Daniel Kehlmann: Measuring the World (Carol Brown Janeway, translator) (Vintage, 2007) [IBR2021]

It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. Each gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-à-vis the future.
Eugene nodded sleepily.
Even a mind like his own, said Gauss, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.

Aha! Enter Daniel Kehlmann with his fictionalized biography – a dual biography, in fact, of both Gauss and Alexander Humboldt – ready to supplement history with a little fun, slipping in “complete nonsense” as well as sly meta-comments along the way. It’s great fun to read.

Alexander Humboldt and Carl Gauss: The two men were contemporaries, were both famous in Europe, and published vast works that established new fields of science and mathematics. Yet they were quite different. One was from a wealthy Prussian family, the godson of a Duke, and was made a Baron; the other was the son of a German gardener. One wanted nothing more than to explore and document the world; the other preferred to stay home and work in a room, reasoning out abstractions. One never married; the other took a second wife to make up for the loss he felt when his first wife died. And yet, by the end of the book, they have more in common than we might suppose.

I spent a lot of time initially trying to determine what was documented fact and what was fancy, but eventually gave that up. I found an article by an eminent Dutch mathematician (all links provided below) castigating Kehlmann for taking such liberties (I hope he never reads Irving Stone or watches Amadeus). Then I found a Harvard mathematician who was a lot more enthusiastic, particularly about the film made from the book.

One of the scenes that so irritated the Dutch professor concerned a balloon ride that almost certainly never happened, as it appears to have taken place after the balloonist died (in a balloon accident, tragically). It’s one of my favorite passages:

And seizing him partly by his collar, partly by his hair, he hauled Gauss up.
The curve of the earth in the distance….
This is how God sees the world, said Pilâtre.
He wanted to say something back, but he’d lost his voice. How fiercely the air was shaking them! And the sun—why was it so much brighter up here? His eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them. And space itself: a straight line from every point to every other point, from this roof to this cloud, to the sun, and back to the roof. Points making lines, lines making planes, planes making bodies, and that wasn’t all. The fine curve of space was almost visible from here. He felt Pilâtre’s hand on his shoulder. Never go down again. Up and then up further, until there would be no earth beneath them any more. One day this is what people would experience. Everyone would fly then, as if it were quite normal, but by then he would be dead. He peered excitedly into the sun, the light was changing. Dusk seemed to be rising in the still-bright sky like fog. A last flame or two, red on the horizon, then no more sun, then stars. Things never happened this fast down there. We’ve started to drop, said Pilâtre.
No, he begged, not yet! There were so many of them, more every moment. Each one a dying sun. Every one of them was decaying, and they were all following their own trajectories, and just as there were formulae for every planet that circled its own sun and every moon that circled its own planet, there was a formula, certainly infinitely complicated, but then again maybe not, perhaps hiding behind its own simplicity, that described all these movements, every revolution of every individual body around every other; maybe all you had to do was keep looking. His eyes smarted. It felt as if he hadn’t blinked for a long time. We’re about to land, said Pilâtre.
No, not yet! He rose on tiptoes, as if that could help, stared upward, and understood for the first time what movement was, what a body was; most of all, what space was, the space that they stretched between them, and thatheld them all, even him, even Pilâtre and this basket, in its embrace. Space, that …
They crashed into the wooden frame of a haystack….
Now he knew, said Gauss.
What?
That all parallel lines meet.
Fine, said Pilâtre.
His heart was racing. He wondered if he should explain to the man that all he would need was to add a hanging rudder to the basket, and he could turn the air current to make the balloon move in any specific direction.
But he kept quiet. Nobody had asked him, and it wouldn’t be polite to force his ideas on these people. It took no stretch of the imagination, and one of them would think of it soon.
But now what this man wanted to see was a grateful child. With an effort, Gauss put a smile on his face, stretched his arms wide, and bowed like a marionette. Pilâtre was happy, laughed, and stroked his head.

I’ve found several sources that credit Gauss with coining the term “non-Euclidean geometry” and conducting  an exploration of the Fifth Postulate as a way into the curvature of space; he never published anything on these topics, apparently feeling it would seem too fanciful, but the ideas were passed down to others, culminating in Riemann and Einstein. So while this particular incident may never have happened, its point – that inspiration and insight, comes from many other sources other than the hard work credited with 99% of genius – is well-taken.

Kehlmann relates the more familiar story of the discovery of Gauss’ mathematical talent by a schoolteacher who, as punishment or pedagogy, who knows, has the young children add the numbers from 1 to 100. Gauss completes the task in moments, using the method that is now codified for summing consecutive integers, and is thus vaulted into serious mathematical study. Whether or not this tale, which exists in several versions, is true is debated; maybe it’s more like George Washington telling the truth about cutting down the cherry tree, a legend that has become so ingrained it’s inseparable from fact. In any case, it’s told charmingly. Humboldt’s childhood inspiration was a bit different:

Once they stumbled on a story about Aguirre the Mad, who had renounced his king and declared himself emperor. He and his men traveled the length of the Orinoco in a journey that was the stuff of nightmares… Hardly any scholars had ever penetrated this region, and there was no reliable map.
But he would, said the younger brother. He would make the journey.
Naturally, the elder brother replied.
He really meant it!
Yes he understood that, said the elder brother and summoned a servant to note down the day and the exact time. The day would come when they would be glad they had fixed this moment.

The chapters alternate between Gauss and Humboldt, proceeding chronologically after a brief opening section preparing us for their eventual meeting later in life. Possibly because Humboldt’s life reads like an adventure novel while his personal life was rather limited, we see a great deal of him travelling, particularly of his trip to Latin America, collecting samples, and, indeed, measuring the world. Gauss’ studies, once his Disquisitiones Arithmeticae was published in his early 20s, are more summarized than dramatized, at least until his work with Wilhelm Weber on magnetism later in his life.

