Daniel Kehlmann

"Measuring the World"

(Reviewed by Kirstin Merrihew OCT 9, 2007)

MEASURING THE WORLD by Daniel Kehlmann

Measuring the World compares and contrasts the lives and accomplishments of adventuresome naturalist Alexander von Humboldt and primarily sedentary mathematician/astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss. Novelist Daniel Kehlmann opens with an amusing meeting of the two fifty-something notables at the 1828 German Scientific Congress in Berlin. Then he proceeds to tells stories (factual in the main, but with a few, minor liberties) to catch the reader up chronologically, switching between scientists with each chapter. Kehlmann pokes sly fun at Gauss and Humboldt by rendering them as cartoonish grumbler and bumbling virgin respectively.

German society of the period doesn't escape satirical treatment either. This waggish unreality tinges everything and everyone, yet the book doesn't tip into such buffoonery that readers can't be awed and enveloped. Take the Humboldt party's arduous adventures on the Orinoco River. Or Kehlmann's enthralling version of Humboldt and companion Bonpland's mountain trek up thousands of feet breathing thinnest air, crossing frail ice bridges and hallucinating entertainingly as they push on. Gauss, master of deduction (as opposed to Humboldt's inductive inclination), has to settle for a less exciting recollection of his life episodes since he lived more inside his head and in classrooms. The author doesn't aim at comprehensive biographical detail, but rather at signifying scenes.

Catching up to 1828, Kehlmann returns to Gauss and Humboldt at the Congress, where they spend less time on science than on a muddled mission aiming to snatch Gauss' son, Eugen, from the clutches of the police. Thereafter, the two men part again. When Humboldt makes his subsequent trip to Russia, he is greeted as an icon, but the pomp and circumstance hinders his actually collecting samples or taking measurements as he did on his earlier explorations in South America. He finds his methods outdated anyway. Gauss, who didn't bother to publish many of his visionary ideas (such as radio) when they first formed in his mind (ahead of those who were actually credited later), also finds that he is a revered professor, but his defining and most august work was completed before he was twenty and he exists now as a reputation, a legend in his own time rather than an ongoing contributor. These two measurers of the world are let lie in a kind of pensive limbo at the end of the penultimate chapter. The final chapter follows Eugen Gauss who is traveling, due to his legal woes, to the New World where, not coincidentally, the innovative edge of science is also shifting. His voyage also symbolizes the scientific methods of Gauss and Humboldt merging.

This English translation of Kehlmann's German novel is a unique read. It is ironic yet moving, oddly structured and perhaps too compressed yet fulfilling, and packed with German inside jokes that Americans might not pick up on, yet still carrying plenty of humor that can be. It is also a book that opens many doors for thought about science, scientists, and the human condition. Measuring the World deserves to be read and pondered. (Translation by Carol Brown Janeway)

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About the Author:

Daniel KehlmannDaniel Kehlmann was born in 1975 in Munich, the son of a television director and an actress. The family moved to Vienna when he was six-years-old. He attended a Jesuit college in Vienna, traveled widely, and has won several awards for previous novels and short stories (he has written seven other novels and one collection of essays). Awards received include the Candide Prize, the Literature Prize of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Heimito von Doderer Literature Award, the Kleist Prize, the WELT Literature Prize, and the Thomas Mann Prize.

Measuring the World became an instant bestseller in several European countries and was translated into more than forty languages.

Kehlmann divides his time between Vienna and Berlin.

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