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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Daniel Kehlmann

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To purchase Tyll

Title: Tyll
Author: Daniel Kehlmann
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 340 pages
Original in: German
Availability: Tyll - US
Tyll - UK
Tyll - Canada
Le roman de Tyll Ulespiègle - France
Tyll - Deutschland
Tyll - Italia
Tyll - España
  • German title: Tyll
  • Translated by Ross Benjamin

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Our Assessment:

B+ : a bit loose in its presentation, but thoroughly engaging

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 7/2/2020 Boyd Tonkin
The Guardian A 1/2/2020 Marcel Theroux
The Guardian B 18/2/2020 Anthony Cummins
Literary Review . 2/2020 Cornelius Dieckmann
NZZ A+ 11/10/2017 Roman Bucheli
New Statesman . 19/8/2020 Leo Robson
The NY Times Book Rev. A+ 16/2/2020 Irina Dumitrescu
The New Yorker . 17-24/2/2020 James Wood
The Spectator . 1/2/2020 Anna Aslanyan
Sunday Times . 2/2/2020 Nick Rennison
The Times . 25/1/2020 Simon Ings
TLS B- 20/3/2020 Rob Doyle
Wall St. Journal A 7/2/2020 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 20/2/2020 Jon Michaud
Die Welt . 7/10/2017 Richard Kämmerlings
Die Zeit . 5/10/2017 Jens Jessen

  From the Reviews:
  • "In this robust, flavourful translation by Ross Benjamin, Kehlmann often matches the visceral quality of Grassís prose. He has, though, a genial lightness all his own. Tyll and his companions dance, juggle and blag their way through "the never-ending landscape of the war. Like a magician plucking an egg from an empty palm, Kehlmann summons comedy, farce, wisecracking badinage, even romance, from this blighted time.", across years of massacre, starvation, epidemic, torture and pillage. (...) Kehlmannís "Liz" is a memorable creation: shrewd, sad, resourceful and dignified. (...) Kehlmannís own graceful sleight-of-hand makes past and present, myth and history, merge." - Boyd Tonkin, Financial Times

  • "Itís only on careful inspection that you see how cunningly each episode fits with the others. Kehlmann will dramatise the same events from different viewpoints, giving us slightly different information each time, and showing how memory and self-interest obscure the truth of history. He also toys with sly literary allusions. (...) Kehlmann renders this world with an extraordinarily delicate and vivid touch, fixing on just those details that seem to capture the differences from our own (.....) Tyll is a very funny novel, too (.....) Itís a testament to Kehlmannís immense talent that he has succeeded in writing a powerful and accessible book about a historical period that is so complicated and poorly understood." - Marcel Theroux, The Guardian

  • "Like recent Black Death novels by James Meek and Oisín Fagan, Kehlmann’s portrait of bygone dark times both indulges and disrupts the apocalyptic turn in present-day commentary on current affairs. (...) Constructed as a string of disconnected, slyly contradictory vignettes, the fable-like narrative darts airily around with vivid detail and neat comic timing, treating the cast, and our attention, as playthings. Itís intricate and cleverly done, but not entirely satisfying" - Anthony Cummins, The Guardian

  • "(E)in Meisterstück (.....) Was ist das nur für ein unerschöpfliches Buch und was für ein grossartiger Stoff. Wie genau passt beides zu unserer Zeit. Vielleicht ist dies das herausragendste Buch zum Lutherjahr. (...) Es ist überdies der aussergewöhnlichste Europa-Roman seit vielen Jahren (.....) Das Buch ist mehr als ein Roman, und es ist mehr als Historienmalerei, weil es Witz und Vernunft, weil es Kunst und Kenntnis zu seinen Verbündeten gemacht hat." - Roman Bucheli, Neue Zürcher Zeitung

  • "Kehlmann's anti-hero and part-time protagonist, Tyll, is a commanding figure, like Prospero without Miranda or redemption. But the novel's composite narrative structure seems more sinister and elusive when Tyll is presented via other viewpoints, as a visitor or interloper, than when we are given, say, a dutiful account of his jester apprenticeship. (...) Kehlmann's emphasis on forms of language goes beyond idle wordplay and informs the novel's engagement with language as a tool of power. (...) If there's a larger problem, it's that Kehlmann's nimble way with concepts never pervades the novel's tone or texture. The set-pieces are solidly done." - Leo Robson, New Statesman

