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DANIEL KEHLMANN FORAYS INTO FOLKLORE WITH 'TYLL'.

25 July

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.

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