Tag Archives: Ross Benjamin

Tyll by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Telling truth to power

Cover imageI’ve read all of Daniel Kehlmann’s translated novels, each very different from the others but all witty and smart. His last book, You Should Have Left, was a short, gothic number, both chilling and riveting. In comparison Tyll is a lengthy, historical novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years War which raged across what we now know as central Europe from 1618 to 1648. Not a setting which instantly appeals to me but Kehlmann’s a writer I can‘t resist. Opening in a small village when the miller’s eponymous son is still a child, Tyll takes us from the early years of the war to the convoluted negotiations which will bring it to its end.

A sharp, clever little boy, Tyll is never quite the same after spending two nights alone in the woods in the grips of a fever after his mother went into premature labour. His father is facinated by books, keen to learn as many of the world’s secrets as he can despite having trouble deciphering them, and eager to discuss his ideas with the two passing scholars who turn out to be Jesuits on the lookout for heresy. With villagers always keen to point the finger at those who bring misfortune while placating the authorities, not least God, Claus meets an inevitable fate. Tyll takes off with Nele who’s happy to dodge the marriage, incessant childbirth and early death which looms ahead of her. These two become entertainers: Tyll performing the tightrope walk he’s been perfecting for years, dancing and playing the mischief-making fool, a role that will eventually lead him to the highest court in the land, by way of the King and Queen of Bohemia whose acceptance of the crown has launched the whole sorry venture of the devastating, seemingly never-ending war.

I’m leaving now. This is what I’ve always done when things get tight, I leave

Kehlmann’s richly imagined novel takes us from Tyll’s hungry, squalid village to Osnabrück’s gorgeously appointed Town Hall where peace is finally being negotiated. The village is a hostile world where judgement, fear and superstition rule. At the other end of the social scale, negotiations are dictated by an intricate protocol in which it’s easy to be put on the back foot by one wrong move. Kehlmann’s descriptions are vivid and dramatic, his characterisation sharp and his storytelling engrossing. The whole thing is immensely entertaining, served up with a good deal of very dark wit. Count Wolkenstein’s writing of his unreliable memoirs, leaning heavily towards self-glorification, fifty years after the event is a particular treat.

Even at a distance of half a century he found himself incapable of putting it into sentences that had any actual meaning. Naturally, he described the sight anyway

Throughout it all, Tyll is the fool who sees his masters’ folly, unafraid to speak truth to power if only they’d listen. I loved this novel with its contemporary resonance, gobbling it up. Given the diversity of his fiction so far, I’m left wondering what Kehlmann will come up with next.

Riverrun: London 2020 9781529403657 342 pages Hardback

Books to Look Out For in February 2020: Part Two

Cover imageThis second batch of February’s new titles begins with one I’m eagerly anticipating although a novel set against the backdrop of the Thirty Years’ War wouldn’t usually appeal. Daniel Kehlmann’s Tyll is based on the German legend of the eponymous trickster, born in an ordinary village but destined to expose the folly of kings and the wisdom of fools, apparently. ‘With macabre humour and moving humanity, Daniel Kehlmann lifts this legend from medieval German folklore and enters him on the stage of the Thirty Years’ War. When citizens become the playthings of politics and puppetry, Tyll, in his demonic grace and his thirst for freedom, is the very spirit of rebellion – a cork in water, a laugh in the dark, a hero for all time’ say the publishers. I’m not at all sure about that but I’ve yet to read anything by Kehlmann I’ve not both enjoyed and admired.

If the historical setting of Tyll is a little outside my literary territory, thrillers are practically on a different continent but I enjoyed A. D. Miller’s The Faithful Couple, a favourite holiday read in Palma, a few years back. With Independence Square, Miller returns to Ukraine where his bestselling first novel, Snowdrops, was set, a country whose turbulent recent history he covered as a journalist. Once a senior diplomat in Kiev, Simon Davey spots a woman on the Tube he’s convinced is the person who unwittingly brought about his downfall and decides to follow her. ‘Independence Square is a story of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary times. It is a story about corruption and personal and political betrayals. It is a story about where, in the twenty-first century, power really lies’ say the publishers. William Boyd is a fan, apparently.Cover image

Not entirely sure this one is up my street either but the stories that make up Escape Routes by Naomi Ishiguro were apparently inspired by her stint at the lovely Mr B’s Emporium here in Bath. Her pieces are speculative ranging from a musician who befriends a flock of birds to two newlyweds inhibited by a large, watchful stuffed bear in their lives. I wonder if it’s the Orvis bear which disappeared mysteriously from outside our local branch. ‘Stories that start like delicate webs and finish like unbreakable wire traps’ according to Neil Gaiman.

