07 October 2011

Measuring the World

Once you have navigated past the first few pages of Measuring the World (or Die Vermessung der Welt), young Daniel Kehlmann’s most recent novel (strictly speaking, that is—Fame doesn't really count, does it?), you'll realize that the story at hand isn't as daunting, or even as ambitious, as the title suggests. You'll even get the sense that Mr. Kehlmann must have been laughing at himself when he wrote this delightful comic tale.

Measuring the World follows the lives of two German geniuses of the Enlightenment: Prussian aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt and the unsociable Carl Friedrich Gauss, straight as a whip. Both of them have set out to survey the world using their respective brands of genius and eccentricity, but, save for this common goal and a meeting in 1828 at a scientific congress in Berlin, the ways of these two prodigious scientists cannot possibly be more different. In the middle of a spectacular, almost mythological expedition, fearless traveler Humboldt determines the altitude by measuring a snow bridge that he and French botanist Aimé Bonpland have to cross in order to survive; Gauss, meanwhile, makes astronomical charts and calculates and corrects the trajectories of planets all by himself in his house at Göttingen, just “at home in the kitchen”.

The events proceed at a comic book pace, and Mr. Kehlmann banks on exaggeration to paint semi-faithful, semi-whimsical caricatures (as all caricatures should be) of two figures in history whom scholars (not including the author, definitely) are likely to take too seriously, and who both later appeared in banknotes. In one scene, Humboldt bastardizes Goethe in front of four oarsmen by translating "Wanderer's Night Song" in a way that will have you laugh out loud. In another scene, Gauss finds himself in a genuinely mathematical moment (he has successfully drawn a seventeen-sided figure), only to be overwhelmed by the force of a hurting molar.

(Zimmerman) felt like praying. This must be printed, and it would be best if it appeared under the name of a professor. It wasn’t the done thing for students to be publishing on their own.
Gauss tried to reply, but when Zimmerman brought him the glass of water, he could neither speak nor drink. He made a gesture of apology, wobbled home, lay down in bed, and thought about his mother up there in Brunswick. It had been a mistake to come to Göttingen. The university here was better, but he missed his mother, and even more so when he was ill. At about midnight, when his cheek had swollen still further and every movement in every part of his body hurt, he realized the barber had pulled the wrong tooth.

If you're a fan of magic realism, you'll likely enjoy all of Humboldt’s adventures. But I'm not a fan of magic realism; the chapters set in the Amazon and the Himalayas reminded me instead of The Adventures of Tintin, but wilder. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I don't know, but I secretly wish that Mr. Kehlmann made Humboldt "explore the blessed islands" of the Philippines. He did, however, allude in the most subtle of ways to Humboldt's (alleged) homosexual tendencies.

Ultimately it is Gauss' story that proves to be the more intriguing one. What was really inside the mind of that genius? Of course, one need not take pains to illustrate that it was an extraordinary mind, unimaginably mathematical, but what makes Kehlmann's portrait of Gauss—always pining for the familiarity of all things domestic—a truly intelligent and affecting one is its picture of a man being imperfect, being all too human.

Originally written in German, Measuring the World was translated to English by Carol Brown Janeway; a few sentences get a little problematic, but I'm really just nitpicking. After all, given the difficult linguistic differences between German and English, what might one expect? At least, Kehlmann's storytelling is contemporary, and the very German irony of Measuring the World is out there for even the least alert readers to recognize. "Now he knew," reads a passage describing one of Gauss’ precocious discoveries, “that all parallel lines meet." Paired by many for measuring the world and shifting paradigms, Humboldt and Gauss may never really have had anything in common—except, that is, for 1828 and a less-than-reverential presentation in this deceptively light novel.

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