tyll without death, almost imagining that this human being alive during one of the most dangerous times in history can pull off such a thing


Jonathan McAloon is an arts writer and book critic living in London. He has written for the BBC, The Telegraph, Financial Times, Irish Times, The Guardian, i-D, The Spectator and the TLS, among others.

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