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Daniel Kehlmann: Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World)

When this book first appeared, it garnered rave reviews, both in the original German and then in the various translations (including English). I had been meaning to read it for some time and, when I finally did get round to reading it, I must confess that I was somewhat disappointed. This is not to say that it is not a good book. It certainly is very well written, very clever and a fascinating read. However, I felt that it relied too much on literary gimmicks to be considered a truly original work. Let me give you some examples:

1. That-man-was. A That-man-was is a standard device in Hollywood films but also in books. I first heard the term applied to the film The Long Gray Line, where the character played by Harry Carey Jr performs well at West Point. Someone asks another character his name. That man was Dwight David Eisenhower. He has a great future. (or something like that), is the answer. Kehlmann does this more than once, introducing a character without naming him, having him perform some interesting deed or be mentioned by someone else, before he is finally named.

2. We all know that Hollywood loves the mad professor/scientist. So does Kehlmann. Yes, some scientists are clearly mad or eccentric but Kehlmann really rubs this point in, with his main characters. Maybe they really were peculiar, but it seems to be this that is key to Kehlmann.

3. Scientists, particularly these ones, are given to finding out about the world. That is what they are meant to do and these ones do it very well. But while Kehlmann certainly points to some of their scientific achievements, he is more interested in pointing out their quirks and the strange and unusual rather than their solid achievements. Yes, of course, this makes it more of a fun read and, clearly, if we wanted the hard facts, we should be reading biographies, histories and scientific works. However, Kehlmann, I think, overdoes it. For example, there is one point when Gauss gets a brainwave on correcting mismeasurements of the trajectories of the planets. Unfortunately, he is, at that moment, having sex with his wife on their wedding night. As a result, the whole discovery is treated like something out of a cheap sex comedy

4. Sex. Sex is a key component of many, many worthwhile novels and it certainly is of this one. But, once again, as in the example above, Kehlmann goes for the cheap laugh. Does Kehlmann know about the sex life of these two scientists? Probably not. Is a cheap laugh at the expense of their sex life really the best he can come up with? Apparently. Sex can be funny, there is no doubt, and there are many good sex comedies but mocking the sex life of two great scientists is not, it seems to me, the height of literary endeavour.

Of course, having said all this, I cannot deny this work is certainly a very enjoyable work and one that gave me some pleasure. It tells the stories of two German scientists who may be well known in Germany but are probably less well-known elsewhere, though their names will be familiar. The first is Carl Friedrich Gauss, one of the foremost mathematicians of all time and best remembered for the Gauss unit and degaussing. The second is Alexander von Humboldt, a geographer, famous for his travels to Latin America. The story starts with their first meeting but soon backflashes to their respective stories, told in alternate chapters. They are both somewhat unusual children – Gauss highly precocious, correcting his father’s sums and doing far too well at school, for example adding up all the numbers from 1 to 100 in a few seconds, von Humboldt something of a loner and in the shadow of his older brother, who will go on to have a successful political career and be quite famous but not, to his chagrin, as famous as his brother. Gauss starts adding prime numbers, calculating the trajectories of the planets, surveying the country and, incidentally, writing a seminal work of mathematics, while von Humboldt heads off to Latin America to disprove Neptunism, try to climb the then highest known mountain in the world, Chimborazo, and investigate any scientific phenomenon he comes across, from the channel linking the Amazon to the Orinoco, to the height of mountains, all of which is meticulously recorded and then sent back, with specimens, to his brother, not always successfully. Their meeting – Gauss is very reluctant and only pushed into it by his son, Eugen – is also told for laughs, particularly with the list of everything von Humboldt has accomplished before Gauss even appears for breakfast.

Kehlmann certainly keeps us enthralled with amusing (and probably not always accurate) anecdotes about our two heroes, stories of their discoveries (again probably not always entirely accurate) and details of their sex lives (Gauss’ is very full (he has six children by two women), while von Humboldt finds the whole business quite abhorrent and more than once berates his assistant on their Latin American travels for indulging). It is clever, well written and very amusing. We do learn a lot about scientific advancement in nineteenth century Germany as well as about life in Germany during that period, including amusing jokes about how awful Berlin is. For enjoyment and a good read, I cannot fault this book but it plays too much to the crowd to be considered a serious work of literature.

Publishing history

First published 2005 by Rowohlt
First published in English by Pantheon in 2005
Translated by Carol Brown Janeway