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the complete review - fiction
Measuring the World
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- German title: Die Vermessung der Welt
- Translated by Carol Brown Janeway
- Measuring the World was made into a film, directed by Detlev Buck, in 2012
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A- : appealing intellectual-historical novel
See our review for fuller assessment.
Enjoyable, and some think it's brilliant
From the Reviews:
- "Hasty translation is a frequent problem with publishers anxious to catch a best-selling wave from elsewhere but fortunately not even clunky sentences can spoil the delight of young Kehlmann's enormously enjoyable fifth novel." - Judith Armstrong, The Age
- "Around this odd couple Kehlmann has constructed a marvelous novel, a wry meditation on the idea that because there is more than one way to measure the world, there is more than one way to create it anew. (...) As a card-carrying historian of science, I am duty-bound to note that the book includes numerous minor deviations from the historical record. However, I am delighted to report that Kehlmann maintains a scrupulous imaginative fidelity to his characters and their era. As a result, his novel is a meditation on creativity, not just in science but in any human endeavor." - Ken Alder, American Scientist
- "Kehlmann delivers a charming historical romp complete with ghosts, cannibals, winged dogs, prostitutes, and some hapless political intrigue, none of which lures Gauss or Humboldt away for long from their shared passion: science. Still, since this is a German novel worthy of the name, we are also treated to meditations on themes like aging and what it means to be German." - Tess Lewis, Bookforum
- "Eschewing the oppressive morality that defines modern German literature (see: Grass, Gunther and Böll, Heinrich), the 31-year-old author forges a sly prose style shaped by the fire of human nature and the anvil of logic: It's magic realism honed to a distinctly Teutonic level of precision." - Wook Kim, Entertainment Weekly
- "Ce jeune écrivain, dont on dit qu'il est un prodige, a le toupet de nous faire rire avec un sujet on ne peut plus sérieux et érudit. Il aime trop ses personnages pour s'en moquer, alors il s'amuse de leurs travers, et de leur surdité à un monde qu'ils ne cessent d'ausculter." - Astrid Éliard, Le Figaro
- "Daß man von diesem Roman auf eine so subtile, intelligente und witzige Weise unterhalten wird, wie man es in der deutschsprachigen Literatur kaum einmal erlebt, ist dabei nur einer der vielen Vorzüge dieses in jeder Hinsicht bemerkenswerten Buches. Daniel Kehlmann" - Hubert Spiegel, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
- "Aus diesem eher trockenen Stoff entsteht, und zwar buchstäblich, ein Abenteuerroman. Nur spielt er, gleichermaßen spannend, auf höchst unterschiedlichem Gelände.(...) Dabei hütet sich Kehlmann, zu deuten. Er erzählt. Er kann das. Er zielt nie auf die Pointe, doch behält er stets den Blick für die Komik einer Situation. (...) Es bleibt ein aktuelles Buch, das mit historischem Personal agiert. (...) Die Vermessung der Welt, einer der Höhepunkte dieses Bücherherbstes, ist nicht nur ein schönes, packendes und spannendes, es ist auch ein großes Buch geworden: das Alterswerk eines jungen Schriftstellers, ein genialer Streich." - Martin Lüdke, Frankfurter Rundschau
- "Kehlmann has the contemporary novelist's fascination with territorial politics and the poetics of space. (...) Measuring the World's power is all the more acute because it harnesses to this spatial turn the sense of history in process which is key to the best historical novels." - Giles Foden, The Guardian
- "This is a masterpiece at many levels. In its loving depiction of two men for whom one would feel, at best, cordial dislike in any social context; in the superb use of dialogue, tight, subtle and semi-reported; in its haunting and painful descriptions of mental and physical suffering; in the authenticity of its minor characters. It makes you smile, and sadden, and think." - Murrough O'Brien, Independent on Sunday
- "(A)ddictively readable and genuinely and deeply funny. Keep that in mind because, at first blush, Kehlmann's subject and characters may seem a little daunting. (...) Measuring the World is a masterfully realized, wonderfully entertaining and deeply satisfying novel." - Tim Rutten, The Los Angeles Times
