I am only four books into my 12 Germans in 2016 project, so it’s not saying too much, but Daniel Kehlmann’s Die Vermessung der Welt (Measuring the World) is definitely my favorite so far. I thought it was funny, clever, and very entertaining. Kehlmann builds his story around the meeting of two geniuses of the 18th century: Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, both old but still driven. In flashbacks, both men remember how they got to this point. I think this is an ingenious setup that allows the reader to compare and contrast, but also draw parallels between the two.
Early on in his rather bleak childhood, Alexander von Humboldt decided that he would travel the world someday. He easily masters every subject his teachers present him with, completes his university studies within mere months, becomes the youngest inspector of mines in the country, and could have had an easy and privileged life if his desire to discover and measure EVERYTHING hadn’t been so great. So together with Aimé Bonpland, a fellow scientist he randomly runs into one day, he leaves for South America to explore its unknown territory. To say that Humboldt is obsessed is not an understatement. The two men endure incredible hardships, testing their strengths to points from which they are not always sure they will return.
Contrary to Humboldt, the mathematician Gauss doesn’t even have to leave his house in order to measure the world. His genius lies in the fact that he can imagine the unimaginable and then make the numbers prove it. Basically born a cranky old man, his greatest regret in life is something he can never control: being born before his time. He often dismisses the inventions and discoveries of others simply because he already knows that they will be outdated in just a few years. His second-greatest regret is that none of his children has inherited his genius.
When Humboldt and Gauss meet, the two men quickly realize that even though their approach to life is very different, they are fueled by the same obsession, dreams, and visions of grandeur. Both have been ridiculed at times, but both recognize what has driven them to the point of ridicule.
I started reading this book in tandem with Andrea Wulf’s wonderful The Invention of Nature, a biography of Alexander von Humboldt. Maybe that is why I found Humboldt more accessible in Kehlmann’s book—although his personality made him anything but accessible. The scientific aspect of the book could have easily been dry, maybe even boring, but instead I was fascinated by it and often found myself laughing. I loved the humor in this book. (My husband thought it was “a very German humor,” so I am curious to hear if anyone else found the book funny.) I am still chuckling a little bit while writing this review. I am also still trying to wrap my brain around the fact that parallel lines can actually meet sometimes, depending on how you look at them.
My verdict: Even if natural science or mathematics doesn’t interest you much, don’t let that stop you from picking up this novel. It’s so much more and well worth reading.
For further reading: