Daniel Kehlmann: Tyll

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Daniel Kehlmann. Photo credit: Beowolf Sheehan

Daniel Kehlmann describes his new novel, Tyll, as dark, frightening, and murky—in a good way. The lead character is a mythic, famous folkloric jester, Tyll Eulenspiegel, a seventeenth-century king of pranksters, capable of as much amusement as detriment. A traveling entertainer, tightrope walker, juggler, singer and dancer, Tyll journeys through a continent devastated by the Thirty Years’ War. Kehlmann discusses early modernity, its lack of hygiene, and sending his imagination into a past he researched. This novel of surreal entertainment is a jester itself. 

An excerpt from Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann.

Kings in Winter

It was November. The wine supply was exhausted, and because the well in the garden was filthy, they drank nothing but milk. Since they could no longer afford candles, the whole court went to bed in the evening with the sun. The state of affairs was not good, yet there were still princes who would die for Liz. Recently, one of them had been here in The Hague, Christian von Braunschweig, and had promised her to have pour dieu et pour elle embroidered on his standard, and afterward, he had sworn fervently, he would win or die for her. He was an excited hero, so moved by himself that tears came to his eyes. Friedrich had patted him reassuringly on the shoulder, and she had given him her handkerchief, but then he had burst into tears once again, so overwhelmed was he by the thought of possessing a handkerchief of hers. She had given him a royal blessing, and, deeply stirred, he had gone on his way.

Naturally, he would not accomplish it, neither for God nor for her. This prince had few soldiers and no money, nor was he particularly clever. It would take men of a different caliber to defeat Wallenstein, someone like the Swedish king, say, who had recently come down on the Empire like a storm and had so far won all the battles he had fought. He was the one she should have married long ago, according to Papa’s plans, but he hadn’t wanted her.

It was almost twenty years ago that she had instead married her poor Friedrich. Twenty German years, a whirl of events and faces and noise and bad weather and even worse food and completely wretched theater.

She had missed good theater more than anything else, from the beginning, even more than palatable food. In German lands real theater was unknown; there, pitiful players roamed through the rain and screamed and hopped and farted and brawled. This was probably due to the cumbersome language. It was no language for theater, it was a brew of groans and harsh grunts, it was a language that sounded like someone struggling not to choke, like a cow having a coughing fit, like a man with beer coming out his nose. What was a poet supposed to do with this language? She had given German literature a try, first that Opitz and then someone else, whose name she had forgotten; she could not commit to memory these people who were always named Krautbacher or Engelkrämer or Kargholz-steingrömpl, and when you had grown up with Chaucer, and John Donne had dedicated verses to you—“fair phoenix bride,” he had called her, “and from thine eye all lesser birds will take their jollity”—then even with the utmost politeness you could not bring yourself to find any merit in all this German bleating.

She often thought back to the court theater in Whitehall. She thought of the small gestures of the actors, of the long sentences, their ever-varying, nearly musical rhythm, now swift and clattering along, now dying gradually away, now questioning, now bristling with authority. There had been theater performances whenever she came to the court to visit her parents. People stood on the stage and dissembled, but she had grasped at once that this was not so at all and that the dissembling too was merely a mask, for it was not the theater that was false, no, everything else was pretense, disguise, and frippery, everything that was not theater was false. On the stage people were themselves, completely true, fully transparent.

In real life no one spoke in soliloquies. Everyone kept his thoughts to himself, faces could not be read, everyone dragged the dead weight of his secrets. No one stood alone in his room and spoke aloud about his desires and fears, but when Burbage did so on the stage, in his rasping voice, his very thin fingers at eye level, it seemed unnatural that men should forever conceal what transpired within them. And what words he used! Rich words, rare, shimmering like cloth of gold—sentences so perfectly constructed that they were beyond anything you yourself could ever have managed. This is how things should be, the theater told you, this is how you should talk, how you should hold yourself, how you should feel, this is what it would be like to be a true human being.

When the performance was over and the applause faded, the actors returned to the state of paltriness. After taking their bows, they stood like extinguished candles. Then they approached, bending down low, Alleyn and Kemp and the great Burbage himself, to kiss Papa’s hand, and if Papa asked them something, they answered like people whom language resisted and to whom no clear sentences occurred. Burbage’s face was waxy and weary, and there was nothing special anymore about his now rather ugly hands. Hard to believe how quickly the spirit of lightness had abandoned him.

