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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.

Measuring the World tells, in the arch style of a fairy tale written for adults, the lives of two scientific contemporaries who share nothing except a certain high imperturbability, an unshakable faith in their own unerring curiosity. They certainly do not share a common view of what science is. For the aristocratic Alexander von Humboldt, science is an accumulation of facts, acquired by direct examination. This conviction leads him to take world-famous journeys in the Americas and in Russia.

... he had climbed the highest mountains in the known world; he had collected thousands of plants and hundreds of animals, some living, the majority dead; he had talked to parrots, disinterred corpses, measured every river, every mountain, and every lake in his path, had crawled into burrows and had tasted more berries and climbed more trees than anyone could begin to imagine.

Humboldt is also, in the book, wholly asexual. He is a vestal in the service of knowledge. Carl Friedrich Gauss, in contrast, comes from peasant stock and remains a distinctly earthy sort. He has a long-standing affair with a Russian prostitute and ends up teaching himself Russian, a language for which he has no practical use while Humboldt, shivering on the steppes, doesn't for a moment consider learning a word of Russian, and thereby loses control of his vast expedition. Gauss hates travel, and is not a very civil man. He is an innate genius who can see into the future, already proving knotty theorems in childhood and completing his "life's work," the Disquisitiones Arithmeticae at the age of twenty. Gauss is an intuitive mathematician, capable of grasping, on a visceral basis, the set of all numbers. What he sees around him, beneath the inconveniences of material life, are the numerical patterns that reveal themselves in the world - patterns that do not vary with geography.

He had completed the first three sections and was already into the main part. But again and again he laid his quill aside, propped his head in his hands, and wondered whether there was a proscription against what he was doing. Was he digging too deep? At the base of physics were rules, at the base of rules there were laws, at the base of laws there were numbers; if one looked at them intently, one could recognize relationships between them, repulsions or attractions. Some aspects of their construction seemed incomplete, occasionally hastily thought out, and more than once he thought he recognized roughly concealed mistakes - as if God had permitted Himself to be negligent and hoped nobody would notice.

In sixteen alternating chapters, we get to know these mutually alternative men. Humboldt's single-mindedness increasingly resembles madness - or perhaps it's autism - but we don't linger on that because the scenery is so interesting. The wild Orinoco, the Mayan excavations at Mexico City, dinner with President Jefferson: Humboldt's travels bring us many interesting and always somewhat unexpected scenes. Gauss, on the contrary, goes nowhere, or nearly. His lack of curiosity about the particularities of the physical world perfectly complements Humboldt's insatiable Wanderlust. After being underwhelmed by his first sight of the sea - the North Sea, to be sure - Gauss is made to go to the theatre.

The journey took four agonizing days and the bed at the inn in Weimar was so hard that Gauss's back pain became unbearable. Besides which the bushes along the Ilm made him sneeze. The court theatre was hot, and sitting for hours a trial. The play being performed was a piece by Voltaire. Somebody killed somebody else. A woman cried. A man complained. Another woman fell to her knees. There were monologues. The translation was elegant and melodic, but Gauss would rather have read it. He yawned till the tears ran down his cheeks.

Moving, wasn't it, whispered Bessel.

The actors flung their hands up in the air, paced endlessly back and forth, and rolled their eyes as they spoke.

He thought, whispered Bessel, that Goethe was in his box today.

Gauss asked if that was the ass who considered himself fit to correct Newton's theory of light.

People turned around. Bessel seemed to shrink into his seat and didn't say another word until the curtain fell.

Right after the show, Gauss is introduced to Humboldt's older brother, Wilhelm, a rather sour diplomat (and, just in case you were as mistaken as I was, the actual founder of Humboldt University in Berlin) who, on two occasions in youth, tried to murder Alexander. Gauss and Alexander himself don't meet until they are well into middle age. It was the discovery of this meeting, which took place in 1828, that inspired Mr Kehlmann to write Measuring the World.* Aware from the start that Humboldt and Gauss make a comically mismatched pair of monomaniacs, the author set out to illustrate fundamentally opposed ways of thinking about the world with a droll flourish, and Measuring the World is the resulting success.

Mr Kehlmann's voice is utterly deadpan, and because all of the dialogue is presented as indirect discourse, he is never interrupted. Because Measuring the World is a novel, and not a double biography, this narrative approach is superbly suitable. Humboldt and Gauss may have achieved great things, but they are not "great men," at least not here, where we enjoy them as people whom we can begin to understand. The deep comedy of Measuring the World is its refusal to acknowledge the grandeur in grandiosity. My favorite example of this refusal comes near the end, when Humboldt sits with his brother at his sister-in-law's deathbed.

Seconds later she was gone. Afterwards the brothers sat together facing each other; Humboldt held his brother's hand, because he knew the situation required it, but for a time they totally forgot to sit up straight and say classical things.

The all-but-uninflected voice also allows Mr Kehlmann to sound the occasional note of pathos.

Facts, Humboldt repeated, he still had facts, he would write them all down, a vast work full of facts, every fact in the world, contained in a single book, all facts and nothing but facts, the entire cosmos all over again, but stripped of error, fantasy, dream, and fog; facts and numbers, he said in an uncertain voice, they were maybe what could save one. If he thought, for example, that they had been traveling for twenty-three weeks, that they'd covered fourteen thousand five hundred versts, visited six hundred and fifty-eight stopping points, and, he hesitated, used twelve thousand two hundred and twenty four horses, then the chaos became graspable and one felt better. But as the first suburbs of Berlin flew past and Humboldt imagined Gauss at that very moment staring through his telescope at heavenly bodies, whose paths he could sum up in simple formulas, all of a sudden he could no longer have said which of them had traveled afar and which of them had always stayed at home.

But we know by now that facts are not enough; they are only the beginning. Measuring the world turns out to be a project at which Gauss excels, and at which Humboldt is eventually superseded. (He makes an idiot out of himself by estimating the width of the Volga, but everyone is too polite to point this out.) The lightness of touch with which Daniel Kehlmann presents his parallel lives, effortlessly rendering his historical figures as real men, makes me eager to read more of this young writer's work. (December 2006)

* He said so, in reply to my question at the reading.

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