Daniel Kehlmann is arguably the most successful young German-language writer alive today. He was born in Munich in 1975 and brought up in Vienna, where he also studied philosophy and German literature. He’s lived in Vienna, New York and Berlin – which is where Rosie Goldsmith interviewed him. He’s the author of eight novels, four plays, two essay collections, film and TV scripts. His novels, from Measuring The World to his latest Tyll, are bestsellers in many languages.
RG: Daniel, good to see you again! The first time was years ago when I interviewed you about Measuring The World! But I do need to ask, as this is an Austrian magazine, are you Austrian or German?
DK: There are lots of answers to that question! But the simplest answer is, I’m both, because I have both passports. Now I guess the next question is, how do I feel about Austria and Germany? Where do I feel I belong? Then it gets more complicated because that keeps changing. I spent my first six years in Munich – my mother is German – but I grew up in Vienna. My Dad was Austrian. My formative years were all in Austria. So I’m very much shaped by Austrian, especially Viennese, culture. But I was always interested in other influences as well. I moved to New York, where it didn’t matter if I was Austrian or German – I was just foreign or German – which was partly true! Now I’m back living in Berlin, but, with distance, I grow more and more fond of what Austria gave me, that dark sense of humour. When you spend months or years among northern Germans, you realise how important Austria is as a counterweight to Germany, that sombre, serious Protestant culture. So there’s no simple answer to your question! I’m a slightly different person in each country. I love how invigorating and inspiring New York is in terms of the people you talk to, the fast, intelligent conversations. It helps my writing and thinking enormously. It’s also very important for me today to live in the centre of Berlin, not as a visitor, but as a German writer connected to German culture, although a certain sense of humour and irony is missing in German discourse. I shouldn’t generalise, but lots of people here just don’t understand jokes. When I’m in Vienna though I’m very lucky because some of my close friends are actual comedians, so I’m surrounded by funny people – this is one of the great privileges of my life.
Let’s talk more about the influence of Austria on your writing.
I don’t think there is an Austrian style – Austrian writers are too different from each other. I think it’s more a point of view. Austria is so small. Germany is so big. Austria has been pretty powerless for a while and Germany powerful, so when you’re in Austria you look at Germany with a mixture of awe and ridicule.
What about Austrian writers? Did you go through a Stefan Zweig period, as I did?
You might not want to print this, but I don’t like Stefan Zweig! I can’t read his novels or essays, although I think that The World of Yesterday is a very important book. During the first lockdown in early 2020, I rediscovered (Arthur) Schnitzler and (Hugo von) Hofmannsthal. But a much less well-known Austrian writer, who is a huge influence on me, is Leo Perutz. For me he’s one of the greatest writers of the early 20th century. His books are so rich and so well constructed. He wrote eleven novels – many translated into English – I would especially recommend By Night Under The Stone Bridge, which gave me the idea of constructing a novel out of short stories, which I did in Fame, and The Swedish Cavalier, which is one of the few perfect books written in German. Another amazing classic is Heimito von Doderer, who I love. He’s all style, but his style is unbelievably good. He’s mostly a plotless writer, pure psychology and language, which is interesting. I cannot imagine writing a plotless novel but I respect it!
By the time of your big break, Measuring The World in 2005, you were only thirty and had written five novels. Tyll is your eighth novel. What attracted you to Tyll Uhlenspiegel?
My first thought was not to write about Tyll but about the Thirty Years War. I wanted to write a big, long and extensive European novel about a cataclysmic time in Germany and Europe. Not through an overarching, continuous chronology but by capturing moments and scenes, with all the gaps – like in a play – where everything crystallises into a certain moment in time. Then I needed to find a character who could go anywhere, move around freely – a Jester would be perfect. And instead of inventing someone out of thin air, I decided to cast the most archetypal, legendary German jester, Tyll Uhlenspiegel. It was the first time I have taken a fictional character and made him real. Writing it was an amazing experience because I felt I was tapping into some very deep, strange world of European storytelling. Even though I invented my Tyll, he also came to me fully formed. I never had to think what he would say, how he would react. It was great to spend time with this mythological person. I miss him.
Let’s talk about fame – not your novel of the same name but your own fame. You’ve been famous as a writer for over 20 years. How do you deal with celebrity? How is it different in Vienna, Berlin and New York?