That spirit had itself appeared in one of the plays, which had been performed on Allhallows. It was about an old duke on a magical island, who captured his enemies only to spare them in the end. At the time she had been unable to understand why he had been lenient, and when she thought about it today, she still didn’t understand. If she had Wallenstein or the Kaiser in her power, she would handle things differently! At the conclusion of the play the duke had simply released his ministering spirit, so that he might pass into the clouds, the air, the sunlight, and the blue of the sea, and had remained behind like an old sack of flour, a wrinkly actor who now briefly apologized that he had no more lines. The leading dramatist of the King’s Men had taken on the role himself at the time. He was not one of the great actors, not Kemp and certainly not Burbage. You could even tell by looking at him that he struggled to remember his lines, which none other than he himself had written. After the performance he had kissed her hand with soft lips, and because it had been impressed on her that at such moments she must always ask some question, she had inquired whether he had any children.

“Two daughters living. And a son.”

She waited, for now it would be Papa’s turn to say something. But Papa was silent. The dramatist looked at her. She looked at him, her heart beginning to pound. All the people in the room were waiting, all the lords with their silk collars, all the ladies with diadems and fans—they were looking at her. And she realized that she had to keep talking. This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch. She cleared her throat to gain time. But you don’t gain much time by clearing your throat. You can’t clear your throat for very long, it hardly gets you anywhere.

And so she said that she was very sorry to hear of the death of his son. The Lord gave and the Lord took away, his will passed our understanding, and his trials made us strong.

For the blink of an eye, she was proud of herself. It takes quite a bit to manage something like that before the whole court, you have to be well-bred and quick-witted too.

The dramatist had smiled and bowed his head, and suddenly she had the feeling that she had made a fool of herself in a manner difficult to describe. She sensed herself turning red, and because she felt ashamed of this too, she turned even redder. She cleared her throat once again and asked him the name of his son. Not that it interested her. But nothing else occurred to her.

He answered in a soft voice.

“Really?” she asked in surprise. “Hamlet?”

“Hamnet.” He drew a breath, then said pensively and as if to himself that, although he could not pretend to have borne his trial with that fortitude she praised, yet today, when it was his great fortune to behold the future’s maiden face, he would swear that such a life as his, comprising such currents as had brought him to this sea, could not be counted among the worst, and that thanks to this moment in her gracious presence, he was disposed to accept with gratitude every pain and tribulation that lay in his past or, indeed, in days to come.

Here she couldn’t think of anything else to say for the time being.

All well and good, Papa finally said. But shadows were cast on the future. There were more witches than ever. The Frenchman was treacherous. The recent unity of England and Scotland was still untested. Doom was lurking everywhere. But worst of all were the witches.

Doom might well lurk, the dramatist replied, that was the nature of doom, yet the hand of a mighty ruler held it off, as the mantle of the air held off the heavy cloud and dissolved it into gentle rain.

Now it was Papa who couldn’t think of anything to say. This was funny, because it didn’t happen often. Papa was looking at the dramatist, everyone was looking at Papa, no one said anything, and the silence had already lasted too long.

Finally Papa turned away—just like that, without a word. He did this often, it was one of his tricks to unsettle people. Normally they wondered for weeks afterward what they had done wrong and whether they had fallen out of favor. But the dramatist seemed to see through it. Bowing as he walked backward, he departed, a faint smile on his face.


“Do you think you’re better than everyone else, Liz?” her fool had recently asked her when she had told him about it. “Have seen more, know more, come from a better land than we do?”

“Yes,” she had said. “I do.”

“And do you think your father will save you? At the head of an army, is that what you think?”

“No, I don’t think that anymore.”

“Yes, you do. You still believe that one fine day he will turn up and make you into a queen again.”

“I am a queen.”

At that he laughed derisively, and she had to swallow and push back tears and remember that it was his very duty—to tell her what no one else dared. That was why you had fools, and even if you didn’t want a fool, you had to consent to one, for without a court jester a court was not a court, and if she and Friedrich no longer had a country, at least their court had to be in order.

There was something strange about this fool. She had sensed it at once when he had first appeared, last winter, when the days had been especially cold and life even more impoverished than usual. At that time, the two of them had suddenly stood outside her door, the scrawny young man in the motley jerkin and the tall woman.

