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Measuring the Worldby Daniel Kehlmann
Synopses & Reviews
The young Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann conjures a brilliant and gently comic novel from the lives of two geniuses of the Enlightenment.
Toward the end of the eighteenth century, two young Germans set out to measure the world. One of them, the Prussian aristocrat Alexander von Humboldt, negotiates savanna and jungle, travels down the Orinoco, tastes poisons, climbs the highest mountain known to man, counts head lice, and explores every hole in the ground. The other, the barely socialized mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss, does not even need to leave his home in Gottingen to prove that space is curved. He can run prime numbers in his head. He cannot imagine a life without women, yet he jumps out of bed on his wedding night to jot down a mathematical formula. Von Humboldt is known to history as the Second Columbus. Gauss is recognized as the greatest mathematical brain since Newton. Terrifyingly famous and more than eccentric in their old age, the two meet in Berlin in 1828. Gauss has hardly climbed out of his carriage before both men are embroiled in the political turmoil sweeping through Germany after Napoleon's fall.
Already a huge best seller in Germany, Measuring the World marks the debut of a glorious new talent on the international scene.
"Loosely based on the lives of 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a contemporary, mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, Kehlmann's novel, a German bestseller widely heralded as an exemplar of 'new' German fiction, injects musty history with shots of whimsy and irony. Humboldt voyages to South America to map the Orinoco River, climb the Chimborazo peak in Ecuador and measure 'every river, every mountain and every lake in his path.' Gauss is the hedgehog to Humboldt's fox, leaping out of bed on his wedding night to jot down a formula and rarely leaving his hometown of Gttingen. The two meet at a scientific congress in 1828, when Germany is in turmoil after the fall of Napoleon. Other luminaries appear throughout the novel, including a senile Immanuel Kant, Louis Daguerre and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative is notable for its brisk pacing, lively prose and wry humor (curmudgeonly Gauss laments, for instance, how 'every idiot would be able to...invent the most complete nonsense' about him 200 years hence), which keenly complements Kehlmann's intelligent, if not especially deep, treatment of science, mathematics and reason at the end of the Enlightenment." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"'Measuring the World' has sat on the German best-seller list for more than a year and sold more than 750,000 copies. In the American book market, that would require a teenage wizard or at least a conspiracy of crooked Jesuits. But 31-year-old Daniel Kehlmann is entertaining his countrymen with a story about Enlightenment-era scientists and references to isothermal lines and modular arithmetic. This... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) sounds like something to be printed on graph paper, but it's actually more zany than brainy, and laughter almost drowns out the strains of despair running beneath the story. Two very different scientists are about to meet at a conference in Berlin in 1828. The first is an exasperated curmudgeon named Carl Friedrich Gauss, a genius known 'since his first youth as the Prince of Mathematics.' At 21, he published a treatise on something called 'number theory' (don't ask) that people in the know still consider as fundamental as Newton's 'Principia.' He couldn't be more vexed about having to travel to the conference — or even to get out of bed — but 'in a moment of weakness,' he accepted an invitation from Alexander von Humboldt, whose famous travels around the world founded the field of biogeography. These two real-life luminaries of German science are the twin subjects of this quirky, charming novel. After their meeting in Berlin — forced to stand rigid for 15 minutes so that Monsieur Daguerre can record the historic moment with his amazing new camera — the story switches, chapter by chapter, between moments of each scientist's life. The son of a humble gardener, Gauss was freakishly precocious. He deduced the process of combustion a few minutes after walking into a room lit with candles; he effortlessly devised a formula for determining the date of Easter; on his first hot-air balloon ride, he realized that all parallel lines meet and that space is curved. Gauss comes to earth-shattering realizations about astronomy as easily as the rest of us figure out how to use a doorknob. But work, war, other people — they're all just maddening distractions. In one hilarious scene, he breaks away from consummating his marriage to jot down a new formula. Because he has a clear vision of what will be possible in the future, everything about the present day annoys him: not being able to travel by airplane or use anesthetics during surgery or peer through a space-based telescope. 'It was both odd and unjust,' he thinks, 'that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not.' His counterpart is equally brilliant but driven by wanderlust and entirely free of complaint. Humboldt — a highly repressed homosexual — hopes to measure everything on the planet, perhaps as a way of mastering a world that he can't seem to participate in normally: 'Whenever things were frightening,' he writes, 'it was a good idea to measure them.' Humboldt's harrowing travels through South America are the funniest parts of the novel. Impervious to pain, he experiences everything with childlike wonder. When zapped by electric eels, for instance, he plunges back into the river and grabs them with both hands until he's so numb and senseless he can barely record the results in his journal. 'What a stroke of luck ... what a gift!' he gushes. When he finds a new poison in the jungle, he drinks different amounts to determine its toxicity. (Then he tries it on monkeys, keeping them alive through mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.) Humboldt's enthusiasm endows him with an armor of naivete that protects him from cannibals, crocodiles and shipwreck, and his outrageously dangerous travels are the perfect subject for Kehlmann's lightly surreal style, a mixture of comedy, romance and the macabre, with flashes of magical realism that read like Borges in the Black Forest. Toward the end, the novel's latent sadness rises to the surface. Gauss is eventually consumed with bitterness, while Humboldt grows so famous, so burdened with honors and ceremonies, that he's unable to do any productive work at all. His judgment on the ancient Mexican city of Teotihuacan rings out with horrible, prophetic irony: 'So much civilization and so much horror. ... What a combination! The exact opposite of everything that Germany stood for.' After this witty celebration of the country's scientific geniuses, their sad fate is all the more haunting. Ron Charles is a senior editor at the Washington Post Book World." Reviewed by Ron Charles, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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"[H]eady historical novel, which may especially delight science-fiction connoisseurs." Booklist (Starred Review)
"[A] wonderfully entertaining depiction of an era, but, more importantly, a warm, playful portrait of two delightfully improbable men. Brilliant." Kirkus Reviews
"If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist." The New York Times
"Measuring the World has proved to be nothing less than a literary sensation." The Guardian
"Possibly this fall's The Name of the Rose." The Philadelphia Inquirer
Already a bestseller in Germany, this brilliant and gently comic novel chronicles the lives to two young geniuses who during the Enlightenment of the 18th century set out to measure the world.
About the Author
Daniel Kehlmann was born in 1975 in Munich, the son of a director and an actress. He attended a Jesuit college in Vienna, traveled widely, and has won several awards for previous novels and short stories, most recently the 2005 Candide Award. His works have been translated into more than twenty languages, and Measuring the World became an instant best seller in several European countries. Kehlmann is spending the fall of 2006 as writer-in-residence at New York University's Deutsches Haus. He lives in Vienna.
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