Janet TAY reviews Measuring the World (2007)
Review by JANET TAY
Measuring the World
By Daniel Kehlmann
(Quercus Publishing, 272pp)
ON THE BACK of the novel is an excerpt of a rave review from The Guardian, lauding 31-year-old Daniel Kehlmann as a “literary wunderkind already being compared to Nabokov and Proust”. More praise follows: “The novel has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany, knocking J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown off the bestseller lists.”
With these expectations in mind, the arduous journey of reading and completing the novel began. Kehlmann details the lives of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander Von Humboldt. One is a German child prodigy who grew up to be “The Prince of Mathematicians” and the other, a Prussian naturalist and explorer who scaled the Chimborazo and trudged through the jungles of the Amazon. Both are scientists who pursue different goals but share a similar passion for their work, oblivious to everything and everyone else in their lives.
Measuring the World is Kehlmann’s first novel to be translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway. It begins with the impending meeting of a reluctant Gauss and Humboldt (at the insistence of the latter) at the German Scientific Congress in Berlin, in September 1828. Kehlmann goes on to introduce the two capricious characters and their origins─Gauss, the genius son of a gardener, and Humboldt, the son of a wealthy man with a minor nobility─whose paths would later converge despite their seemingly different personalities and life choices.
While Gauss stays at home in Göttingen to formulate mathematical theories, Humboldt─accompanied by Aimé Bonpland, a French botanist who alternates between sampling native women, being violently ill and staring incredulously in the face of Humboldt’s eccentricities─explores South America and documents extensive discoveries in physical geography and meteorology. Although the reader may be enthused by Humboldt’s colourful and vividly descriptive encounters during his travels (conquering record-high peaks, unwittingly indulging in cannibalism, finding fleas living under his toenails), the chapters on Gauss are no less intense despite being introspective.
He possesses the strength of character that appears to transcend beyond mere idiosyncrasies; he is never afraid to speak the truth although by doing so, he is indifferent to the acerbity of his remarks, such as when he comments on the study of language by a Prussian diplomat (who is, unbeknownst to him, Humboldt’s brother): “Linguistics was for people who had the precision for mathematics but not the intelligence. People who would invent their own makeshift logic.”
The novel’s flaw lies in the lack of quotation marks for dialogue. One has to wrestle with whether a certain dialogue is a conversation between two people or just thoughts in a character’s head.
The book has some memorable dialogue and statements, though. Kehlmann’s cleverly timed and suitably positioned quips are peppered throughout the novel.
Humboldt’s antics in the name of research, namely tasting poison that is deadly enough to “kill angels”, and electrocuting himself with eels, are near-theatrical yet honest, and will certainly leave an imprint in the reader’s mind.
But if Kehlmann had intended to endear the reader to Gauss and Humboldt by attempting to humanise them, he failed. Despite the larger-than-life characters portrayed in the novel, one is left only with the impression of two men who determinedly and selfishly pursued their lifelong work with a vigour that brought them success, but also prevented them from sustaining any meaningful relationships with their families.
Also, one would have expected the meeting of great minds to be more climactic but when the parallel lives finally come together, it feels more like a tired conclusion rather than the long-awaited reunion of two people who purportedly share a kindred spirit.
Nevertheless, this is a novel that may appeal to history buffs. However, they would do better to equip themselves with some biographical reading of Gauss and Humboldt before attempting to trek through Kehlmann’s account of their lives, which is interspersed with scientific discoveries and forgotten loves.
Review first published in The Star, December 7, 2007