They had looked exhausted and haggard, ill from travel­ing and from the dangers of the wilderness. But when they had danced for her, there was a harmony, a consonance of the voices and bodies, such as she had not witnessed ever since she had left England. Then he had juggled, and she had pulled out the flute, and then the two of them had performed a play about a guardian and his ward, and she had feigned death, and he had found her lifeless, and in his grief he had killed himself, where­upon she had awoken and, her face contorted with horror, had seized his knife to now take her life too. Liz knew the story; it was from a play of the King’s Men. Moved by the memory of something that had once had great significance in her life, she had asked the two of them whether they wouldn’t stay. “We don’t yet have a jester.”

He had made his debut by giving her a painting. No, it was not a painting, it was a white canvas with nothing on it. “Have it framed, little Liz, hang it up. Show it to the others!” Nothing gave him the right to address her like that, but at least he pro­nounced her name correctly, complete with the English z—he did it as well as if he had been there. “Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor king see it. And everyone else!”

She had done so. She had a green landscape painting, which she didn’t like anyhow, taken out of its frame and replaced with the white canvas, and then the fool had hung up the painting in the large room that she and Friedrich called their throne room.

“It’s a magic picture, little Liz. No one born out of wed­lock can see it. No one stupid can see it. No one who has stolen money can see it. No one up to no good, no one who cannot be trusted, no one who’s a gallows bird or a thievish knave or an arsehole with ears can see it—for him, there’s no picture there!”

She hadn’t been able to help laughing.

“No, really, little Liz, tell the people! Bastards and dolts and villains and men ripe for the gallows, none of them can see anything, neither the blue sky nor the castle nor the wonderful woman on the balcony letting down her golden hair nor the angel behind her. Tell them, watch what happens!”

What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her. The visitors stood helplessly before the white picture and didn’t know what they were supposed to say. For it was complicated, after all. They knew that nothing was there, of course, but they weren’t sure whether Liz knew it too, and thus it was also conceivable that she would take someone who told her that nothing was there for illegitimate, stupid, or thieving. They racked their brains. Had a spell been cast on the picture, or had someone fooled Liz, or was she playing a joke on everyone? The fact that by then almost everyone who came to the court of the Winter King and Queen was either illegitimate or stupid or a thief or a person with ill intentions didn’t make matters easier.

In any case, not many visitors came these days. In the past people had come to see Liz and Friedrich with their own eyes, and some had also come to make promises, for even if scarcely anyone believed that Friedrich would rule over Bohemia again, it was nonetheless not completely impossible either. To promise something cost little: as long as the man was out of power, you didn’t have to keep your word, but if he reascended, he would remember those who had stuck by him in dark times. By this time, however, promises were all they received; no one brought presents anymore that were valuable enough to be turned into money.

With an impassive face she had shown Christian von Braunschweig the white canvas, too. Stupid, deceitful, and illegitimate people, she had explained, could not see the mag­nificent painting, and then she had observed with a pleasure difficult to describe how her tearful admirer had kept looking helplessly across at the wall where the picture, mocking and blank, withstood his pathos.

“This is the best gift anyone has ever given me,” she said to her fool.

“That’s not saying much, little Liz.”

“John Donne wrote me an ode. Fair phoenix bride, he called—”

“Little Liz, he was paid, he would have called you a stinking fish too if he had been given money for it. What do you think I would call you if you paid me better!”

“And I got a ruby necklace from the Kaiser, a diadem from the King of France.”

“Can I see it?”

She was silent.

“Did you have to sell it?”

She was silent.

“And who is John Dung anyway? What sort of fellow is that, and who is fearful Nick’s bride supposed to be?” She was silent.

“Had to give it to the pawnbroker, your diadem? And the necklace from the Kaiser, little Liz, who is wearing it now?”

Not even her poor king had dared to say anything about the picture. And when she had explained to him that it was only a joke and the canvas was not enchanted, he had merely nodded and gazed at her uneasily.

She had always known that he wasn’t the cleverest. From the beginning it had been obvious, but for a man of his rank it wasn’t important. A prince did nothing, and if he happened to be unusually clever, it was nearly a blot on his honor. Subordinates had to be clever. He was himself—that was enough, nothing more was necessary.

This was the way of the world. There were a few real people, and then there were the rest: a shadowy army, a host of figures in the background, a swarm of ants crawling over the earth and having in common with each other that they were lacking something. They were born and died, were like the flecks of fluttering life that made up a flock of birds—if one disappeared, you hardly noticed it. The people who mattered were few.

Excerpted from Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann. Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Kehlmann. All rights reserved.