In Daniel Kehlmann’s bestselling 2005 historical adventure story, Measuring the World, the gentleman botanist Alexander von Humboldt travels to the Amazon and painstakingly classifies every flower bud, poison, parasite, and bend of the Orinoco River, certain that the grand unity of the cosmos is waiting to be revealed under his microscope. Exasperated at Humboldt’s completism, his French sidekick Bonpland asks, “Did one always have to be so German?”
Though born in Munich in 1975, Kehlmann happens to be Austrian, the son of a Viennese theater director. His novels and plays are exactly the kind of corpus one might expect from a post-Enlightenment-era German-language writer transposed to the present, straddling both playful modernity and classical romanticism. Kleist would approve of his taste for quasihistorical folktales, Thomas Mann would be quite at home in Kehlmann’s frequent juxtaposition of Enlightenment-era logic and superstitious barbarism, and his baroque, puzzle-box approach to psychology and philosophy would appeal to Hölderlin. (It is no accident that Kehlmann happens has netted the Kleist, Thomas Mann, and Friedrich Hölderlin prizes in Germany.) And yet, Kehlmann’s books are page-turners, running the gamut from picaresque and family chronicles to gothic horror. They are nothing if not approachable and generous with their pleasures, even as they bound from genre to genre, coalescing into an ultimately impossible-to-categorize vision of contemporary literature, its past, and its potential.
In person, Kehlmann is gregarious, charming, self-effacing, and disarmingly fascinated by nearly everything; upon meeting at a cavernous restaurant a stone’s throw from NYU, where he is a visiting scholar in the German department, our interview lapsed into considerations of the science behind spotting dragons (“Where you don’t see the dragon, that’s where it is, because it’s hiding”), the vogue for “nonfiction novels” (Kehlmann prefers Emmanuel Carrère and forerunner Max Frisch to Knausgaard), American gun violence, and the controversy engulfing the new Joker movie (“It’s apparently easier on the conscience to ban fiction than guns”). Despite his work’s perceived Teutonism, Kehlmann maintains that he came slowly to German history and describes his earliest literary heroes as coming from the U.S., Russia, and Latin America. As a teenager, he read everything from Nabokov to Pet Sematary, and by age 20 he had already completed his first novel, the as-yet-untranslated Beerholms Vorstellung, written from the perspective of a stage magician. That novel was followed by Mahlers Zeit, the story of a frustrated scientist, and Me and Kaminski, in which the influence of Nabokov is evidenced in the story of a journalist who becomes increasingly enveloped by his subject, the oddball painter Manuel Kaminski. Then came Measuring the World, translated into English in 2006 by the late Carol Brown Janeway, the legendary Knopf editor whom he describes as family and who worked with Kehlmann to bring his novels into English during her summer holidays.
A success in nearly every language it appeared in, Measuring the World established Kehlmann’s light touch regarding subject matter that would otherwise be encumbered with mind-boggling complexity. Tracing the origins of modern science through the diametrically opposed genius of curmudgeonly mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and that of indefatigable natural scientist Humboldt, and featuring supporting characters such as Louis Daguerre, Thomas Jefferson, and Immanuel Kant, the novel extracts a bracingly funny and altogether thrilling human story from the birth of science as we know it, in the pocket of time just before “people would go up in balloons and measure off distances on magnetic scales... and work out distances by the diminution of electrical intensity.” Like many of Kehlmann’s novels, Measuring the World went on to become a movie, with the author cowriting the screenplay.
His reputation—and bankability—firmly established, Kehlmann’s next two books veered toward formal experimentalism: F deconstructs the family chronicle with healthy doses of hypnotism, forgery, religious mysticism, and overlapping narratives, while Fame follows the ramifications of a series of calls to a wrong number into nine interconnected stories of writers, their creations, movie stars, and mistaken identities. During this time, Kehlmann also wrote plays; 2012’s The Mentor was staged in London’s West End with F. Murray Abraham in the lead.
All of which brings us to Tyll (Pantheon, Feb. 2020), almost certainly Kehlmann’s magnum opus. Taken from the well-known German folktale of a wandering trickster and infused with the detail of a painting by Bruegel the Elder, Tyll humanizes its hero, Tyll Ulenspiegel, while bringing him from the 13th century to the 17th. “I wanted Tyll to be a kind of guide for the reader into the hell of the early modernity, when there existed nothing but superstition—a world comprised of death, miracles, and dark magic,” Kehlmann says. As the Thirty Years’ War ravages the countryside, the acrobat and jack-of-all-trades Tyll roves with his company through flash points of European history, sometimes as protagonist and sometimes as observer. He witnesses, for starters, the exile of King Frederick of Bohemia, for whom Tyll becomes court jester; the rise of the Jesuits, who put Tyll’s heretical father to death; and the utter destruction of German villages at the hands of a soldiery run rampant.
Kehlmann describes the Thirty Years’ War as“a dark moment in European history,” noting that, as a result of the war, “50% of the civilian population of Northern Europe was wiped out.” As to why he chose to set his novel in this bleakest of periods, Kehlmann says it’s because he was frightened by it. He quotes his friend Jonathan Franzen as advising him that “when you have the strong feeling that there is something you shouldn’t write about, you should take it as a sign that you must.”
Just as Tyll is Kehlmann’s most ambitious work, it also had the longest gestation period—not that he didn’t put his time to good use. During a lull in its composition, he wrote the horror novella You Should Have Left (translated, like Tyll, by Ross Benjamin), about a screenwriter and his family who are menaced by a haunted rental high in the mountains. When he returned to Tyll, the world had changed with the election of Donald Trump, the devastation of Syria, and the newfound prevalence of “fake news”—all of which made their way, in some fashion, into the novel.
“In a sense,” Kehlmann says, “all news was fake because it was propaganda, as the public was flooded with pamphlets that claimed their enemies were in league with the devil, or that they had won battles that had actually been lost. It was a time of darkness and destruction, when all political order totally failed.” This synergy between past and present clearly hit a nerve: Tyll is being developed as a show for Netflix. (Meanwhile You Should Have Left is forthcoming from the horror movie giant Blumhouse, starring Kevin Bacon.)
Kehlmann considers the key to all his novels to be a sense of personal stakes. His personality—curious, scholarly, and intellectually good-humored—suffuses his work, whether modern, premodern, or altogether mythical. As for what Tyll has done for Kehlmann’s sense of the present, he says, “I feel more relaxed. This new dark age is really terrible. But we’ve survived worse.”
Recent work by J.W. McCormack has appeared in the Baffler, Bomb, Longreads, and the New York Times.