Yet Kehlmann gives us a picture of him through various short scenes, such as the (presumably fictional) moment he met his first wife, Johanna, while working as a surveyor shortly after qualifying for his doctorate:

He climbed over a hedge and landed panting, sweating, and strewn with pine needles in front of two girls. Asked what he was doing here, he nervously expounded the technique of triangulation: if you knew one side and two angles of a triangle, you could work out the other sides and the unknown angle. So you picked a triangle somewhere out here on God’s good earth, measured the side that was most easily accessible,and then used this gadget to establish the angle of the third corner. He lifted the theodolite and turned it this way,and then this way, and do you see, like this, with awkward fingers, as if doing it for the first time. Then you fit together a whole series of these triangles. A Prussian scientist was in the process of doing exactly this among all the fabulous creatures in the New World.
But a landscape isn’t a flat surface, retorted the bigger of the two.
He stared at her. There had been no pause. As if she had needed no time to think it over. Certainly not, he said, smiling.
A triangle, she said, had one hundred and eighty degrees as the sum of its angles on a flat surface; but it was on a sphere, so this was no longer true. Everything would stand or fall based on that.
He looked her up and down as if seeing her for the first time. She returned his look with raised eyebrows.
Yes, he said. So. In order to even things out, you had to scrunch the triangles, so to speak, after measuring them until they were infinitely small. In and of itself, a simple exercise in differentials. Although in this form … He sat down on the ground and took out his pad. In this form, he murmured, as he began making notes, it’s never been worked out in this form yet. When he looked up, he was alone.

The Prussian scientist mentioned is, of course, Humboldt, off looking for the mysterious channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. This was a culmination of sorts for him; we watched him attend the completion of the triangulation of longitude that defined the meter: “People wanted to name it ‘the meter.’ It always filled Humboldt with exultation when something was measured; this time he was drunk with enthusiasm.”

Both men had to search for funding for their projects, as much a major, if unpleasant, effort then as it is today. Kehlmann’s fiction has a lot of fun with some of this: as Humbolt is trying to charm sponsorship out Mariano de Irquijo, the minister of Madrid (who did initially sponsor him), he is mistaken for a physician there to provide the regent with an aphrodesiac (“His power over the land rested on his power over the queen. She was no longer a young woman, nor was he a young man now.”) Quick-thinking Humboldt starts listing ingredients from all over the world, and offers to collect them to make a superb remedy. “Never before had foreigners received such documents.”

This use of humor is, for Kehlmann, the point:

Some readers, he concedes, may have bought it because they were flattered to be reminded of Germany’s role in the Enlightenment’s avant garde.
In fact, he says, it was intended as the antithesis of that – “a comedy about German high culture, about the German cult of genius”. “I have met people who didn’t want to read Measuring the World because they thought it was a serious, educated, self-important book about intellectual history. It has gained an aura that is the very opposite of what it really is, and I do regret that a bit. I also think it’s problematic that it is now on the school syllabus, because, in reality, it’s a parody about how we deal with educational values.”

Interview in The Guardian with Philip Oltermann

One of the clearest examples of this poke at German genius comes from Humboldt’s measuring of a solar eclipse while in South America. His assistant/collaborator, Aimé Bonpland, was astounded by the fading light, the momentousness of it all. Humboldt was too busy taking measurements to pay attention. “Did one always have to be so German?” sighs Bonpland.

Some of that humor has an ironic bite. While discussing the miracle of a parrot who is the last surviving speaker of a tribal language, Bonpland asks the head of the mission where the scientists are staying what happened to the tribe, why it disappeared.

It happened, said Pater Zea.
Why?
Pater Zea stared at him with narrowed eyes. It was easy to be like that. A person came here and pitied anyone who looked sad, and back home there would be bad stories to tell, but if that person suddenly found himself with fifty men ruling ten thousand savages, wondering every night what the voices in the forest meant, and being amazed each morning to find himself alive, perhaps he would judge things differently.
A misunderstanding, said Humboldt. Nobody had intended to criticize.

On a later stop in Mexico (New Spain at the time), Humboldt recommends to the Spanish overseer that the mine passages be repaired, to reduce accidents. “They had enough people, said Don Fernando. Anyone who died could be replaced. Humboldt asked if he’d read Kant.” This sly way of bringing up the categorical imperative to treat people as ends, not as means, doesn’t land for the overseer, but it does for the reader.

And also in Mexico:

Shortly afterward, as Humboldt packed up his instruments, he knew that on the day of the solstice, the sun when seen from the highway rose exactly over the top of the largest pyramid and went down over the top of the second-largest. The whole city was a calendar. Who had thought it up? How well had these people known the stars, and what had they wanted to convey? He was the first person in more than a thousand years who could read their message.
Why was he so depressed, asked Bonpland, awakened by the sound of the instruments being closed.
So much civilization and so much horror, said Humboldt. What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.

That Spain inflicted horror on the New World is without doubt, but those of us who are familiar with the 20th century, yet future to Humboldt, might find somber irony in his exclamation.

I’m impressed with Kehlmann’s ability to compress these ideas into short statements, but the best is yet to come. Towards the end of his life, Humboldt and his brother, always close, speak of destiny:

Nobody, said Humboldt, had a destiny. One simply decided to feign one until one came to believe in it oneself. But so many things didn’t fit in with it, one had to really force oneself.
The elder brother leaned back and gave him a long look.
Still boys?
You knew?
Always.

That exchange of five words carries great impact. Yes, biographers and scholars of Humboldt’s travels have assumed, with varying degrees of certainty, that he was gay. I keep thinking of a trope that runs through the Gauss chapters, how he recognizes, as in the first quote above, that the state of knowledge, and society,, is always in flux, and what we accept today will most likely be different in fifty or a hundred or two hundred years. Humboldt didn’t have the luxury of waiting around for acceptance; I think that underlines some of his obsessive work.

