by Daniel Kehlmann
(Die Vermesserung der Welt)
This novel is a double biography of two of the giants of science, Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt, fast-paced and told with irreverent humour.
‘It was both odd and unjust, said Gauss …. that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-a-vis the future.’
The book begins with the meeting of the two men in Berlin in 1828 before turning back the clock to their childhood and youth. Kehlmann contrasts the stiff, aristocratic Prussian, Humboldt, with the humbly-born child prodigy, Gauss, both – in their own opinions anyway – destined for great things. While the former will travel the world in pursuit of his passion for botany and geography, the latter is destined to exercise his genius without leaving Germany.
Measuring the World is divided into chapters devoted alternately to their lives and careers. We learn of Humboldt’s relationship with his would-be politician brother (equally famous!) and follow him as he travels with his accident-prone companion, the Frenchman Bonpland, from Europe to Trinidad and through South America. Humboldt’s contributions to the world were mainly in the natural sciences – his work influenced Darwin – but he was also interested in mining, electricity and magnetism, and was something of a philosopher too.
‘….Humboldt’s skin produced two large blisters. And now please cut the blisters open! The servant hesitated, Humboldt had to raise his voice, the servant took up the scalpel …. Now for the frogs! Oh no, said the servant.’
Turning to Gauss, Kehlmann describes his childhood and schooling, his ‘stay at home’ nature and his determination to marry Johanna while at the same time consorting with the prostitute Nina. Gauss was, first and foremost, a mathematician but he also contributed to physics and astronomy.
‘The coach set off …. crammed with evil-smelling people; a woman ate raw eggs, shell and all, and a man kept up an uninterrupted stream of jokes that were blasphemous without being funny. Gauss tried to ignore it all by reading the latest issue of …. Global and Celestial Knowledge.’
Although, in real life, both men made important discoveries and significantly contributed to our knowledge of the planet, Measuring the World concentrates less on their science as such, more on their personalities and eccentricities. The backgrounds of the two were quite different and as human beings they appear to have had little in common save their obsessions and their association with the Duke of Brunswick, godparent to Humboldt and patron of Gauss. Though broadly factual, many of the scenes and incidents in the book are either pure conjecture or sheer invention. However, Kehlmann does his fiction in style. We can almost believe it all to be true – but not quite!
Devoted to his mother, Gauss was the family man who liked women – but could easily be distracted by his calculations:
‘… she wound her legs around his body, but he apologized, got up, stumbled to the desk, dipped the pen, and without lighting a candle wrote “sum of square of diff. betw. obs’d and calc’d >s Min” ….’
Humboldt was not greatly attached to his mother and seems to have preferred men. His stoicism, indeed masochistic tendencies are treated by Kehlmann as a topic for gleeful humour. His relations with women were strange, to say the least:
‘Women were frequent visitors: Humboldt counted the lice in their plaited hair. They came in groups, whispering to one another, and giggled at the little man in his uniform with the magnifying glass …’
Towards the end of the novel, the author reverts to that famous meeting when it seems the two protagonists are doing a lot of talking but not really communicating. By now, they are thinking a lot about what it means to be old, and wondering if they have really achieved anything in their lives and whether they will be remembered by posterity. Humboldt embarks on his final expedition to Russia while Gauss goes home again leaving his son in prison as a suspected revolutionary. Remember, it’s 1828.
This is a lighthearted book and an easy read. While the author is clearly sending up the eccentricities of his protagonists in a way which is out of sync with most English speakers’ idea of Germanic humour (though Kehlmann was born in Germany he has spent most of his life in Vienna), he never loses touch with the times he is describing. I do not believe he intentionally disrespects either of the two men – and certainly not their work. However, the depiction of scientists here, especially in respect of their communicative skills is more caricature than fact. Scientists may indeed be obsessive, argumentative and even absent-minded but they are seen here as excessively so. As it seems to implicate all scientists, I find that presentation just a bit negative.
That said, Measuring the World is a lot of fun. The comedic scenario is not the kind of thing one finds in “classical” German writing but I suspect that’s because “fun” is not always easy to translate! Carol Brown Janeway, translator of the present work, does it extremely well.