- "Who would have thought such high-minded stuff could be a vehicle for comedy ? But in Kehlmann's playful hands, German classicism's lack of humor becomes humorous. (...) If Kehlmann weren't so smart, he might make the mistake of taking himself too seriously. (...) Measuring the World is not quite a masterpiece: Though amusing, its characters are not fully developed beyond the needs of satire to become affecting. And American readers may not get all the German in-jokes that fuel the humor in the original; the English translation is often too elegant and misses the amusingly stilted quality of Humboldt's "classical" German. But Kehlmann has the storyteller's gift of lightness that is rare in any country, not just Germany." - Mark M. Anderson, The Nation
- "Mit fast dokumentarischer Akribie und viel Sinn für hübsche Erfindungen entfaltet der 30-jährige Autor die beiden parallelen Erzählstränge, die er am Anfang und am Ende miteinander verknüpft.(...) Er erweist sich als ein früher Meister einer auf den ersten Blick konventionellen und dabei doch hochartifiziellen Erzählkunst. Das beginnt schon damit, dass er konsequent auf die direkte Rede verzichtet und sie durch die indirekte ersetzt. Dank diesem Kunstgriff werden die zahlreichen Dialoge nicht plakativ abgebildet, sondern mit einer rhetorischen Distanz leicht verfremdet. Der Autor zeigt nicht vor, was ist – sondern stilisiert." - Martin Krumbholz, Neue Zürcher Zeitung
- "Measuring the World lacks the satirical rigor of Bouvard and Pécuchet because, though comic, it satirizes nothing; indeed, it takes a sentimental view of science. (...) Not a rigorous book, perhaps, Measuring the World can be heartily recommended. It is a light book that makes you feel smart." - Benjamin Lytal, The New York Sun
- "Think of Kehlmann’s method as a parallax by which we can lucidly observe alternate forms of measuring the world, including his own fictional form. (...) If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist. And one who demonstrates in his final chapters that he can measure the woes of failing bodies and flailing minds, no small achievement for a man of 31." - Tom LeClair, The New York Times
- "Meanwhile, Gauss has realised years earlier that 'all parallel lines meet'. It is the philosophical crux of a deceptively clever novel -- understated and boldly ambitious in its scope." - Ian Beetlestone, The Observer
- "Sein mit großer Meisterschaft, Phantasie und Sinn für Komik erzählter historischer Roman entdeckt die Lebenswelt seiner Epoche und zugleich ihre naturwissenschaftlichen und technischen Entwicklungen. Kehlmann versteht es, große Spannung zu erzeugen und den Leser zu fesseln." - Henriette Ärgerstein, Rheinischer Merkur
- "(B)reezy, sometimes charming and ultimately inconsequential (.....) Kehlmann is an able fabulist, though, striking a whimsical tone he milks for gentle comedy. He fails, however, to mine his story for much depth. (...) Measuring the World's lack of substance disqualifies it from much lasting effect, or true artistic greatness. Kehlmann's light touch and comic set pieces -- a seance out of I Love Lucy and a daffy encounter with an aphoristic lama -- are not without merit, but what Measuring the World amounts to, at best, is a fluent diversion." - Aaron Britt, San Francisco Chronicle
- "For all the intellectual heaviness of the matters under discussion, Kehlmann has a consistent quickness of pace and lightness of touch. (...) If Humboldt and Gauss are occasionally cartoonish, they are the creations of a very smart, deft artist, one who demonstrates in his final chapters that he can measure the woes of failing bodies and flailing minds, no small achievement for a man who is only 31." - Tom Leclair, The Scotsman
- "That tone distinguishes Measuring the World from much other historical fiction, for Kehlmann not only breathes life into these characters but he also gives them an endearing pathos." - Nicola Walker, Sydney Morning Herald
- "If the novel as a form of literature is intended to help us see the world through a different lens, then Measuring the World is a dazzling success (...) (T)here's an energy and enthusiasm about this book that is so refreshing and true to the spirit of the time in which Humboldt and Gauss lived, when so much was still out there to be explored and classified." - Kate Chisholm, The Telegraph
- "(T)his highly intelligent novel deserves its success. Kehlmann uses an episode of intellectual history -- the encounter between the great mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the polymathic explorer of Latin America Alexander von Humboldt -- to reinvent that very German genre: the novel of ideas. Like the greatest practitioner of the art, Thomas Mann, Kehlmann is a master of irony, deftly subverting the expectations of the reader." - Daniel Johnson, The Telegraph
- "He explores their epoch’s understanding of itself and of the world, and considers how it may have differed (or not) from our own. The distance between then and now is a rich source of irony, playfully mined to humorous, and sometimes moving effect." - Ian Brunskill, The Times
- "This 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." - Ron Charles, The Washington Post
