Measuring the World

Written by Carol Brown Janeway (trans.) Daniel Kehlmann

On a prosaic level—and this novel is anything but prosaic—this is the story of two contrasting figures of the German Enlightenment. Alexander von Humboldt is an aristocrat who travels the world, measuring, mapping, scaling mountains, exploring deep caves enduring pain, hunger, fear and disease in the world’s unexplored and inhospitable places. Carl Friedrich Gauss comes from far humbler stock. His genius is mathematics. But he has no desire to venture far from home. He can measure and map the world and even the heavens in his head.

Chalk and cheese and yet so alike. Both are single-minded to the point of obsession, eccentric to the point of lunacy. One man cannot bear intimacy of any kind. The other craves love and human contact.

This is a deliciously quirky novel, its subject matter and style Monty Pythonesque and not what I would expect from a German novelist. It is hugely funny as well as poignant and thought-provoking. The translator has done a remarkable job in conveying the idiosyncrasies of the language but it is the novel’s structure that holds the central theme. Each section switches from man to man, and cleverly illuminates their differences and similarities, showing them as two faces of the same coin. When they eventually meet and each comes to see that there is more than one way of looking at the world, they slowly merge together so that it is difficult to see who is thinking or doing what. They become one.

A very clever and yet highly entertaining novel, which is justifiably a best-seller throughout Europe.