A review of Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann

I think of German writers – unlike Musil or Joseph Roth, both of Austria – as hard and gnarly with long involved sentences and a gloomy outlook. Kehlmann’s lightness of touch is exceptional. He is a quietly witty writer with qualities that promise a tenacious hold on his readers.

Reviewed by Bob Williams

Measuring the World
by Daniel Kehlmann
Pantheon Books
ISBN 0-375-42446-6, $23.00, 259 pages

Daniel Kehlmann is a very young man. This is delightful news since one can then expect many more works from him. This novel certainly whets one’s appetite for more. Measuring the Worldbecame the number one bestseller in Germany and replaced both J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown in the number one slot. It has since gone on to translation and international acclaim. This translation by Carol Brown Janeway is felicitous and easy.

I think of German writers – unlike Musil or Joseph Roth, both of Austria – as hard and gnarly with long involved sentences and a gloomy outlook. Kehlmann’s lightness of touch is exceptional. He is a quietly witty writer with qualities that promise a tenacious hold on his readers.

Measuring the World is a novel based on two historical figures: Alexander von Humboldt the explorer and Carl Friedrich Gauss the mathematician. Humboldt, telling Gauss the things that he especially despises, has this to say:

Take stage sets, which don’t even try to disguise the fact that they were made of cardboard, English paintings, with backgrounds swimming in an oily soup, novels that wandered off into lying fables because the author tied his fake inventions to the names of real historical personages.

“Disgusting,” said Gauss.

Humboldt sets out to explore South America to prove his worth to his older brother, who with unrepressed sibling rivalry attempts several times to murder him when they are boys together. As companion he takes a Frenchman, Bonpland. Bonpland is the man of average sensuality and Humboldt’s very Teutonic stiffness and lack of worldly knowledge sets them comically apart for all the companionship that they provide each other.

Gauss is less happy. His son Eugen has none of his intellectual flare. His daughter is too homely to attract a husband, and his first wife dies. He remarries quickly for practical reasons and he marries his wife’s best friend although he can’t stand her. His work distinguishes him but life has few satisfactions and he is convinced that he was born too soon, that another, later age would have suited him better.

Both men peak early in terms of worldly success and the rest of their lives promise little. Humboldt returns to Europe, publishes a voluminous account of his travels that fails of popular success because he is a boring writer. The expense of the edition exhausts his resources and the King of Prussia commands him to leave Paris for the austere and boring Prussian court. Gauss surveys the country with the help of Eugen whose ineptitude drives him to distraction.

The two greatest minds of their age meet in Berlin where the intellectual world gathers to heap honors on Gauss who finds the whole business incredibly painful. While his father undergoes the torture of an official reception, Eugen attends a meeting of revolutionaries and is arrested.

Out of the lives separate and together of Gauss and Humboldt, Kehlmann weaves a rich picture of the age and of the royal figures that occupy positions of power and of the scholars who enjoy positions of prestige. He never makes a false step and never lets himself be weighed down with great chunks of undigested encyclopedia. The touch is light but always convincing and the result is an incredible novel that will satisfy every reader.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places 

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