Last year I read Kehlmann’s more recent book, Tyll, and enjoyed it so much I decided to read this earlier book. I’m glad I did. While the august personages, mathematics and science might intimidate some readers, it’s not a problem. Of course, the more one knows, the more one gets out of it (I love recognizing things I’ve heard of), but Kehlmann makes a point of not worrying about explaining background, be it of the Thirty Years’ War in Tyll, or the discoveries of Gauss – or, for that matter, the Napoleonic Wars which play in the background as Gauss moves from one university town to the next in search of a position.

I feel like you can never leave out enough explanation. We humans are actually used to working with incomplete information, for all our lives, all the time.
Measuring the World was a novel about two German scientists. It did very well in Germany, but then foreign publishers said, “We need footnotes because in our country nobody knows Carl Friedrich Gauss.“ I said, “Very few people in Germany knew Carl Friedrich Gauss either!“ When I read Dostoevsky, there’s so much about the politics of nineteenth-century Russia that I don’t understand, but it doesn’t matter at all. I feel like we should always trust the reader to deal with incomplete information—because that’s what all of us do all day long anyway!

Interview in Bomb Magazine with Álvaro Enrigue

The book ends not with the deaths of the scientists, but with Gauss’ son, Eugen. Throughout the book, Gauss has dumped on the poor boy, disappointed that he had little facility for mathematics. In more historically accurate materials, he urged the boy to go into law rather than science, fearing he would not be able to uphold Gauss’ name. Eugen leaves Germany, travelling somewhat the same route as Humboldt many years ago, but missing the excitement the journey brought the naturalist; he clearly doesn’t measure up to either man. He ended up in America, and, in historical accounts, became quite a successful businessman. The last word of the book, in fact, is America. If one wishes to deduce a shift in polarity from this, from Gauss the father, German genius, to the son, American entrepreneur, one is free to do so.

But I found the emotional end of the book to be earlier: as they exchange letters towards the ends of their lives, they end up feeling sorry for each other. Gauss pities Humboldt because he can’t explore Russia with the degree of freedom he needs, and Humboldt feels bad that Gauss has seen so little of the world. Humboldt, who yearned for travel and direct experience to measure everything in existence; Gauss, who valued thinking through principles to find truth. Yet, like those parallel lines that intrigued Gauss from an early age: seemingly different, yet they meet.

Kehlmann’s book made me want to read more factual biographies of both men, and I can think of no greater compliment for fiction.

* * *

Philip Oltermann,The Guardian, 11/15/2014: Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann: ‘German writers have been taught to hide their humour'”

Álvaro Enrigue, Bomb Magazine, 2/26/2020 : Interview, “Daniel Kehlmann”

St. Andrews Math Histories: Carl Friedrich Gauss

Eleanor Jones Harvey, Smithsonian Institution: “Who Was Alexander Von Humboldt?”

Frans Oort: Book Review

Michael Harris, Mathematics Without Apologies: “Three mathematicians, three novels, only one movie, part 3”

Oliver Knill, 9/27/2020: “Measuring the World [Film]

Daniel Kehlmann (Ross Benjamin, translator): Tyll (Pantheon, 2020) [IBR2020]

The war had not yet come to us. We lived in fear and hope and tried not to draw God’s wrath down upon our securely walled town, with its hundred and five houses and the church and the cemetery, where our ancestors waited for the Day of Resurrection.
We prayed often to keep the war away. We prayed to the Almighty and to the kind Virgin, we prayed to the Lady of the Forest and to the Little People of Midnight, to Saint Gerwin, to Peter the Gatekeeper, to John the Evangelist, and to be safe we also prayed to Old Mela, who during the Twelve Nights, when the demons are let loose, roams the heavens at the head of her retinue. We prayed to the Horned Ones of ancient days and to Bishop Martin, who shared his cloak with the beggar when the latter was freezing, so that they were then both freezing and both pleasing to God, for what’s the use of half a cloak in winter, and of course we prayed to Saint Maurice, who had chosen death with a whole legion rather than betray his faith in the one just God.
Twice a year the tax collector came and always seemed surprised that we were still here. Now and then merchants came, but since we didn’t buy much they soon went on their way, which was all right with us. We needed nothing from the wide world and gave it no thought until one morning a covered wagon, pulled by a donkey, rolled down our main street. It was a Sunday at the beginning of spring, the stream was swollen with meltwater, and in those fields that weren’t lying fallow we had sown the seed.
A red canvas tent was pitched on the wagon. In front of it crouched an old woman. Her body looked like a bag, her face seemed made of leather, her eyes looked like tiny black buttons. A younger woman with freckles and dark hair stood behind her. But on the coach box sat a man we recognized even though he had never been here before, and when the first of us realized who he was and called his name, others too realized, and soon many voices were calling from all directions: “Tyll is here!” “Tyll has come!” “Look, it’s Tyll!” It could be no one else.

And here we go again: I love a book that teaches me something. Those who’ve read those words from me before know this will be one of my long, meandering posts that may not really address the book as much as the learning experience. So let me give you the short version up front: I loved this book. I loved the themes of decision points, of contrasting points of view, of modernity’s science and individuality emerging slowly from the pre-modern superstition and group identity, of the absurd juxtapositions of Christian words and deeds, of the obscenity of war. I loved the writing style that changed to fit the story from chapter to chapter, acting something like Tyll himself: now mocking, now thoughtful, now playful, now caring and kind, now terrifying, now uncertain. I loved the philosophy woven into the story, the art and drama, the historical personages, the major works of scholars. And I loved the touches of the supernatural, the hints that sometimes were never really nailed down, and the other outright magic.

If you’re wondering if you would enjoy reading it, I suggest you check out one of the many professional reviews can be found in all the usual places: TNY, the NYT, the Guardian. Rob Doyle for the TLS is the only clearly negative entry: while he admires the sprinkling of “Borgesian tidbits”, he feels “it is quite a slog – there’s lots of history and not enough story.” I would disagree, arguing that the history is presented as story, with the characters evincing their own unique qualities and undergoing various trials and adventures, all of which involve, at some point, meeting up with Tyll Ulenspiegel, himself a semi-historical character. Then again, I did my second read in front of my computer, checking out every name, place, and date, which, ok, some might consider a slog. I found it great fun.

