Friday, 29 March 2013

Book Review: Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann
The lives of great explorers and famous scientists have always excited the curiosity of readers and writers. Thus it’s no surprise that impressing figures like Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauß, who have made so many great discoveries in the natural sciences in the Age of Enlightenment around 1800 and left so many traces, nurture imagination even two hundred years later. Daniel Kehlmann portrayed them both in Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt), but to make things clear from the start: the author is no historian and the book is no double biography of those important Germans! It’s not even a biographical novel in the strict sense because only the rough outlines of the two lives are historically correct.

The writer Daniel Kehlmann is both German and Austrian. Born in Munich, Germany, in January 1975, he grew up in Vienna, Austria, where he studied philosophy and literature. Along with his studies at university he wrote essays and reviews for several German newspapers and magazines. In 1997 he published his first novel. Daniel Kehlmann’s first small international success was with the novel Me and Kaminski (Ich und Kaminiski) in 2003. In 2005 he produced the bestselling novel Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt) that has been translated into many languages since. His latest novel is Fame: A Novel in Nine Episodes from 2009.

In Measuring the World Daniel Kehlmann juxtaposes the lives of naturalist-geographer Alexander von Humboldt and mathematician-physicist Carl Friedrich Gauß. The first was born into a rich family of minor nobility in Berlin, Prussia, in September 1769 and wished to catch the essence of life measuring everything as a travelling explorer. The other, the son of a man who scarcely managed to make ends meet, was born in April 1777 in Braunschweig in the duchy of the same name and stayed in the region (more precisely in Göttingen) during most of his life to explore the mathematical patterns governing life. The story, however, begins in 1828 in Berlin when Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt meet face to face for the first time, two old men knowing that life escapes them in a double sense. The following chapters reveal alternately and chronologically childhoods, adult lives and discoveries of Humboldt and Gauss depicting as well as caricaturing them along the way as the odd Germans that they are in the book. Alexander von Humboldt is the under all circumstances self-disciplined and uncompromising ambassador of values like humanity, tolerance and open-mindedness. In contrast to those Weimar classic ideals he ever again shows a remarkable aloofness and lack of sensitivity for the culture of the countries that he is travelling. Aimé Bonpland is Humboldt’s French travel companion and – at least in the novel – his counterpart reminding of Don Quixote’s Sancho Pansa. The prodigy Carl Friedrich Gauss on the other hand, is the worldly one of the two great minds having a family and not paying any attention to politics. His manners are all but refined. He’s arrogant and constantly complains about his poor health. Wherever he looks he sees entropy that disturbs him. His son Eugen, a student and his father’s disappointment for being just a ‘common or garden-variety creature’, accompanies him to Berlin in 1828. There the revolution of 1848 is already casting its very first shadows before it. Eugen gets mixed up in a political meeting, is arrested by the Prussian police and can only be liberated through the help of Alexander von Humboldt. The young man has to leave the country.

Daniel Kehlmann’s German is simple, fluent and pleasing which made it easy for me to follow the plot of Measuring the World. When I first read the novel a few years ago, I wasn’t exceedingly impressed by it, though. I admit that it was a nice read because Daniel Kehlmann told the story of Alexander von Humboldt, Carl Friedrich Gauß and their time in a well-constructed and interesting way. Everything seemed plausible in the course of events no matter if real or invented which is something that I always appreciate in a book. I also liked the questions of genius, age and relations with our past as well as present that Daniel Kehlmann brought up. However, I had read Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Way to Paradise just a couple of months before and I couldn’t help comparing the two double biographies. Do I need to say that I enjoyed Mario Vargas Llosa’s more? Despite all, I think that Measuring the World is a good book that deserves being read.

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