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Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann, Carol Brown Janeway (Translator)

Carlin Romano [The Philadelphia Inquirer]

Novelists, more than filmmakers, dare to depict great intellectuals.

Measuring the World

Publisher: Pantheon
Author: Carol Brown Janeway
Price: $23.00
Display Artist: Daniel Kehlmann, Carol Brown Janeway (Translator)
Length: 272
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2006-11

Novelists, more than filmmakers, dare to depict great intellectuals.

The latter lack the magic lens able to capture "Genius at Work" except as a sign on the closed office door. A movie director's take on a thinker usually has to favor talk over action -- a violation of film aesthetics among all but certain sainted European directors -- or hope visuals (intense reflection while looking out a window, calendar pages flipping) will convey the right messages.

Novelists, even "cinematic" ones, needn't apologize for deciding on a language "surge". They can maneuver past face and figure. "You are now entering the genius' mind," while within the clever director's grasp, is pure open road to the novelist.

That said, many a novelist botches things by trying to yank two famous thinkers together in the same tale, as foolhardy a move as letting two hostile pets get up close and personal with each other.

Recall Catherine Clement's Martin and Hannah, about onetime lovers Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt. In a particularly sophomoric scene, the author of Eichmann in Jerusalem vents at the perpetrator of Being and Time, "Tell me I'm still the one passion of your life, Martin! Say it!"

So consider Measuring the World by 31-year-old Austrian novelist Daniel Kehlmann an even more remarkable feat than it might seem.

Yes, it has sold more than 600,000 copies in Germany, riding that country's best-seller lists for month after month. Yes, it shot past The Da Vinci Code to make it the top-selling German novel since Patrick Suskind's Perfume in the 1980s. But the key virtue of Kehlmann's first work in English translation is that its subject does not sink his impressive career, which includes six books and the 2005 Candide Award.

Measuring the World, Kehlmann's reimagining of the German explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) and the nonpareil mathematical genius Carl Friedrich Gauss (1777-1855), finds its way around the usual obstacles by wryly examining clashing forms of intellectual obsession without slighting the human casing around them.

Humboldt, whose older brother Wilhelm also gained fame, thrust himself upon Europe's imagination as the pre-eminent naturalist of his time. His intrepid exploration of South and Central America from 1799 to 1804 brought him enormous acclaim. For decades after, he published material he'd gathered.

Late in life, Humboldt evolved into "the last universal scholar in the natural sciences", publishing a five-volume work, Kosmos, that aimed to pull together the world's knowledge.

Gauss became known as the "prince of mathematicians" in childhood. He astonished people with his calculation ability, produced classic work in number theory by his early 20s, and won wide fame by predicting a planetoid's appearance.

Throughout his life, Gauss refused to publish results unless they met the highest standards of proof. Cantankerous and aloof, Gauss estranged two of his sons enough to drive them to America, where one became wealthy in the shoe business.

Kehlmann portrays this odd pair by writing about their meeting in 1828, backtracking to fill in their previous lives, then rejoining them toward the end -- all in a distinctively engaging conversational tone.

Humboldt, an obsessive gatherer of plants and animals, elevates measurement of nature to a religion. "Whenever things were frightening," he came to understand as a student, "it was a good idea to measure them." Before setting out on his epic journey, Humboldt "acquired the most expensive arsenal of measuring instruments ever to be possessed by one person."

Mused Humboldt: "One had to be so precise as to be immune to disorder."

Kehlmann notes the lengths to which Humboldt went. He "tied one arm behind his back for a week, so as to become accustomed to physical insult and pain". He ingested curare, lowered himself down a volcano by rope, and had himself strapped to a ship's mast.

"One wanted to know," Humboldt says, "because one wanted to know."

Humboldt locates his independence -- his homosexuality emerged publicly after his death -- partly in having "never wanted to sound out anyone but Nature herself". One got married, he declares, "when one had nothing essential to do in life." Humboldt's "constant activity" struck his sister-in-law as "a form of madness."

Gauss, by contrast, derides Humboldt's manic empiricism despite spending years as a land surveyor. From childhood, he mocks the intelligence of others: "Why did they think so slowly, so laboriously and hard? As if their thoughts were issuing from some machine that first had to be cranked. ..."

Unlike Humboldt, whose thirst for the natural world is unquenchable, Gauss condescends to it: The "world seemed so disappointing as soon as you realized how thinly it was woven."

For Gauss, "reason shaped absolutely nothing. ... The world could be calculated after a fashion, but that was a very long way from understanding it."

That perspective made Gauss feel "sent into the world with an intellect that rendered almost everything human impossible. ..." Happiness seems to him "something like a mistake in arithmetic, an error."

Gauss experiences lust, but his impulses often get interrupted. On his wedding night, as Gauss runs his hand down his wife Joanna's stomach, "he suddenly understood how to make approximate corrections in mismeasurements of the trajectories of planets."

Unlike countrywoman Elfriede Jelinek, the 2004 Nobel literature laureate, Kehlmann doesn't exhale caustic judgments on the ugliness of modern society. Unlike Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989), the bleak Austrian novelist who favored paragraphless prose, Kehlmann likes to engage in consensual pleasure with readers.

Some German critics have thus hailed Kehlmann's playful style as a welcome departure from the ponderous reflexes of too many German novelists.

Is Measuring the World then, as the Guardian gushed, "the kind of thing Gabriel Garcia Marquez might have written had he been born in Stuttgart"?

Not unless German "magic realism" means well-placed eavesdropping in the age of German classicism. Compared to Thomas Pynchon in his recent Against the Day, Kehlmann keeps his flights of fancy close to earth.

Still, he makes German Being bearable by lightening it. Casual readers will come away pleased to have met Humboldt and Gauss. They'll be equally pleased to escape them.

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