I don’t remember how this book came to my attention, but someone said something that grabbed me. Kehlmann is a German writer, not likely to come across my screen by the usual channels. The book was published in German back in 2017 with great success in Europe; the English translation was released this year. I’ve read that it’s being filmed as a Netflix series (though who knows what the pandemic may do to that idea); I think that means it will be in German, since those notices preceded the English publication. If that’s the case, I hope Netflix will make English subtitles available. I’m very curious to see how they realize the book.

I knew nothing about the Thirty Years’ War in which it is set, and the only thing I thought I knew about Til Eulenspiegel turned out to be completely wrong (for some reason, I thought he was a female fairy or a nymph, not a male prankster). I hit Wikipedia and the Youtube for some general info before I read the book. The original Tyll Eulenspiegel (the spelling of both names varies; the novel uses Tyll Ulenspiegel) was possibly a real person from the fourteenth century, but was solidified as a prankster character by a sixteenth-century chapbook. The background image of Tyll I used in the header image above is from a 1921 German “emergency note”, temporary money issued after WWI. Seems a little weird to put a famous prankster on money, but it was a weird time. The war is way too complicated to really understand; I can’t keep straight who’s Catholic and who’s Protestant, and have no idea how all the many kingdoms are organized. I did some additional basic research on individuals as I read along, which helped; in one case I recognized a character from something I read last year, which really curled my toes. I’m guessing my toes would have curled more if I’d been more up on the war, but my lack of info didn’t get in the way of the read at all.

The chapters – or maybe sections would be a better word for it, since some of the longer ones are subdivided into numbered chapters – each have distinctive characteristics, and are set at various times during the Thirty Years’ War that devastated great portions of northern and central Europe in the seventeenth century. The sections aren’t in chronological order, they feature different characters, and different narrative styles and tones are used. There’s some mild confusion for a few pages at times until it becomes clear who’s who and when, but in general, I found it read easily. And of course, what ties it all together is Tyll, even though he barely appears in some sections.

Let’s go through it, shall we, and I’ll add in some extras along the way.

We start out with “Shoes,” which, as quoted above, opens in a small village as yet unaffected by the war. This chapter introduces us to Tyll’s travelling circus at perhaps the height of his fame as an entertainer, and to the qualities that sum him up as a person. For example, his signature talents are tightrope walking and juggling, which serve as metaphors for his life skills throughout the book. It’s told in third person plural from the point of view of the town; this gives the final paragraphs great impact.

In his NYT interview with Tobias Gray, Kehlmann explains how he heard the shoe story as a child as a moral tale, with Tyll’s pranks “showing people their folly.” He later disagreed with this; a purported translation of the original chapbook gives the impression the “Shoes” incident was more about revenge for the village boys dumping him in the river than about an ethics lesson. So Kehlmann has rewritten it in this book with a conversation that indicates more clearly that this Tyll’s point is shining a spotlight on hypocrisy and the evil that lurks even in the most upright towns: he chats with a young girl, asking her if the people are “good people…. Peaceful people, help each other, understand each other, like each other, is that the sort of people they are?” The girl assures him they are. Yet, during his tightrope stunt, they are easily goaded into attacking each other over, of all things, shoes. The town remembers:

We never spoke about what had happened. Nor did we speak about Ulenspiegel. Without having arranged it, we stuck to this; even Hans Semmler, who was so severely injured that from now on he was confined to his bed and could eat nothing but thick soup, pretended it had never been otherwise. And even the widow of Karl Schönknecht, whom we buried the next day in the churchyard, acted as if it had been a blow of fate and as if she didn’t know exactly whose knife it had been in his back. Only the rope still hung for days over the square, trembled in the wind and was a perch for sparrows and swallows until the priest, who had been roughed up especially badly during the brawl, because we didn’t like his boastfulness and his condescension, could climb up the bell tower again to cut it down.
At the same time, we didn’t forget. What had happened remained between us. It was there while we brought in the harvest, and it was there when we bargained over our grain or assembled on Sunday for the Mass, where the priest had a new facial expression, half wonder and half fear. And it was there especially when we held celebrations on the square and when we looked each other in the face while dancing. Then the air seemed heavier, the water different on our tongues, and the sky, where the rope had hung, not quite itself.

This entire first chapter is available online at Bomb Magazine; it’s short, entertaining, moving, and worth the read. But don’t be misled (and don’t worry, if you happen to hate first person plural); remember, each chapter has its own narrative style and tone.

The second section, “Lord of the Air”, is much longer and serves as a sort of origin story, laying down a foundation that will return again and again throughout later chapters. Tyll is just a boy; his father Claus married himself into the town miller job, but is at heart a philosopher. That made it one of the most fun chapters for me, as I watched him wrestle with the sorities paradox, aka the Problem of the Heaps (if you take a grain of sand from a heap of sand, is it still a heap? At what point is it not a heap?) which became the 20th century’s fuzzy logic exemplar, the Indiscernability of Identicals that Liebniz formulated just a few decades after Claus, infinities, and other topics those of us fond of philosophy and logic moocs have encountered along the way. At the same time, he works on spells, potions, and amulets. It’s a wonderful reminder that, even with the spells and superstitions, this is the world on the brink of modernity, with science on its way down the birth canal.

Tyll as well does some thinking that could be considered philosophical; he wonders what it’s like to be a donkey. Thomas Nagel will later write a famous paper about consciousness titled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?”, but for Tyll, the donkey experience is alien enough. He retains an affinity with donkeys for the rest of the novel. I’ve tried to figure out if there’s some symbolism involved, but all I come up with is the helper animal of Christianity, and I’m not sure that fits.

