Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
We tend to think of time as omnivorous, steady, ticking along to the relentless rhythm of the clock. Yet the minute hand was a Renaissance invention, and time only became monolithic in the eighteenth century with the rise of modern nation-states that imposed their way of measuring duration on the Western world. Prior to that, time bent to circumstance and passed at different speeds: canonical time followed the sun, agrarian time the moon cycle, astronomical time the passage of planets, and political time the solar and water clocks of plazas and churches. Time was an elusive substance; it was rich, messy, even chaotic.
It’s in this historical context—the birth of modernity—that the German novelist and playwright Daniel Kehlmann sets Tyll, his latest book. It takes its title from the mythical vagabond performer and trickster Tyll Ulenspiegel, whom Kehlmann here places into a seventeenth-century Europe convulsing with the Thirty Years’ War.
An entrancing, enormous yet short book that doesn’t really have a plot—plots are children of clocks—Tyll is rather a series of variations on a theme, its fragmentary form hinting at how people of the baroque era experienced time, and life. And for us who have replaced the wristwatch with a smartphone, this fragmentation may resonate with our nonlinear way of understanding the world by following links.
I met Daniel, who now lives in New York City, for a conversation at Chelsea’s Café Grumpy this October.
Álvaro Enrigue You know I’m a nerd. I write books about the seventeenth century. (laughter) I think my questions will be boring.
Daniel Kehlmann No, I love nerdy questions. I spend so much time on research. While researching for Tyll, I could never talk to anybody because no one cared about these distant matters from the seventeenth century that I was hung up on. I was so relieved once the book came out because then I could actually have conversations with readers about court etiquette and arcane things like that.
ÁE Did anyone complain?
DK My wife complained about me listening to pre-Bach and pre-Handel music for four years.
ÁE I know everything about that music.
DK While I worked on Tyll, Bach was far too modern. Mozart seemed like heavy metal to me.
ÁE I had that problem when I was writing Sudden Death. I was listening to music written for castrati, and everybody around me hated it. So your novel is a recreation of seventeenth-century village life. Where does it happen? Is it Bohemia, Bavaria?
DK It takes place in what are today Bavaria and Bohemia, and in Westphalia, and there’s one chapter set in the London court. The landscape is that of Central Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. Oh, and two paragraphs take place in Vienna.
ÁE Did you research the period and locations or just follow your intuition? As a reader one never knows.
DK I started getting interested in the Thirty Years’ War and read a lot about it, but things got more and more confusing. Soon I felt utterly lost because it was all so messy and complicated—not only in terms of the events of the war, but also in just understanding the premodern mind. A historian friend of mine knew what I was working on and said, “I’m sure you have a few problems right now.” I asked, “How do you know?” And he said, “You’re not used to dealing with an insane amount of material and having to distill it into a few chapters of your own. At some point you’ll just have to fake it. That’s what we historians do. Eventually, we sit down and write, even though we still don’t know enough.” It was actually great advice.
ÁE So for a while you weren’t able to write because of the enormity of the material?
DK Yes, I was reading and reading, then I realized that I was at a crossroads. The whole thing could just turn into one of those crazy projects you age with as a writer, and your friends make fun of you. You tell everyone, “I’m still working on my Thirty Years’ War novel,” and they smile politely. Twenty or thirty years later, you die, and they find out you hadn’t written a thing.
ÁE This great amount of material had yet to be distilled into a form, so how did you do it?
DK I told myself, “I have to start and write this now, although I’m far away from understanding anything. I’ll have to make up what I don’t know.” I’ve always been a fan of the British playwright Alan Bennett, and I just read, in one of his prefaces, awesome advice to a writer. He says something like: You need to know more than your readers. But not much more. And that’s perfectly true. That little bit more will go a long way.
ÁE You need a ground to stand. I wrote a pair of novels about Roman legionaries. I learned everything about the Roman army—I knew how they tied their sandals! (laughter) I had to invent a lot of stuff, though. Tyll has this very intricate structure. Perhaps one has to be a writer to appreciate the tremendous maneuvers necessary to make a story flow that speaks about such big things on such a small scale.
DK Yes, that took a lot of time.
ÁE When you jump into different periods of the past, do you have a map to follow? It’s a novel composed of many stories.
DK Many stories, and all of them converge.
It’s a whole life story of Tyll Ulenspiegel, but the reader has to connect the dots and fragments. It took me five years to write this book because I had to figure out the formal approach. I didn’t have a master plan in the beginning. The structure came to me while I was working on it.
ÁE It’s certainly not one of those nineteenth-century, incredibly boring, A-to-Z novels. It’s a very absorbing book in which one never gets lost.
DK The book sold very well in Germany, which meant that many people not used to literary fiction read it. I got some reviews on Amazon saying something like, “This novel is called Tyll but quite often, in the second half, he’s not even there. So why is it called Tyll? I want my money back!” (laughter) Tyll is there of course, but he’s not always in the center.
ÁE Did you start out writing separate stories?
DK In the beginning, I was working on independent stories. Actually, I started with what is now the third chapter, in which a search party tries to find Tyll.
ÁE It’s fantastic. You finally see the war. It’s like, “Ladies and gentlemen: War! Welcome to Central Europe.”
DK I started with the search party because I had to find Tyll myself. I had to conjure up this strange mythical character, so I tried to find him in the chaos of the Thirty Years’ War by sending a couple of characters on a quest. And their quest, like mine, was to find Tyll. But then I decided not to use that as a first chapter, and I came up with the story of his childhood. So the reader doesn’t experience war slowly starting. Instead, you have a chapter set before the war and then you jump to the end of the war, into utter destruction. That leap created the novel’s overall temporal structure of leaps and gaps, because of course I had to then tell what happened in between, resulting in all these jumps in time. I actually had two European publishers ask me to change the order of the chapters so they would be chronological.
ÁE Oh my God.
DK And those were good publishing houses. I said, “No, I don’t think we should do that.”
ÁE It could kill the book. It would become a story with missing parts, not a story we organize as readers, a story that demands participation.
DK It would really have killed it.
ÁE There’s a symphonic quality to this novel. Reading your previous works, it’s my impression that you develop themes and produce variations.
DK After I wrote Measuring the World fifteen years ago, I got interested in what can be done with narrative structure. You’ll certainly agree when I say that every novel has to be an experiment, at least in a modest, personal way. With each book you have to try to do something that you think wasn’t done quite like that ever before. For example, my novel F is about how things can happen at the same time, and even if we don’t know it, they still influence each other. People interact but interpret their interactions in completely different ways. I describe a lunch between two brothers, told from the side of one brother. Then, much later in the book, I tell the other brother’s point of view, and it’s a completely different situation for him: all the assumptions of his brother—and the reader—were wrong.
So it felt natural to do a few structural experiments with Tyll. It had to be a polyphonic novel because I was trying to tell the whole truth of what was, for the world back then, a global war. Well, not global obviously, but a European war.
ÁE Yes, but Europe was an enclosed world.
DK Europe was the globe for Europeans. So I felt like I needed to do this in a symphonic way. All these temporal jumps and jumps between characters—
ÁE —characters who enter and modify the story completely.
DK In the beginning of the book a reader might think it’s a more traditional, picaresque novel, some famous person’s origin story. But then the novel drops that picaresque structure, and you have all these new characters coming in who, you know, will at some point meet Tyll, but you don’t know when or why or how.
ÁE And they are related to each other in all sorts of ways. For example, there’s a really beautiful moment when they read each other’s books.
DK There are lots of connections, some obvious and some hidden, and you have to just trust the storyteller—me—that it all will make sense sooner or later.
ÁE I can testify that it works!
You’ve been a very successful writer for a while now, but I think you achieved a peak in your career with this novel.
DK It’s hard to talk about one’s own work like this, but I think it’s the best thing I’ve done. It took me longer than any other book, and I was often quite desperate because I just didn’t know how to deal with all the material. I had to find a few events to stand in for the whole war. It was hard. About a year ago I saw one of my oldest friends in Vienna, and he said to me in a kind and tender way, “I love this book so much. But you will never do anything this good again.” And I thought, It’s possible.
ÁE You’re writing about the notion of what a hero is, of what is fantastical, and about war as we see it now. It’s a monumental book that’s comparatively short, and you’re doing this in a culture ruled by Game of Thrones…
DK There are a few similarities as far as the historical background is concerned. But I believe most long books could be much shorter.
ÁE Were you thinking in those terms—that readers of today and the future are different than the readers we began to write for?
DK No. This might sound pretentious, but I don’t think of readers while I’m working. Everything I’ve done as a writer, turned out much shorter than it could have been. My method is all about distillation. Maybe it’s because I’m also writing for the stage. I like to condense every plot into a few moments. Whatever you want to say in a play has to be said in a few scenes. So when telling the story of this gigantic war, the Thirty Years’ War, I had to do it by selecting just a few events. While I was working on Tyll, I developed the courage to leave out more and more. And I remember, when the book was already in galleys, I went to see Dunkirk, a marvelous movie by Christopher Nolan. It’s all about the Battle of Dunkirk but there’s never any explanation. No one tells you why the battle is happening, what its strategic importance is or what’s actually going on. It impressed me so much, and I went straight home and cut all remaining paragraphs of explanation in Tyll. I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!
ÁE Not only that, the lack of information translates into lack of sense. The novel is marvelously transmitting the senselessness of war, maybe of life in general, precisely because there are pieces missing. The high mortality during the baroque period is so present in the book, without being too graphic.
DK I think the trick was to depict people who never question these circumstances. Because it’s just their world; they don’t know another one.
ÁE Yes, people were dying for everything.
DK But for people back then, it wasn’t like a house of horrors in a theme park. It was normal life. So the way to show the intensity of everyday violence was through characters who are not at all surprised and often not even bothered by any of this. Because in a way, accepting unbearable conditions is what humans have always done and still do. There’s a good chance that in a few decades cancer will be curable and people might look back and say, “These poor, poor people. How could they live knowing they could get cancer at any moment and just die a miserable death! Those dark times.” And it is truly terrifying that we can get cancer anytime, but for us it’s still part of normal life. Human beings have this limitless capacity to turn almost anything into something normal in their minds, something they can live with. So no one ever complains in my novel about the world being so violent and life being so hard and war being so bad because when you read sources from the seventeenth century, people looked at war as the normal state of things. Peace was seen as rare and unusual, something fortuitous that didn’t last.
ÁE Life was not easy. There was no food, no clothes; there was nothing.
DK People had one set of clothes—
ÁE —for their whole life.
DK I rarely describe clothes in my books because I’m not good at researching them. How did you deal with that in Sudden Death?
ÁE I didn’t go into a lot of detail about clothing in the book, but I researched it, and Caravaggio’s long black cape was always present in the police reports of the many times he was arrested. In Sudden Death, when Caravaggio and Quevedo enter Piazza Navona in full dress to fight their duel, I wanted them to look more like cowboys. So I had to forget all my research about baroque Southern European clothing.
But we were speaking about the everyday violence in the seventeenth century. It’s there as a fact, and you were tremendously effective in showing that. I’ve tried to show it in my book but not so convincingly.
DK But your book deals with people more civilized than the folk in the German countryside.
ÁE The characters in Sudden Death are more cosmopolitan.
DK I wanted to set the stage right away with the violence casually erupting in the second chapter. An angry millhand tries to kill Tyll, the miller’s son, in the presence of his parents. And they don’t really get angry. The father gives the man who just tried to kill his son a slap—and that’s all. I thought that would place the reader firmly in a world where violence is absolutely casual and normal.
ÁE The miller’s own story—his dabbling in alchemy and healing—introduces an important subject in the novel: what we regard as irrational beliefs and superstition were common ways of approaching divinity during the baroque period.
DK Today there are still a lot of people who are superstitious. But we can only call them superstitious because there is another option: you can be reasonable and take refuge in the answers of science. But in the seventeenth century you didn’t have this second option. In a quite poetic and beautiful but also really messy way it was all muddled. Science was mostly done by alchemists and magicians, and that’s why I have the character of Athanasius Kircher.
ÁE When he appeared in the novel as a young man, I was like, This is him! (laughter)
DK If you could talk to someone living in the seventeenth century, how would you explain to them that magnetism is a real phenomenon but a curse is superstition? In their paradigm it’s both just the same.
ÁE There was a continuity. They weren’t separate.
DK Exactly. And even rational people believed in witchcraft. The European witch hunts were not a residue of the Middle Ages. Actually, there were very few witch trials in the Middle Ages. They mostly happened after the Renaissance, in the craze of early modernity. It was a moment when Reason went crazy.
ÁE And those “witches” were the communities’ doctors, dentists, and advisers because most of the villages didn’t have a priest; the priest, like the doctor or the dentist, would visit once or twice a year, if at all. The alchemists were the chemists of the time.
DK The doctors of the new medical profession, who by the way couldn’t help anybody—if we had a time machine and went back to the seventeenth century, and we got sick, the best thing we could do is not go to a doctor! But they didn’t only kill the patients, they also killed those who could actually help the patients: the people they called witches, who knew how to treat illnesses with herbs. Like Tyll’s father in my book.
That was only one facet of the European witch hunts, but it’s an important one—the crusade of the new medical professionals against the healers. I had a whole year when I wasn’t doing anything other than researching the witch trials. I got so hung up on them that I realized I had to move on or else I would just end up writing a novel about witch trials. And I didn’t want that at all. But it’s one of the dark, forgotten corners of European history. Well, actually not quite forgotten but turned into folklore—nice, scary stories for children. But it’s a gigantic crime—mass torture and mass murder—that actually happened and predominently targeted women.
ÁE A genocide that became the mother of many of our modern institutions! The modern church, the linguistically unified republic, the idea of the nation-state, modern medicine. The foundation of all of that was this horrific war, which replaced one set of superstitions with another.
DK If you were accused of anything in the seventeenth century, chances were you would get tortured. They were very brutal to the poor people accused of witchcraft, but also to people accused of theft. That’s how they extracted confessions from the guilty and innocent alike.
ÁE It was a Roman law.
DK It’s important to remember, though, that the big problem for the state was not that an innocent person could be tortured or prosecuted. The bigger problem was that people would solve their conflicts by killing each other without resorting to the state. It took about two hundred years to teach them not to take the law into their own hands. So, the state handed out incredibly violent punishment in public as a way to show everyone: Look, you don’t have to kill your neighbor. We can do this for you!
ÁE It becomes a performance. The seventeenth century is the century of spectacle.
DK In my first draft of the witch trial I actually got it wrong. In Northern Europe the actual trial was the interrogation, which was not public. There was a public confession and a public execution but no public trial. Only after the Enlightenment was it changed to the other way around. So the big assembly I’m describing in the book is not the trial, strictly speaking. The accused have already signed their confessions, which are now read in public and then they get executed. It’s during the trial that people got tortured until they signed. That happened in a closed room, or as in my book, in the shed. The execution was public.
ÁE Listening to your fascination with this subject, one would think that the novel is a meditation on violence and justice, but it’s not. All of that is present, but the novel flows in a very light way. It’s not heavy at all.
DK I hope not.
ÁE It’s luminous. I think that’s due to the fact that you relate to language with a strong sense of humor. I was laughing half of the time while reading the book.
DK It has to be funny. Tyll Ulenspiegel is a patron saint of humor—even if humor has changed so much that we don’t find his jokes funny anymore. But Tyll embodies the resilience of humor in the face of adversity. Another patron saint who gave the novel an infusion of light was Shakespeare, because the story is set in his time. When you write about kings and queens in the early seventeenth century, you are in Shakespeare-territory. You breathe his air.
ÁE There are kings and queens in your book, but a lot of regular people too. The peasants in the German villages, the miller, the baker, their families. All of that made me think of Cervantes.
DK Cervantes was less of a presence than Shakespeare. Of course, you, Álvaro, think of him right away because of your cultural background. When I wrote about Alexander von Humboldt and his assistant Aimé Bonpland traveling together in Measuring the World, I thought of Don Quixote and Sancho all the time. I didn’t reread Don Quixote for Tyll, but I read a lot of Shakespeare. Elizabeth Stuart, who is an important character in my book, actually knew Shakespeare. She’s arguably the only person in Germany we can say for sure saw Shakespeare perform in his own plays. And that defined her character for me. What does it do to a person to have seen Shakespeare perform, to see the greatest thing culture can offer—not only in her time but in any time? And then she comes to Germany, where everything is really terrible in terms of culture. It did get better, but much later.
ÁE But England was not a paradise. Shakespeare is something of a miracle in his environment.
