Translated by Ross Benjamin
Book 8 of my #20booksofsummer, Review no 165
Kehlmann has written across several genres, all with aplomb, with his work encompassing horror and short story and more besides. Shortlisted for the International Booker in 2020, Tyll (published in German in 2017) is a playful work of historical fiction, taking in mysticism, folk tales and the Thirty Years War, which was waged over the Holy Roman Empire in 1618-48. It had sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany by the time of its publication in English in early 2020, and is due to appear as a Netflix TV series.
Set in early 17th century Europe, the novel first provides an origin story for the semi-mythological character of Tyll, a folkloric trickster, part outlaw, part jester, who refuses to give into fate. It skips around in time in later chapters, with a large chunk of the narrative focusing on the multilingual Winter Queen, Elizabeth Stuart, the daughter of King James of England and Scotland, and her husband, Frederick, the Bohemian Winter King.
Elizabeth (Liz) is a fan of the theatre, but is not taken with the cultural offerings of her husband’s court:
“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 of his noise. What was a poet supposed to do with this language?”
The book, though evidently expertly researched, does not get bogged down in historical detail, wearing its erudition lightly. While intermittently emotionally affecting, the writing also humorously demonstrates the ridiculousness of monarchical hierarchies and court protocol.
I found myself turning to Wikipedia for context at times, although it wasn’t the full Wolf Hall experience (I think I spent as long on Wikipedia as on Wolf Hall while reading that novel). Tyll reminded me more of Rose Tremain’s Restoration or Music and Silence, in its lightness of touch, sly humour and focus on the trials and tribulations of European monarchs.