I can’t say I’ve enjoyed every book by Colum McCann I’ve read but I’m an admirer of his writing. His new novel, Apeirogon, sounds extremely ambitious. It follows the friendship of two men – one an Israeli, the other a Palestinian – both of whom have lost their daughters – one killed in a suicide bomb attack, the other shot by a border guard. ‘Colum McCann crosses centuries and continents, stitching time, art, history, nature and politics into a tapestry of friendship, love, loss and belonging. Musical, muscular, delicate and soaring, it is a book for our times from a writer at the height of his powers’ promise the publishers. Finger crossed for this one.

Cover imagePetina Gappah’s Out of the Darkness, Shining Light sounds just as ambitious as Apeirogon, following a procession of sixty-nine Africans carrying the remains of a white man 1,500 miles to the sea so that he can be buried in his own country. The body is David Livingstone’s but Gappah concentrates on the funeral procession, apparently, giving voice to his cook and three of his most devoted servants. ‘Their tale of how his corpse was borne out of nineteenth-century Africa – carrying the maps that sowed the seeds of the continent’s brutal colonisation – has the power of myth’ say the publishers of what sounds like a novel that deserves the rather over-used description ‘epic’. I still haven’t got around to Gappah’s short stories despite being so impressed by The Book of Memory back in 2015.

Painted on a much smaller, twentieth-first century canvas, Luke Brown’s Theft sees a journalist granted an interview with a cult author who welcomes him into her London home. There he meets Sophie, celebrated for her controversial political views. Meanwhile, his sister has disappeared after their falling out over their dead mother’s house. Paul‘s life becomes increasingly fraught as he travels back and forth between his rundown northern home town and the Nardinis’ rather grand London house in what the publishers are describing as ‘an exhilarating howl of a novel’. Couldn’t resist that line.Cover image

My final choice is Ben Halls’ The Quarry which offers a small twist on state-of-the-nation fiction in the form of a collection of interlinked short stories rather than a straightforward novel. Set on the eponymous West London estate, Halls’ stories explore contemporary masculinity and changing gender roles through a diverse set of working-class men, apparently. That state-of-the-nation theme is catnip for me and this take on it sounds intriguing.

That’s it for February’s new fiction. As ever a click on a title will take you to a more detailed synopsis for any that have snagged your attention, and if you’d like to catch up with the first instalment it’s here. Paperbacks soon…

You Should Have Left by Daniel Kehlmann (transl. Ross Benjamin): Short but not sweet

Cover imageI’m a great fan of Daniel Kehlmann’s fiction which is why I was so keen to see his first play, The Mentor, premiered in my home town’s Ustinov Studio a couple of months ago. There I was all agog, tickets at the ready only to be too unwell to attend on the night but I gather from H that it was excellent. Consolation arrived in the shape of a new book by Kehlmann, albeit a very brief one – too short to call it a novella, more of a short story. It’s about a writer who takes himself off with his wife and daughter to a remote retreat in the hope of getting a grip on the screenplay that seems to be eluding him.

Our unnamed narrator is writing a sequel to the comedy whose royalties pay the household bills, much mocked by his actor wife in their recurring cycle of bicker and make-up. Susanna’s the one who booked the modern, mountain-top house from which our narrator stares out at stunning views while she and their four-year-old, Esther, play outside. Ideas for the film prove slippery, pressure from the producer increases and our narrator is exhausted. His dreams are troubling – a strange, narrow-eyed woman appears in them, morphing into Susanna, then back again. Rooms shift and change shape. A taciturn shopkeeper hints at strange happenings on the mountain to which there’s only one vertiginous road. Outside the shop, a woman in sunglasses tells him to ‘get away’.  Meanwhile, back at the house, it seems that our narrator is not the only one haunted by bad dreams.

Kehlmann’s story starts brightly enough with a scene from the new film his narrator is trying to write but before long we’re in gothic territory as the narrator stares at the reflection of the living room in a window but finds himself missing from it. There are many familiar tropes here even for those of us who rarely read horror – that missing reflection, messages obliquely communicated, dreams becoming waking nightmares – all adroitly handled so that they’re deeply unsettling rather than stale. Whether Kehlmann wants us to think of this as a parable – a chilling depiction of a man stalled in his writing, feeling trapped by domesticity, expectation and obligation – or as a straightforward piece of horror in the Shirley Jackson mode, I’m not sure, but I’m persuaded towards the former. There’s that face morphing into Susanna’s and the house is the same age as Esther not to mention the way in which it ends. Either way, it’s a riveting read.