DK But London was much better off, culturally. The moment was really unique. Brilliance and talent convened around Shakespeare. There was nothing like that in Germany. Maybe in France, but I’m not even sure about that.
ÁE Ha! I see it the other way around: London was a big city, but it was isolated and obscure compared to the Spanish empire, which was in full splendor.
DK Yes, of course! You’re right, full splendor!
ÁE So when you read Shakespeare from my tradition—or the tradition I claim as a Spanish-language writer—his emergence feels like an incident of magic, that extraordinary genius jumping out of nowhere.
DK That makes so much sense. From the Spanish point of view, London was quite backward. Whereas from the German perspective, London was a very civilized place—great theater and great music.
ÁE But at that time, the money from the Americas began to flow to England and Germany. It did not stay in Spain.
DK It was the moment when Spain turned into what the US is today: the faltering empire. Maybe you should write about that!
ÁE That’s all I write about since I moved to New York—trying to understand the faltering US empire.
DK I think a wonderful novel could be written about a young Republican judge, a monster of opportunism and bigotry—a version of Maupassant’s Bel-Ami, set in today’s Republican party. I would love to write that, but I can’t do it because I’m not American.
ÁE This might be my own reading—because I know you live in New York—but I feel like your novel also speaks about the brutalized Middle America.
DK Implicitly, not explicitly.
ÁE Right, that’s what journalists do—write explicitly.
DK When I wrote Measuring the World I really wanted to write about South America and magical realism and this world I was so fascinated with. But I couldn’t because it wasn’t my tradition. But then I found Humboldt, and I was so happy because he was my key: the German who goes to Macondo—
DK —with all the Weimar classicism in his luggage. So I had a personal connection to him, and through him to the world of Latin America and its literature, which I love so much.
ÁE I don’t know if we have the right to write about this country, but we can write how we feel about it for sure. And this thought takes me to your relationship to language as a “displaced” writer, or someone living outside your own country. While I was reading Tyll, I sensed an ironic distance that’s very common in Latin America. This is a professor’s theory: people speak Spanish in most of Latin America, but no one owns the language because it was imposed on us. So we laugh with it and about it. Yours is a literary language that laughs about itself—as if the weight of tradition was liberated through irony. Are you a reader of Latin American books?
DK I couldn’t imagine a life without Gabriel García Márquez’s novels. They were so important to me and still are. I came of age in Vienna in the ’90s, and I went to university to study German literature and philosophy. And we were taught an unbearably narrow view of what literature should look like—it either had to be social realism or some kind of neo-Dadaist poetry. That was the moment when I discovered the Latin Americans. I was blown away by how many roads were still being opened up for experimentation.
I could have never written Measuring the World without Mario Vargas Llosa. I would say the writers who really shaped me were Vladimir Nabokov on the one hand, and the Latin Americans on the other. Borges of course, and I won’t deny being influenced by Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, in particular for the first chapter about the ghost village.
ÁE Yes! And also the way in which your characters’ beliefs expand reality into the fantastical. But magical thinking, interactions between the dead and the living, it’s not patrimonial to Latin America, it’s in the European tradition.
DK Definitely. The magical realism of Günter Grass’s Tin Drum goes back to Hans Grimmelshausen, to German Baroque.
ÁE Juan Rulfo was actually writing from the Mexican tradition of the German danse macabre.
DK The Totentanz.
ÁE Yes, the Dance of Death. And you pick up on that and return it to Germany, so to speak, and the conversation keeps going.
DK That’s a wonderful way to look at it. The Totentanz is a European motif—
ÁE —which was reinforced in Mexico.
DK That’s how culture should work: as a conversation.
ÁE We’re on the shoulders of giants. And we try to keep up that conversation here in New York or wherever, from our tininess, our remoteness.
DK And those giants were on the shoulders of previous giants—it goes all the way back to Sappho!
ÁE Sappho, yes. Let’s leave it there. We’ve reached the beginning of literature.
Álvaro Enrigue is the author of five novels and three books of short stories. His novel Sudden Death (Riverhead, 2017) was awarded the Herralde Prize. His work has appeared in the New York Times, The Believer, the White Review, n+1, the London Review of Books, and El País, among others.
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Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.