[Addendum: A couple of hours after this post went live, Egyptologist/Historian (and tweeter of Papyrus Stories) Jenny Cromwell tweeted a link to a new French Egyptology book (English title In The Footsteps Of The Donkey In The Egyptian Religion. There’s an English abstract on the publisher’s website:

Donkeys were essential in ancient Egyptian trade and agriculture, but their value was nuanced by their perception in religion. The animal appears in funerary, magical or ritual sources, where it often reflects an ambivalent nature, while its well-known association to the evil god Seth is constantly reminded in the modern literature.
Either benevolent or evil, donkeys are ambiguous entities that can be recognized as dreadful beings possessing powers praised for their protective efficiency. Although they can be associated to Seth, they also followed their own path. In magical texts, the animal was feared and revered at the same time, becoming a powerful entity holding spears and evoked as a protector, while in the context of the temple it will be annihilated as the archetype of evil.

Marie Vandenbeusch: Sur les pas de l’âne dans la religion egyptienne, website English abstract

This sounds a lot more like Tyll than the Christian symbolism. It’s only connected to him via Kircher’s hieroglyphics work, so it’s tenuous at best, but there might be another connection I’m unaware of. And I do love a good coincidence (even if it’s really just confirmation bias).]

Tyll has a bizarre experience in the forest while transporting flour to another town in the care of his mother and a farmhand. The exact details are uncertain, but there are clues that some kind of fundamental shift takes place. His interest in the donkey is cemented here. Yet the highlight is his father’s execution for heresy, a prosecution Tyll unwittingly sparks when he has a brief conversation with a Jesuit, Athanasius Kircher. Kircher (as well as his mentor, Oswald Tesimond) is a historical person, a scholar of great reputation. He will come back into the picture later, and there is much to explore about him, but for now, a brief detour into his expertise in draconology aside, his role as a mini-inquisitor takes center stage.

Tyll realizes his childhood is over; he might have to become a day laborer, unless the Jesuits decide to come after him as well. He asks his friend Nele to run away with him:

Suddenly she felt a wondrous excitement, and her throat seemed constricted, and her heart pounded. “Why do you say we?”
“Because you’re coming with me.”
“With you?”
“That’s why I was waiting.”
She knew she must not think, or else she would lose her courage, or else she would stay here, as was in store for her; but he was right, you really could leave. The place where everyone thought you had to stay – in actuality nothing was keeping you there.
…there are only a few moments when two things are possible, one path as much as another. Only a few moments when you can decide.

This becomes another theme that carries through the book: decision points.

They spend a rough night in the forest, then fall in with a third-rate balladeer, Gottfried. He’s a decent sort, though, and their dancing improves his balladeering, so they team up. They, and we, are introduced to the idea that those in the travelling trades give up the protection of the authorities: “That is the price of freedom,” which sounds something like Hobbes contrasting the state of nature with the social contract.

They encounter Pirmin, another entertainer, and a better one, but a bit of a scary guy. Do you go with the guy who is good to you, or the guy who can teach you something? For Tyll, there is no question, but Nele is more hesitant, and we have another decision point:

It’s true, of course, that Gottfried can’t do much. But he has been good to them. And she doesn’t like this fellow. There is something not right about him. On the other hand, it’s true, of course: Gottfried will not be able to teach them anything.
On the other hand, on the other hand. Pirmin winks as if he were reading her thoughts.
Tyll jerks his head impatiently. “Come on, Nele!”
She need only extend her arm.

Then we zoom forward with the section titled “Zusmarschausen,” named for what would be the last major battle of the Thirty Years’ War in 1648. The primary character is the Fat Count, Martin von Wolkenstein, who has been sent by the Kaiser to fetch the now-famous jester Tyll Ulenspiegel from the Abbey of Andechs, where he has taken refuge from the war raging in the area. It’s basically an expose on the horrors of war, punctuated by the hilarity of the Fat Count’s future writings of his life’s chronicle. It’s an interesting narrative technique: the voice of the future following up the events that occur with how the Fat Count will related them in his Chronicle. Whether it’s his memory or his desire to appear less lazy, or both, it’s a bit of a poke at these kinds of memoirs and a reminder that, in the absence of documentation, they might be taken with a grain of salt.

And again, the style of the writing fits the chapter:

In his life’s chronicle, the style of which was still beholden to the fashionable tone of his youthful days, that is, of erudite arabesque and florid ornamentation, the fat count depicted in sentences that, precisely due to their exemplary tortuousness, have since found their way into many a schoolbook, the leisurely ride through the green of the Vienna Woods: at Melk we reached the wide blue of the Danube, alighting there at the magnificent Abbey to pillow our weary heads for the night.
Once again this was not entirely true; in reality they stayed for a month.

Exemplary tortuousness, indeed.

I found a dozen or so examples of this “not entirely true” approach to Wolkenstein’s memoir. Sometimes he doesn’t remember what happened, so he inserts digressions of twelve or seventeen pages on his mother or some other irrelevant topic; sometimes he just shaves the truth to make his journey appear more courageous than it was; he leaves out one incident, it seems, because it felt too personally meaningful, even though that’s what a life chronicle should express. I’ll include just one exemplar. After he retrieves Tyll from the Abbey and is on his way back to the Kaiser in Augsburg, he is caught in a bloody artillery attack, one of the more gruesome scenes in the book (there are several which are worse). I include this because, not only is the Fat Count plagiarizing, but the source he’s stealing is also plagiarized:

Even then he sensed that all this would have to be told differently in his book one day. He would not succeed in any description, for everything would elude him, and the sentences he would be able to form would not match the pictures in his memory.
And indeed: that which had happened did not even appear in his dreams. Only occasionally did he recognize in what seemed utterly different dream events a distant echo of those moments when he had come under fire at the edge of Streitheim Forest near Zusmarshausen.
Years later he questioned the unfortunate Count Gronsfeld, whom the Bavarian Elector had summarily arrested after the defeat. Toothless, weary, and coughing, the former commander of the Bavarian troops named the names and places, he described the strength of the various units and drew deployment maps so that the fat count managed to some extent to account for roughly where he had been and what had befallen him and his companions. Yet the sentences refused to fall into line. And so he stole others.
In a popular novel he found a description he liked, and when people urged him to recount the last battle of the great German war, he told them what he had read in Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus. It didn’t quite fit, because that passage was about the Battle of Wittstock, but it didn’t bother anyone, no one ever raised any questions. What the fat count could not have known, however, was that Grimmelshausen, though he did experience the Battle of Wittstock firsthand, had himself been unable to describe it and instead had stolen the sentences of an English novel translated by Martin Opitz, the author of which had never witnessed a battle in his life.