  • "Profoundly enchanting but never sentimental, Tyll is a magnificent story of an artist's transcendence over the petty superstitions, convenient betrayals and widespread brutality of his time. (...) Tyll's picaresque tale ranges widely over Europe, but Kehlmann juggles his stories with the dexterity of Ulenspiegel himself. (...) In this exquisitely crafted novel, Kehlmann moves just as nimbly through the grimmest of human experiences. The result is a spellbinding memorial to the nameless souls lost in Europe's vicious past, whose whispers are best heard in fables." - Irina Dumitrescu, The New York Times Book Review

  • "At narrative ground level, the war is useful to Kehlmann as a plot prodder. (...) Kehlmann, a confident magician himself, plays his bright pages like cards. But he has a deeper purpose, which is revealed only gradually, as the grand climacteric of his chosen war steadily justifies its presence in the novel. (...) The book's narrative is daringly discontinuous." - James Wood, The New Yorker

  • "(T)he narrative moves from myth to historical novel to ballad and back, and Ross Benjamin's translation follows it faithfully." - Anna Aslanyan, The Spectator

  • "While Tyll shows impressive imagination, learning and ambition, it is quite a slog -- there's lots of history and not enough story. (...) Choosing Tyll as the binding element in this sprawling epic leads to a certain narrative awkwardness. While the novel requires him to perform as the charismatic, mercurial figure of legend, Kehlmann also makes efforts to flesh him out as a feeling, thinking, embodied human being. The result is that he dangles in an unsatisfying limbo between mythos and character, never fully convincing as either. (...) Much of Tyll, however, rumbles along in rather plain, magic realism-tinged prose." - Rob Doyle, Times Literary Supplement

  • "You don't need any knowledge of the Ulenspiegel legend to appreciate this brilliant, blackly sardonic retelling. (...) The sprawling cast makes it clear that Tyll is not the reason for the senseless, nihilistic war, but merely its smirking avatar. The devil has gotten into nearly everybody, seen best in the macabre, corkscrew irony of the dialogue." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "While the title and the opening chapter suggest that the jester will be this novel's central character, Tyll winds up a Zelig-like figure who appears in every chapter (sometimes as a cameo) sowing chaos and telling truths no one wants to hear. Each chapter functions as a self-contained short story or novella with recurring themes and characters tying the whole together. Some are more successful than others, and the best are transfixing." - Jon Michaud, The Washington Post

  • "Wie Tyll Ulenspiegel mit Bällen jongliert, jongliert Kehlmann mit den Motiven und Bewusstseinslagen des Jahrhunderts, auch er versucht, alles in der Luft und in der Schwebe zu halten, ob Glaube oder Aberglaube, Magie oder berechnende Vernunft, und keineswegs ist ausgemacht, dass der Zauberspruch, der das eine Mal versagt, nicht das nächste Mal seine Wirkung entfaltet. (...) Es ist überhaupt viel Umberto Eco in dem Roman, das heißt viel Postmoderne, viel Vergnügen am Mischen von Fiktion und geschichtlicher Realität, an erfundenen Figuren, die historisch Beglaubigtes erleben, und historischen Figuren, die frei Erfundenes tun. Es ist, auf dieser Ebene, ein großer Spaß, auch ein beachtlich frivoles Hantieren mit den Kuriosa aus der kulturgeschichtlichen Grabbelkiste. (...) Auf einer anderen Ebene, mehr an der Oberfläche von Handlung und Sprache, ist es allerdings ein ernstes und tieftrauriges Buch." - Jens Jessen, Die Zeit

