A brisk, witty novel by a 31-year-old writer hardly seems the place to expect depth and wisdom. And yet German novelist Daniel Kehlmann has given us both in abundance in his historical tale "Measuring the World."
A blockbuster in Kehlmann's homeland, where it has sold more than 600,000 copies, "Measuring the World" has been identified as a kind of pivot toward high-brow lightness and the recovery of humor in a land whose literature remains shadowed, if not shrouded, by the need to account for World War II. By setting the story a century before Nazism, in the heyday of German intellectual influence (Kant appears in the story as an old sage; Goethe makes a cameo), Kehlmann evokes the thrill of human capacities on the brink of unmatched scientific discoveries.
But then, more subtly, he shows in the midst of this golden age the necessary incompleteness of all human understanding. As the characters take brilliant measure of the physical world, Kehlmann takes their measure, and ours, with the superior instrument of art. Hitching the rich tradition of German ideas to prose that is free, confident and full of gusto, Kehlmann achieves a rare synthesis of what Hamlet dubbed "blood and judgment." This remarkable novel is both vital and profound.
The story alternates between the imagined lives of two of Germany's greatest intellectual figures: the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, and the mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss. The men share an ambition -- to precisely measure the size of the world. But their methods -- Humboldt favors daring adventure, Gauss precise equations -- are as different as their personalities.
Humboldt is a fearless, tireless, sexless early riser. Unsentimental to a fault, and, according to his traveling companion, utterly unknowable, Humboldt sets off for the Americas eager to test current scientific theories, gather plant and animal specimens, climb the highest known mountain and trace tropical rivers to their sources. Humboldt is so single-minded in his quest that he seeks out pain if it promises a payoff for his work. Made numb and stiff from an encounter with electric eels, he is ecstatic at the new knowledge acquired, and when he tastes dangerous Amazonian poison he is matter of fact: it "had to be researched, so he had to take the risk."
If this unwavering, comical zeal recalls Don Quixote, Humboldt's French companion, Bonpland, steps in as Sancho Panza. The two banter like the knight and his squire, and when Humboldt dodges an attacker, Bonpland, Sancho-like, gets clubbed in the face on the leader's behalf. Then, in one of the book's many taut vignettes, when the explorers almost die on a snow bridge high in the mountains and a shaken Bonpland wants to know what Humboldt had been thinking at that brink, his response has the old knight's stoical evasiveness: "He had ordered himself not to think. ... And so he hadn't thought anything."
The essence of Humboldt's mad idealism, however, is distilled in a passing scene on a boat. A terrible storm rages, and so "that the storm wouldn't be useless," Humboldt has himself lashed to the bow, where he leans just above the roiling water with a sextant to his face, measuring waves. He remains fixed there an entire day, and when he is finally taken down, red-faced and understandably "a little confused," the sailors all "took him for the Devil." The reader takes him, with delight, for the absurd Quixote. Kehlmann's Humboldt is a glorious comic figure who would rather catalogue the number of lice crawling along a woman's braid than join her in a tent, and who, hailed in Russia as the man who knows everything, in fact scarcely even knows himself.
The mathematician Gauss, in contrast, is a testy, impulsive, melancholy homebody, who sleeps late and makes endless, irritated demands of those around him. If he is less likable than Humboldt it is because he has less vitality. In fact, an early confrontation with suicide casts a long shadow of despair across his maturation. Gauss also lacks Humboldt's aristocratic ease. As the novel passes from the 18th to the 19th century, Humboldt becomes an emblem of a passing hierarchical world: the leisurely, generalist gentleman, who uses his high advantages in the service of humanity, but who is ultimately nave about actual human beings.
Gauss is more modern. He is the hard-working specialist who has suffered too much to be nostalgic for older orders but who isn't, because of that, liberated by the new. Gauss is a hermit sage, cantankerous, cruel and darkly wise. His wedding speech, in which he declares happiness to be "something like a mistake in arithmetic, an error" captures his sour stoicism, and then provokes from his bride one of the book's best lines: "It was exactly the speech she had always dreamed of for her wedding." We are not surprised in the least when, later, losing his connubial concentration, Gauss springs out of bed to jot down a math insight. The stars, unlike the sheets, cannot be asked to wait. Gauss' brilliance helped measure the world, but like Humboldt he lacks the instruments to measure human concerns -- especially his own.
Throughout the novel, then, Gauss is the more cynical yin to Humboldt's comic yang. Both men lack all appreciation for art, whose impact can't be quantified, and Kehlmann's rich artistic portrayals suggest that this is their deeper problem. These great minds study, describe and order the cosmos, but they remain private residents of their own small lives. As they meet late in the novel, having failed to achieve what they saw as their destinies, their best work behind them, perhaps to be forgotten by posterity, surely to be surpassed, they each experience the inevitable closing in of time, which measures all our passing days as sure as math measures the seemingly permanent heavens.
This terrifying reduction of great minds to their private confrontation with mortality is the novel's tragic underside. As Kehlmann draws the two men together on the far side of their accomplishments, the scenes are philosophically tense and emotionally painful -- and even, because emotions have been so spare in the story, revelatory. That a 31-year-old writer has done this with zest and humor, historical range and impressive authority, feels like a fortuitous theft. Kehlmann has picked Nature's pocket and offered us the marvelous booty.
(Todd Shy is a writer who teaches at Cary Academy.)