While the Fat Count Martin von Wolkenstein appears to be a fictional character (it’s implied he is a descendant of 15th century poet and composer Oscar von Wolkenstein) and thus his life chronicle exists only within this book, the rest is from fact. The picaresque novel Simplicissimus from 1668, which by the way has some similarities with the original Eulenspiegel chapbook, was assumed to be semiautobiographical until it was pointed out that Grimmelshausen never participated in the war at all. In the foreword to a 2008 translation of Simplicissimus by John C. Osborne, Prof. Lynne Tatlock tells us: “The vivid description of the Battle of Wittstock in chapter 27 of book 2, for example, that can tempt modern readers to speak of realism, borrows liberally from an encyclopedic work of the seventeenth century, the Theatrum Europaeum.” Opitz is often considered the Father of German Poetry, and did a great deal of translating, though I can’t verify he translated that particular work.

None of this really affects the reading of the novel; I just find it interesting how Kehlmann chooses what bits and pieces to weave into his work. And I love diving into these rabbit holes. This is what the internet was made for!

Although the Fat Count is played as a blowhard, he has his moments and is deeply affected by what he witnessed. Tyll, meanwhile, comments on a couple of incidents from other chapters. As they are wandering in the forest before the artillery attack, he tells them, “I know the forest. I became a forest spirit when I was a small boy….A white forest spirit…. For the great devil.” This recalls the flour experience in “Lord of the Air” and hints at, but doesn’t quite explain, what happened. After the attack, he tells the Count about his experience in the mine of Brno three years earlier; this will be a later chapter. But, again, he stops short of explanation of his escape.

And so each chapter needs to be read mindful of each of the other chapters, even though they exist more or less independently. It’s why I ended up going through the novel three times: once as a straight read, a second time to pull quotes and research the historical mentions, and a third time to make connections. A fourth straight read wouldn’t hurt. It’s a novel that unfolds more and more with each read.

The next section, “Kings in Winter,” begins with someone named Liz in the Hague; it takes a while to figure out who this is and where we are in time, but as near as I can tell, it’s 1632 and Liz is Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of James I of England, wife of Frederick V, the Elector Palatine of Bohemia. None of this meant anything to me, and it’s still pretty hazy, but apparently his coronation kicked off the Thirty Years’ War and he fled in exile after less than a year, earning him the title The Winter King – and, for Liz, the Winter Queen. She is now ensconced in the Hague, is running out of money, and is waiting for her husband to return from his mission to reclaim his palatinate (is that a word?). As you can tell, for me the details of the political machinations don’t particularly inspire the research that other things do.

Liz starts out as something of an out-of-touch elite, but by the end of the novel she was one of my favorite characters. In this chapter, she affords the opportunity to bring in John Donne (who wrote a poem for her upon her marriage to Frederick, referring to her as “fair phoenix bride”), Shakespeare (who appears, uncredited and briefly, and then by implication), and a great deal of venom towards the German language. Oh, and Daddy issues: “This was just how Papa was. When you were counting on him, he left you in the lurch.”

Daddy – who, remember, is King James I of England – is also the mechanism by which the hypocrisy of Christianity is revealed in this chapter. Following the failed Gunpowder Plot (which I finally understand to some degree), her father deals with the conspirators:

He summoned not only the best torturers of his two kingdoms but also three pain experts from Persia and the emperor of China’s most learned tormentor. He commanded them to cause the prisoners every kind of agony that was known to be possible for a person to cause other people, and in addition he had tortures invented that no one yet envisioned. All the specialists were ordered to devise procedures more refined and dreadful than any the great painters of the inferno had dreamed. The one condition was that the light of the soul not be extinguished and that the prisoner not go mad: the perpetrators still had to name their confidants, after all, and they should have time to ask God’s forgiveness and to repent. For Papa was a good Christian.

Tyll showed up on her doorstep one day, along with Nele. They danced, he juggled, and finally they put on a little play with clear similarities to the death scene of Romeo and Juliet. Given Liz’s fondness for theatre, and particularly the King’s Men (Shakespeare’s acting troupe), she invited them to stay. She needed a court jester, to further convince herself she was still a Queen. And here I learned about the fool’s license: it’s the jester’s duty to make fun of the royal, since no one else is allowed to.

Tyll plays a joke on the entire court:

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!… Show it to your husband, the beautiful picture, let the poor King see it. And everyone else!”…
“It’s a magic picture, little lives. 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 option 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 hasn’t been able to help laughing.
“No, really, little Liz, tell the people!…. Tell them, watch what happens!”
What had happened still astonished her, every single day, and it would never cease to astonish her period 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 there was nothing 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 there was nothing 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.

Among the many things Kehlmann does so well in this chapter is his capturing of the marriage between Liz and Frederick. Both of them think the other is stupid; one of them is right. Royal Marriages were, of course, dynastic and more about power than love. It seems Daddy had some trouble figuring out just whom Liz should marry. The King of Sweden was an option, but she feels he didn’t want her, while sources I found seem to imply it was Daddy who nixed that deal. We see both sides of the wedding night, with one detail – rose petals floating like little boats on a puddle of water –as a lovely point of comparison. Which version is true? Maybe both, maybe neither.