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The first written accounts of the mischievous prankster Till Eulenspiegel date back to the early sixteenth century, and the figure itself traces back another two hundred years; in Tyll, Daniel Kehlmann transposes the character to the time of Thirty Years' War (1618-1648).
       The opening chapter has Tyll come to a small, out of the way town which the war hasn't reached yet; already established, his name and reputation precede him, and he and his small entourage put on their show. Tyll manages to upset the local order with one of his pranks (Kehlmann relying on a familiar one from the original Eulenspiegel-story), prodding the townspeople to display their own foolishness before making good his own escape. The townsfolk prefer not dwell on the incident -- "We never spoke about what happened" -- but soon enough the war catches up with them as well, putting everything into a different perspective.
       From here the narrative jumps back to Tyll's childhood, when the young miller's son teaches himself tightrope walking, practicing until he can walk and leap as confidently as on firm ground. His father, an outsider, married into a local family, and inherited his father-in-law's business; Claus isn't really cut out to be a miller, but at least it's a real trade. Still, his mind tends to wander, much more interested in the deeper questions, down to abstract philosophy. The only reason he settled down in this particular town was because he had amassed too many books to lug around any longer; he doesn't understand everything that's in them, but he continues to study them, having even learnt some by heart. One, massive one, in particular defies him -- not least because it is in Latin, a language he does not know and which he can't figure out how to learn. His son, however, doesn't take after his bookish, lost-in-thought ways -- though he won't forget about that massive mysterious Latin tome .....
       When Jesuits come knocking Claus doesn't know any better than to share with them some of the thoughts that puzzle and trouble him, so easily carried away that he barely even notices his worldier wife's insistent admonitions to; "Hold your tongue !" He's taken a way and, along with a local would-be witch, tortured, tried, and condemned to death -- though all this too he takes rather philosophically, most of what goes through his mind hardly the sort of immediate concerns most people would have (though he certainly enjoys feasting on the fine last meal he's provided with -- better food than he's ever had).
       Tyll -- the only surviving child in the family -- and his mother know there's no future left for them in the town, but they go their separate ways, apparently without regret. Abandoning town, Tyll does ask local girl Nele to join him -- and she does become his longtime traveling companion, practically a sister, though never his wife. They join first one, then another traveling entertainer, a precarious trade but a free one, for better and worse -- "Anyone who robs or kills them is not prosecuted. That is the price of freedom" --, with the talented Tyll a natural who quickly catches on and becomes an accomplished performer.
       His father had noticed:

