Daniel Kehlmann's bestselling novel offers a comic view of some of Germany's great thinkers. In doing so, it mocks the very idea of German high cultureby Philip Oltermann / March 22, 2007 / Leave a comment
Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann (Pantheon Books, $23)
In 2006, a 32-year-old German novelist who has been likened to Nabokov, Proust and García Márquez outsold, in Germany, books by JK Rowling and Dan Brown. At first sight, Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World (Die Vermessung der Welt) looks like a perfect example of cerebral German Hochkultur. From a British perspective, it is hard to understand how a novel about two real 18th-century scientists—the physician and explorer Alexander von Humboldt and the mathematician and astronomer Carl Friedrich Gauss—can be in the bestseller charts for 71 weeks, hogging the top spot for 37 weeks, and selling more than 1m copies in hardback.
But there is an easy answer to the phenomenon of Daniel Kehlmann. The German public has traditionally reserved a special place for “geniuses”—a notion developed by Kant and championed by the Romantics. And Measuring the World is a book about two geniuses, penned by a potential third.
Anecdote has it that Carl Friedrich Gauss started correcting his father’s calculations in 1780, aged three. At 16 he developed—though didn’t publish—an alternative to Euclidean geometry, effectively pre-figuring Einstein’s theory of relativity. Aged 19 he discovered the construction of the heptadecagon. He went on to make ground-breaking contributions to number theory, corrected the outdated mathematics of orbital prediction and collaborated with the physicist Wilhelm Weber on pioneering studies into magnetism. Until the introduction of the euro, his calculating gaze adorned German ten-mark notes.
Alexander von Humboldt was born in 1769, younger brother to the equally prodigious philosopher, linguist, politician and educational reformer Wilhelm von Humboldt. Taking to the natural sciences rather than the arts, Alexander produced treatises on mineralogy, botanical geography, muscular irritation and electric eels. On his travels to South America, he discovered an unknown channel between the Orinoco and the Amazon. Charles Darwin and Edgar Allen Poe both admired his work; 17 species of animal, 12 types of plant and more than 20 places across the globe are named after him.
Born in Munich in 1975, Daniel Kehlmann moved to Vienna aged six, where he went on to study literature and philosophy at university. A favourite with his professors, he took up a teaching position aged 22, while embarking on a PhD on the Kantian sublime. Fellow students remember Kehlmann as extremely bright but aloof. Enormously…