Reviews of Measuring the World (2005)
Review by spiphany (2013-06-23)
This book was a bestseller in Germany and I can see why. It's fun. Kehlmann has a delightfully irreverent and at the same time affectionate attitude towards his protagonists. Part of the particular humor of the novel derives, in the original, from the author's use of indirect speech throughout. I've been curious how the translator deals with this issue since English doesn't make this distinction quite the same way.
The style is anecdotal rather than factual-biographical. As the title implies, Kehlmann is interested in a common theme -- the two protagonists' desire to measure and calculate the world around them. The story jumps back and forth between Humboldt and Gauss; the ever curious scientist whose spontaneous pursuit of knowledge often gets in the way of common sense (he places raw frogs' legs on his back to test electroconductivity and delays a trip across Europe by stopping to measure every hill along the way) and the hypochondriac mathematician who can't manage without a woman in his life and travels far from his residence only with great reluctance. Because of the episodic style of the novel I found the frequent shifts in place and time unproblematic, although this is something I often find distracting.
Kehlmann chooses his subjects well and crafts an enjoyable novel out of the lives of a pair of historical figures whom most readers are probably familiar with only as little more than names, although Humboldt in particular has been getting attention in Germany lately on the occasion of the 200 year anniversary of his South-America trip.