First, as a writer in New York you’re not famous. Maybe if you’re Jonathan Franzen, but even he doesn’t get recognized on the streets. I wasn’t famous in New York. Quite the opposite. But that’s good. If you’re a writer, it’s always good to be an outsider, out of your comfort zone. In Germany the problem about being a well-regarded writer is that everyone takes you so seriously all the time, and if you’re not careful, you start taking yourself very seriously, and that’s never good!
Is it the same in Austria as well?
Not quite, because Germany has this Protestant tradition of the writer as a great truth-teller, a guide and a light in darkness, like Goethe or Thomas Mann. Austrians never had that. Here’s another thing I learned from Tyll – that being an artist means not taking yourself too seriously. It’s good for the soul to be a little on the fringes.
I want to talk to you about your plays. You started writing plays much later than writing novels – your first play was Ghosts of Princeton in 2012. Why did you begin writing plays?
I love the theatre. It is thanks to my father, who was a theatre and TV director. German theatre had moved away from the idea of plays depicting real life with real characters telling real stories. It wasn’t until I was living in New York, when I saw plays that tell stories, that I wanted to do it myself. And because of my success as a novelist, I had theatres ready to perform my plays. But before Measuring the World, no one would have touched them.
You obviously love collaborating on your plays and films. I’m thinking of some of the names you’ve worked with – Jonathan Franzen, Tom Stoppard, Christopher Hampton, the actor Daniel Brühl…
Collaboration is the opposite of being a novelist. A novel is just me on my own. But then, as a vacation from novels, it’s wonderful to collaborate with really great people. With Daniel Brühl I worked on a film script (later a play), Nebenan/Next Door. We spent a lot of time talking, laughing. With Tom Stoppard it would be preposterous for me to describe that as collaboration. It was like being blessed. He adapted a play of mine for BBC Radio, The Voyage of the St.Louis. It was as if Chekhov had taken my work, put in a few rewrites and made it much better. It was a great and humbling learning experience. It’s similar with Christopher Hampton, who translates my plays, he’s so experienced and knows how things work on stage. I learn a lot. I also worked with Julian Schnabel on a film script, and that’s the equivalent of four years’ film school. But now I’m back to writing a novel – my first since Tyll – and it’s just me!
You mentioned translation. You have some amazing translators, Ross Benjamin, previously Carol Brown Janeway, but you yourself have had the ultimate translator’s experience translating Tom Stoppard’s partly autobiographical play Leopoldstadt into German. It’s about a Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century in Vienna. What does this play mean to you personally?
He sent me the manuscript, and I was so deeply moved that I wrote to him and said, if you’re looking for a translator, I would love to do it, because it means so much to me. One of the many reasons is because it feels very close to my family history. As you know, Stoppard came from Czechoslovakia, not from a big, bourgeois Austrian Jewish family. It was a strange feeling. I felt he had written my family history, telling the stories my father told me about his family before the war and how they were taken away one by one to the camps. I took my wife and son to see Leopoldstadt in London in 2021. I said to my son, watch this play, then you’ll know about your own family. There’s another important thing about Leopoldstadt, and I might be wrong, but this may be the last major piece of art created by a Holocaust survivor. There are very few survivors left. Tom was very young and he was whisked away from danger but he is a survivor.
It’s very moving to hear you talk about this, because for a long time, I didn’t know that you were Jewish. You didn’t talk about it. You belong to a younger generation of Austrian and German Jews who didn’t directly experience the Nazi period or the Holocaust. What changed for you?
I felt a growing need to talk about it. I gave a few public speeches, mostly in Austria, and spoke openly about my father’s history. I spoke out against the FPÖ. (Ed. the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria, in government intermittently up to 2019). It was unacceptable that these people were in power in Austria. My father was an assimilated Austrian Jew, like in Leopoldstadt, from one of those Jewish families who were baptised as adults because their Jewishness was of less importance. Until the 1930s when they were made to realise that it was important. My father was born in Vienna in 1927 and when he was seventeen he was sent to a labour camp. In my generation, there are only a couple of writers who are directly children of Holocaust survivors.
Do you feel a responsibility to write about that period?
I’m not sure I feel it’s my responsibility to write about this but I am actually writing about it, in a way, in my next novel, but I don’t want to talk about it yet. I’m superstitious, so I’m not saying anything, but if everything goes well, it might be published by the end of 2023.
Daniel, it’s been a joy talking to you. I look forward to interviewing you about your next novel – whenever that is!
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