We find out that it was Liz who persuaded Frederick to accept the crown of Bohemia, or whatever it should be called. Others advised against it, but she said, hey, how often does someone offer you a crown? And later, when he muttered, “I listened to the wrong people,” she knew that was her.

At that moment she realized that he would not forgive her for this. But he would still love her, just as she loved him. The nature of marriage consisted not only in the fact that you had children, it also consisted of all the wounds you had inflicted on each other, all the mistakes you had made together, all the things you held against each other forever. He would not forgive her for persuading him to accept the Crown, just as she would not forgive him for having always been too stupid for her.

The chapter gets a bit confusing, since there are comings and goings and two sets of characters. We’re with Liz and then with Frederick, and Tyll is with both, and then he isn’t. It’s full of interpersonal betrayals and loyalties, and a great deal of political barter as Frederick visits the King of Sweden to get back his Palatinate (is that the word?). The characters themselves are often confused. Frederick wanders in the snow, having failed in his mission, and thinks, “A king without a country in a storm, alone with his fool – something like this would never happen in a play, it was too absurd” as he tries to compose a message for Liz, the theatre lover, the admirer of Shakespeare, with whose King Lear she would be quite familiar. But it’s a wonderful confusion, laden with significance.

And by the end of the section, the King is dead, the Queen is alone, and Tyll, Nele, and the donkey have headed off to somewhere else.

Then we return to Tyll and Nele in their early days with Pirmin in the section titled “Hunger.” It’s a very short section, more of a transition. It is Pirmin who first tells Tyll and Nele about Liz and Frederick, as he was in London when they married. Tyll becomes aware that aging is not easy for travelling performers; he is young here, so it seems far away, but it’s something he tucks away. He and Nele refer to each other as brother and sister; sorry for those of you who were looking for romance, but you won’t find it here. But they have learned some skills, and with those skills they just might be able to eke out a living as performers.

“The Great Art of Light and Shadow” brings us back to the scholars Adam Olearius, Athanasius Kircher, and Paul Fleming. All three are historic personages. We have met Kircher, who prosecuted Tyll’s father Claus for witchcraft, before. He now comes to Olearius for assistance in hunting down a dragon so that he can make medicine for the plague. It’s pretty weird reading this at this moment, by the way, but let’s not go there, the book is so much more fun than hydroxychloroquine.

This section again really drives home how close the world is to modernity, and how far it still has to go. Parts are hilarious. Kircher embodies the know-it-all so certain of his certainty he can’t conceive of alternative possibilities, who spouts illogical logic. To wit:

“… The experiment gave me the idea of having a decoction of sulfur and snail’s blood administered to a plague victim. For on the one hand the sulfur drives out the Marian component of the disease out of him, while on the other hand the snail’s blood as a dracontological substitution sweetens that which sours the humors.”
“Excuse me?”
Kircher again contemplated his fingertips.
“Snail’s blood is a substitute for dragon’s blood?” asked Olearius.
“No,” Kricher said forbearingly, “dragon’s bile.”
“And what brings you here now?”
“The substitution has its limits. The plague victim in the experiment died despite thick decoction, which clearly proves that real dragon’s blood would have cured him. Thus we need a dragon, and one of the last dragons of the North lives in Holstein.”

“Has it been sighted then, the dragon?”
“Of course not. A dragon that has been sighted would be a dragon that did not possess the most important quality of dragons – that of making itself undetectable. For this very reason one must treat all reports by people of having cited dragons with extreme skepticism. For a dragon that let itself be cited would be recognized a priori as a dragon that is no real dragon.”
Olearius rubbed his forehead.
“In this region, evidently, a dragon has never before been witnessed. Hence I am confident that there must be one here.”

Ya gotta love this guy. By the way, he’s not entirely wrong. Jordan Ellenberg’s book How Not to be Wrong starts off with the story of Abraham Wald, who solved the problem of where to reinforce airplanes to reduce the likelihood they would be shot down: don’t reinforce the areas with bullet holes on the planes that have returned; they survived the damage. Reinforce the areas where you rarely see bullet holes on returned planes; those are the ones that needed reinforcing. Kircher had some twisted inkling of this idea called survivorship bias, but started with a false premise: that dragons exist. I mean, they don’t, do they?

I mentioned before that I would return to Kirchner, and here we are. At some point he mentions his prior work on hieroglyphs, how he found the true Christian significance to them, and I thought, wait, I’ve seen this before. But where? Oh, yes – last year I read Eco’s Serendipities, a collection of lectures on topics of scientific errors that turned into valuable research avenues nonetheless. Kirchner’s work on hieroglyphics – and on Chinese characters – was central to Chapter 3, From Marco Polo to Leibniz, Stories of Intellectual Misunderstandings. Eco acknowledges that Kircher was “one of the most learned men of the seventeenth century” and was also “insatiable in his lunatic curiosity.”

When Kircher set out to decipher hieroglyphs in the seventeenth century, there was no Rosetta stone to guide him. This explains his double mistake, namely, believing that hieroglyphs had only symbolic meaning and the absolutely fanciful way in which he identified their meaning. …But it was his conviction that, finally, hieroglyphs all showed something about the natural world that prevented him from ever finding the right track.

Kircher was then wildly wrong. Still, notwithstanding his eventual failure, he is the father of Egyptology, though in the same way that Ptolemy is the father of astronomy: in spite of the fact that his main hypothesis was mistaken.

Umberto Eco, Serendipities, Ch. 3

The hieroglyphs are irrelevant to this book, but Kircher’s belief in his own infallibility, his tendency to prove what he wanted to prove instead of hypothesizing, experimenting, and following the evidence, is one of the things the practice that will become Science needed to change to move out of the pre-modern and into the modern. Not that we don’t have trouble with the same issue today. But science aspires to be a self-correcting mechanism, willing to change theories when new evidence emerges.