there was something odd about him, it was hard to explain, the boy seemed not to be made of the same stuff as other people.
       Indeed, he almost literally does not seem to be made of the same stuff, practically immaterial instead, so shadowy is his presence much of the time. Though central to the story, Tyll remains an elusive figure, in a novel that is, as a whole, very slippery in its shifts in time and place; there are quite a few scenes that feature Tyll more or less simply disappearing. The story moves back and forth in time, and often the focus of a chapter is another character, and the incidents surrounding them, with Tyll not figuring particularly prominently or close. Other characters to whom entire episodes are devoted include Tyll's father, Claus, and his sad fate, or that of Elizabeth Stuart, married to Frederick V, the Winter King, or a ridiculous Athanasius Kircher (whose late encounter with Tyll certainly shakes him up some, for good reason). Flighty Tyll's contrasts to the fairly quickly and neatly tied up stories of most of these others: Kircher, for example, is described traveling to Rome, and after that: "He never left the city, carried out thousands of experiments, and wrote dozens of books, until he died in high esteem forty years later".
       Indeed, Tyll is something of a scenes-from-the-lives novel, the chosen episodes significant, revealing, and richly described, and impressing greatly: both Tyll's father and Elizabeth Stuart, in particular, are exceptionally well presented portraits. Similarly, in Nele's neatly tied up fate, down to the deathbed scene, Kehlmann beautifully captures the essences of her life. As to Tyll, some significant experiences -- mainly from early on in his life and then his wanderings -- are presented (though not in neat chronological order, Kehlmann taking his time in filling some of the traumatic background in), but even here often turning away from (presumed) depths and offering only their outlines. Unlike as with some of the other characters, too, Kehlmann does not offer much of Tyll's own thoughts or what he feels; rather, he remains an elusive foil of sorts for others -- though often he is, in one sense or another, leading the way and making the decisions (especially about moving on).
       Tyll is also very much a novel about the Thirty Years' War and, more broadly, the senselessness and destruction of war, and the forces behind it. Much of it is, in fact, historical-political, including Frederick coming (with Tyll) to plead his case with Gustav Adolf (Gustavus Adolphus) and, at the war's conclusion, as the Peace of Westphalia is being hammered out in Osnabrück, Elizabeth Stuart trying to salvage what she can for her (unworthy) second son. These negotiations among those in power (and those without so much power, and rather flimsy claims and hopes) are very entertaining, but what Kehlmann really hammers home throughout is the misery of the times and conditions. Even the high-born suffer -- Frederick, on his ill-fated attempt to get something out of Gustav Adolf, in particular -- but it's the sheer misery of life in general in this unsettled war-time that really comes across. It begins with the endless meals of groats -- "there are groats every day, except on worse days when instead of groats there's nothing" -- and extends to the near hopelessness of every locale.
     All the fields lay fallow; some were in ashes, from great fires. The hills cowered under a leaden sky. In the distance columns of smoke stood against the horizon.
       Cold, dirt, and suffering predominate -- though there are some glimpses of more comfortable life (including Claus' 'hangman's meal'). Tyll and Nele do manage, for the most part, to avoid going hungry from early in their adventures -- the entertainer-lifestyle does provide for that -- but Tyll does also encounter and suffer some physical hardships, including in the battlefield scenes in the late chapter that finds him 'In the Shaft', closing with him vowing -- near-hysterically, it seems --:
     "I'm leaving now. This is what I've always done. When things get tight, I leave. I'm not going to die here. I'm not going to die today. I'm not going to die !"
       Tyll is a free spirit, almost impossible to pin down. Not only does he embrace a trade that sees him constantly on the move -- unusual in those times (even though it is noteworthy how many of the novel's characters generally move about) and a contrast to, for example, his father -- who, after setting out on his own, got bogged down by the weight of the books he carried, and found himself settling into and then mired in small town-life, a mistake Tyll never makes. Indeed, throughout, Tyll frequently flees or disappears from scenes -- generally for good reason. And even when physically present he can remain elusive -- among his tricks is throwing his voice, a ventriloquist act that has a donkey speak, rather than him.
       In the opening chapter already the townspeople understand that Tyll is other, that he is not like them -- or, indeed, like almost anyone in these times --:
We understood what life could be like for someone who really did whatever he wanted, who believed in nothing and obeyed no one; we understood what it would be like to be such a person, and we understood that we would never be such people.
       Yet in making Tyll such a free spirit, and such a slippery character, and in shifting the perspective so often to that of others, Tyll remains a hazy and in many ways insubstantial character. He usefully plays the fool for many of the other characters -- but Kehlmann seems to want to have it both ways, and that doesn't quite pan out, the title-character remaining just a little too shadowy.
       If the whole feels a bit loose, the parts -- almost self-contained chapters (though interconnections also are formed) -- of the novel are generally excellent, as Kehlmann knows how to unspool a story, and manages repeatedly to surprise nicely with how the treats characters and events. Among the amusing incidental bits are also running gags about language and literature -- poor Martin Opitz (and the German literature of the time) getting the full treatment. Characters speak, fluently and less so, in various languages, and communication and understanding is an issue throughout (not least with the big Latin book Tyll's father can't decode). And finer literature is also alluded to and finds some place, with a cameo by Shakespeare and, of course, mention of the John Donne's Epithalamion (written to celebrate Elizabeth and Frederick's marriage). Meanwhile, German literature is in its early stages, with Kehlmann having poet Paul Fleming explain:
Our language is only beginning to be born. Here we sit, three men from the same country, and we're speaking Latin. Why ? Now German may still be awkward, a boiling brew, a creature still in the midst of development, but one day it will be grown up.


One must nurture a language, one must help it thrive ! And to help it, that means: write poetry.
       Kehlmann's novel suggests the Thirty Year's War as primordial ground: a starting point for modern Europe (and, incidentally, modern literature). A beautiful touch is the brief mention of a mythical creature, the last of its kind in these lands, coming to its (peaceful) end: "With a sigh, he fell asleep. His life had lasted long. Now it was time to transform."
       Tyll is a novel of transformation, of world-change. Tyll himself is a catalyst of sorts -- involved, but also apart from the characters' lives and fates (tellingly, even Nele's is ultimately separate from his) -- and thus Kehlmann's almost vague presentation of him perhaps appropriate. Kehlmann captures the unsettled times very well -- not least with his on-the-move characters -- and neatly ties history into the story, from Elizabeth Stuart's unusual journey to, for example, Gutavus Adolphus' fate (on top of the world, as it were, when Frederick meets him, only to then die in battle).
       If a bit loose in its arrangement, Kehlmann at least also shows a good touch in mostly not trying to force too much into Tyll (despite the temptation of all that happened in those years). It makes for a very good read, which manages not to get mired down in the all the prevailing misery and ugliness (no small accomplishment, in and of itself).

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 January 2020

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Tyll: Reviews: Daniel Kehlmann: Other books by Daniel Kehlmann under Review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Daniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975. He lives in Vienna, where he studied philosophy and literature. He has published several works of fiction.

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© 2020-2023 the complete review

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