“The Novel of Tyll Ulespiègle”, by Daniel Kehlmann: tribulations in chaos

“Le Roman de Tyll Ulespiègle” (Tyll), by Daniel Kehlmann, translated from German by Juliette Aubert, Actes Sud, 416 p., €23.

Confront a German national myth like that of the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), a confrontation between Protestants and Catholics which becomes complicated in a murderous European conflict on German soil, reaping millions of victims along the way, and draw a readable novel from it for today’s reader, require some courage. German writer Daniel Kehlmann had it. Without hesitation, he turned his back on the news that permeated his latest fiction on the 2008 financial crisis (The FriedlandsSouth Acts, 2015) to set the scene at the heart of the last of the wars of religion, which is also considered to be one of the first “world” conflicts, and whose conclusion – the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 – established a lasting European order between the nations of the continent.


The challenge was all the greater in that this historical tragedy inspired many masterpieces across the Rhine by the greatest German writers, from Kleist to Schiller via Brecht and his Mother Courage. Above all, this war is the subject of one of the founding texts of Germanic literature, The Adventures of Simplicius Simplicissimus, by Hans Jakob von Grimmelshausen (1668; Fayard, 1990), a great picaresque and earthy tale that already feeds on disasters and battles judged by its author had himself taken part as a soldier of fortune.

The story owes its modern, never kitsch writing to having been a bestseller in Germany when it was released – it has sold more than half a million copies.

Three and a half centuries later, Kehlmann’s story is less voyeuristic than that of Grimmelshausen, who lingers complacently in the description of the tortures and sabbaths of witches… But we find there the same humor and the omnipresence of the marvelous in a universe that gods or demons have not yet deserted, to the delight of the reader. Kehlmann’s hero, the traveling comedian and tightrope walker Tyll Ulespiègle, is also endowed with the same intelligent candor as his model, Simplicius, in stark contrast to the surrounding chaos.


Lyrical and ironic fiction at the same time, capable of competing with all ancient or contemporary genres, from the television series to the experimental novel, Kehlmann’s story is read with delight, sliding from scene to scene, as if to pose on a terrifying landscape the balm of dreams, and perhaps of hope. It owes its modern, never kitsch writing to having been a bestseller in Germany when it was released in 2017 – it has sold more than half a million copies. Daniel Kehlmann, born in 1975, a good connoisseur of literature and the history of science, studied philosophy in Vienna and knows how to work with historical material. The Surveyors of the World (Actes Sud, 2007), whose worldwide success made him known, imagined a meeting between the geographer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss, at the beginning of the 19e century. This time it’s the XVIIe century that he uses as a support for a flamboyant metaphor of “German misfortune”.

You have 42.2% of this article left to read. The following is for subscribers only.

Comments are closed.