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Measuring the World

American readers may be forgiven for expecting a novel translated from the German to be anything but funny. Thanks to the oeuvres of Thomas Bernhard and Elfriede Jelinek, they may well expect all novels written by Austrians to be tedious or distressing. So before I say anything else, may I declare (!) that Daniel Kehlmann's Measuring the World (Knopf, 2006)is richly funny. It's a lot of other things as well, but, for the moment, I recommend it to you as a funny read.

Mr Kehlmann's subtle humor has been adroitly captured by Carol Brown Janeway's translation. I know this because I was lucky enough to show up at a severely underattended event in NoLIta at which the author gave his first reading in English ever, and it was clear that the laughs and the smiles were right where he expected them to be.

The gendarme wanted a passport.

There was no way he could know, said Eugen, but his father was honored in the most distant countries, he was a member of all Academies, had been known since his first youth as the Prince of Mathematics.

Gauss nodded. People said it was because of him that Napoleon had decided not to bombard Göttingen.

Eugen went white.

Napoleon, repeated the gendarme.

Indeed, said Gauss.

The gendarme demanded his passport again, louder than before.

Now, if that passage doesn't make you smile; if you miss the slapstick ineptitude of Gauss's expecting a Prussian policeman to be favorably impressed by the high regard of Napoleon, then perhaps Measuring the World is not for you. This novel has plenty to teach, but a certain comfort with history, or at least a ready willingness to consult Wikipedia, would appear to be a prerequisite.

Continue reading about Measuring the World at Portico.


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