Monday, April 18, 2022

Daniel Kehlman, "Tyll"

I loved this book. Not because it is a great book – as I will explain, it has a lot of problems – but because Daniel Kehlman imagines the past the same way I like to. He finds the same things fascinating, notices the same sort of bizarre details, and likes to enliven his recreations with glimpses of the kinds of magic people at the time believed in.

Till Eulenspiegel is an old character from German literature, first appearing in a chapbook printed around 1515. He is a sort of jester, playing constant practical jokes on everyone he meets. Most of his tricks take advantage of people's weaknesses (greed, lust, gluttony) to set them up for humiliation. He is thus a sort of moralist, if a very scatological one. It is often supposed that Till had a history in folktales or other works going back well before 1515, but no good evidence of this has been found. Wherever he came from he has had a long career in both German and Dutch, with many editions of his stories printed in every century, and has been adopted as a sort of folk hero by many Flemings. 

In that original chapbook Till's life was set in the 1300s, but other writers have moved him around in time. One of the most famous versions is The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak by Charles De Coster (1867), which transfers the character to the years around 1580 and has him join in the Dutch Revolt.

Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlman continues this forward movement in his version of the story, which appeared in German in 2017. His Tyll is a jester who seems to have been born around 1600. All that really survives of the old Till in this book are his juggling, his wandering ways, and his cruel sense of humor. His cynicism makes him in some ways a good observer of the seventeenth-century world, since he is equally unimpressed by every type of Christianity and equally disgusted by all the warring parties of the Thirty Years' War. Yet he is the first of the book's many problems, because he does not have much of a personality and what he does have is not very likeable.

In structure the book is a series of disconnected episodes, presented in no particular chronological order. Some focus on Tyll, others on other people with whom he comes in contact. One of my favorites tells the story of Tyll's father, a village wise-man who badly wants to understand everything but has no access to any books or learning that might help him form a coherent model of the cosmos. (Kehlman has probably read Carlo Ginzburg's The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller.) In others we meet the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, who thought he had translated Egyptian hieroglyphs and wrote books about everything from magnetism to music to dragons, and the chronicler Martin von Wolkenstein, a fictional character who is supposed to be the descendant of the actual 14th-century chronicler Oswald von Wolkenstein. (This allows Kehlman to make some astute observations about where the descriptions of battles in old chronicles came from.)

To me Kehlman's real master stroke was making Tyll the court fool of the Winter King. The Winter King was the title people gave to the Palatine Elector Friedrich, who in 1618 accepted an invitation from a group of Protestant nobles in Bohemia to come and be their king. The other claimant to that throne was the Habsburg Emperor of Austria, so this was a very dangerous thing to do, and King Friedrich only lasted six months before the emperor's army came and tossed him out; hence, the Winter King. (This was what started the Thirty Years' War.) Friedrich spent the rest of his life in exile, mainly in Holland. Among the few servants at his shrunken court we find Tyll, who uses his fool's license to constantly remind Friedrich and his wife, the English Princess Elizabeth (daughter of James I), how stupid it was to challenge the emperor and how pathetic their lives have become since that mistake.

Elizabeth is probably the best character in the book. She struggles along in exile, always preserving whatever she can of her royal dignity, never giving up hope that her children will one day return to glory. (As her descendant George I eventually did.) But here, anyway, is the historical imagination that so grabs me: the heroic, almost mythic story of the Winter King; the pathetic spectacle of a desperately poor royal couple trying to keep up appearances with no money and a dozen servants; the strange license of a Fool to say what everyone knows but dares not speak out loud.

Add to this a witch trial, a terrible battle told from the perspective of someone just trying to escape from it, some traveling players, a squad of soldiers trapped in a tunnel under the wall of a besieged city,  a talking donkey, a diplomatic conference where none of the ambassadors can actually speak to each other, and a spell cast with a magic square, and you have a book that took over my mind for days.

Within five minutes of finishing Tyll I had downloaded another one of Daniel Kehlman's books and started listening to that.

1 comment:

David said...

This is a very interesting review. I'm not sure I want to read or listen to the book--the flaws you highlight seem like a big hurdle--but I've read this review several times. Something about the clarity of your vision of the past. And Elizabeth. If only one could read about Elizabeth and turn Tyll into an episode (which seems to be his job in the tradition: turning people into little illustrative episodes).