And come on, Kirchner wrote a book on dragons. Because never having seen a dragon is the surest sign there is one. I suppose if I mentioned his Katzenklavier, it would be going too far? But, hey, Kehlmann uses it, so it’s fair game:

“Several princes wants to have a water organ constructed according to my design. And in Braunschweig there are plans to build my cat piano. It astounds me a little. Really I presented the idea mainly as an intellectual game, and I doubt that the results will please the ear.”
“What is a cat piano?” asked Olearius
…“A piano that produces sounds by torturing animals,” said Kircher. “One strikes a note, and instead of a hammer hitting a string, well-dosed pain is inflicted on a small animal – I propose cats, but it would work with the voles too, dogs would be too big, crickets too small – so that the animal makes a noise. When one releases the key, the pain stops too, the animal falls silent. By arranging the animals according to their pitches, the most extraordinary music can be produced. “
For a little while it was quiet. Olearius looked into Kircher’s face. Fleming chewed on his lower lip.

To be fair, Kircher’s works on music and medicine were considered masterpieces and are still respected as great works today. Everyone should be forgiven one cat piano.

This section does have a plot, and it concerns the musicians Kircher needs to tranquilize the dragon. It just so happens a travelling circus complete with musicians is in Holstein at that moment, the circus headlined by… Tyll Ulenspiegel.

First they meet the donkey, whose name, Origenes, might invite some speculation. For the characters, however, the fact that the donkey is talking to them is curious enough. Even Kircher is “aware that it could damage his reputation to talk to a donkey before witnesses.” But they need the musicians, and they must get through the talking donkey first. It’s a nice little scene showing how those who take themselves too seriously can be utterly confused by a little unexpected fun. Then they need to get past Nele, and the old woman travelling with them, before they get to the musicians.

But Kircher has another meeting, one that shakes him to the core, one that sends him back to the safety of Rome and his books for good.

The meeting of the scholars and the travelers is significant for another reason: Olearius is taken with Nele, and asks her to marry him. Here Kehlmann shows his versatility, and the last portion of this section turns gentle and sweet as she and Tyll part. It’s quite lovely.

But the loveliest is yet to come: the chapter ends with the last dragon of the north, seventeen thousand years old, and tired of hiding. I didn’t know I could cry over a dragon.

I found the section titled “In the Shaft” to be the least to my liking. It’s 1645, the town of Brno has been under siege, and Tyll and several miners are trapped in a mine shaft that has collapsed. The chapter itself is claustrophobic, which may be why I had trouble with it. Tyll is more uncertain than he was as a child lost in the woods. He mentions a couple of incidents, but we get no explanation. And then it’s over. We don’t find out how he escaped, or if anyone escaped with him. To me, it was unsatisfying, but I suspect I just missed the point, which is why I so want to discuss this book with someone.

“Westphalia” is the final chapter, and as might be expected, is primarily about the negotiations around the end of the war and the establishment of what would be called The Peace of Westphalia. Liz is the primary character, and she is motivated to fight all the assembled powers of Europe to obtain a Palatinate for her son Charles, showing a loyalty to her son that her father never showed to her. For it is here she finally thinks the thought: “Ultimately Papa had sacrificed her and Friedrich to keep his country out of the war.” Was that sacrifice justified? I don’t have the background to decide, but if it comes down to one daughter or a country at war, I’m not so sure I’d be outraged by this decision.

In a 2018 interview with Marc-Christoph Wagner for the Danish Louisiana Literature Festival (in English), Kehlmann discusses, among other things, the difficulty of the negotiations in an age when diplomacy had not yet been invented. He expresses this clearly via Liz’s attempts to meet with various representatives while keeping herself in a position to be respected, a position that requires many behavioral signs such as who asks whom for refreshments, who opens doors, and on what type of chair she should sit.

Without pausing, she walked towards the doors. Now she could not afford to hesitate. The briefest hint of uncertainty would be enough to remind the two lackeys standing to the right and to the left of the doors that it was also entirely conceivable not to open them for her. If that should happen, her advance would be staved off….She would all at once no longer be a queen but a complaining old woman in the anteroom.
That was why it had to work. There could be no second attempt. One had to move as if the door weren’t there, not be slowed down by it; one had to walk in such a way that if no one opened the doors, one would crash into them at full force.…for that very reason, they would open them; that was the whole trick.
It worked. With confused expressions the lackeys reached for the handles and heaved open the doors.

Liz, 1; the confederacy of self-important men, 0. But wait, there’s more: in the next meeting, she executes her right to sit, but then realizes she is sitting on a stool. A stool! Liz’s reaction as she realizes what she’s sitting on tells us how crucial this detail is.

Of course she could neither remain standing nor let him invite her to sit, but a chair without a backrest, that should not have happened to her under any circumstances. As a Queen, she was entitled to sit on a chair with a backrest and armrests even in the presence of the Kaiser, a mere arm chair would be an indignity, but a stool was out of the question. And he had deliberately placed stools all around the reception room, yet only behind his desk was there an arm chair.
What should she do? She smiled too and decided to pretend it was of no consequence. But now he had the advantage …

I wonder if diplomacy has progressed much, really. Every scene I’ve watched on TV or in the movies has involved worrying about placement of flags and water glasses and making sure no one’s notepad is even a quarter inch further away than anyone else’s. Then again, maybe that’s fictional fantasy. But the news footage I’ve seen of some US Presidents meeting with foreign leaders clearly indicate some gamesmanship at work.

Tyll shows up as Liz gets a breath of air on a balcony. She invites him to return to England with her, offers him safety and comfort, a place to grow old safely. There’s a kindness between them that speaks of mutual respect. Another decision point.

If you’ve come this far, chances are you’ve read the book and found it as interesting as I did. I hope I can find a couple of readers who would be willing to discuss it, perhaps starting with reactions to my impressions above (which, of course, could be completely off base), and I hope progressing to areas I’ve overlooked. I think this is a book that offers real opportunity for deep dives.