- "(D)ieses originelle, aber bisweilen sehr gesucht wirkende Buch. Kehlmann ist ein sicherer, auch witziger Erzähler, der sich entschlossen hat, statt des gewohnten historischen Breitwandspektakels einmal einen Geschichtsroman als intellektuelle Versuchsanordnung zu schreiben. Das ist löblich. Und von Kleinigkeiten abgesehen, ist sein Epochenbild der deutschen Aufklärung zumindest in den Fakten stimmig und gründlich recherchiert. Eine gerechte Sicht auf zwei ihrer Hauptvertreter darf man freilich nicht erwarten. Eher einen Bubenstreich." - Tilman Krause, Die Welt
- "Hier hat der Erzähler zweifellos die Qual der Auswahl, der Reduktion, der Zuspitzung. Und die sind Daniel Kehlmann durchaus gelungen, eben weil er, selten für einen intellektuell überbordenden Autor, sich stilistisch sehr bewusst bescheidet mit knappen Sätzen, stark umrandeten präzisen Szenen, jeder Verführung zur &Uuuml;bersteigerung mit schnellen, vorwärts drängenden Perioden begegnend, manchmal etwas hastig, andererseits diskret distanzierend, indem er auf jede wörtliche Rede verzichtet. (...) Doch so ist es nur eine lehrreiche Doppelbiografie geworden. Das ist schon etwas, doch zu wenig für die Fähigkeiten Daniel Kehlmanns." - Hubert Winkels, Die Zeit
- "So this is a rare gem of a novel, both a virtuoso entertainment and a moving double portrait of two strange minds that forged our calibrated, calculated world." - Boyd Tonkin, The Independent (20/4/2007)
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Measuring the World is a novel of two great German minds, the mathematician Carl Gauß and the explorer Alexander von Humboldt.
In alternating chapters (with some overlap) Kehlmann tells their life stories, two very different approaches to surveying the world of that time, the one, Gauß, seeing little of the physical world but much in his mind's eye (as well as surveying the earth's invisible magnetic field, a game of solitary patience), the other travelling far and wide in trying to grasp and see as much of the physical world as possible.
The novel begins relatively late in their lives, with these intersecting, Gauß very reluctantly travelling to Berlin to take part in a scientific congress at the behest of Humboldt.
The book then turns back to their very different beginnings, Gauß coming from impoverished circumstances, but his genius obvious from early on, Humboldt born to nobility and trained from the first for greatness (along with his older brother).
Kelhlmann's style is almost sketchy, offering telling detail but leaving much to the imagination.
He does not slowly go through biography, but lingers only over bits (not always the obvious ones) -- and skips over much.
The early, reputation-establishing successes of each -- Gauß' Disquisitiones Arithmeticae and Humboldt's expedition to South America -- are prominently featured (and Humboldt's voyage covers much of the book), but in both cases success is also limiting .
Already on the way back from South America, travelling to Mexico and Washington D.C. Humboldt hilariously is surrounded by the masses almost each step of the way -- as he will be again when he finally travels to Russia near the book's end, a futile attempt to gather knowledge as he is overwhelmed by his own celebrity.
The genius Gauß almost takes his talents for granted, and quite reluctantly decides to devote himself entirely to mathematics -- he was as tempted to devote himself to the Classics (wanting to write an Aeneid-commentary ...) -- and then finding that, while still far superior to all around him, his mind doesn't remain as sprightly as he had once taken for granted.
Both men are islands (helped by some embellishment from Kehlmann), living in worlds of their own, obsessed with obtaining knowledge and willing to do quite a bit to achieve their ends.
Each is, in his own way, weltfremd, with Gauß not much of a social creature and at best a dutiful family man (though devoted to a favoured prostitute), and not one with much patience for many social conventions and certainly not for circumlocutions.
Humboldt, meanwhile, remains largely oblivious to others.
The two traits collide catastrophically when it comes time to get Gauß' son out of prison (by bribing an official), the mathematician unable to suppress his bluntness, while the explorer is unable to conceive of the idea that a good Prussian official would ask for a bribe.
Measuring the World is a novel of adventures, and perhaps most successful in that Kehlmann expertly mixes adventures of the mind with actual experience.
Humboldt's South American expedition is fascinating, with Kehlmann offering many of the colourful details and encounters, but it's not a faithful historical account.
Kehlmann is more concerned with the characters than their legacies, fascinated by their obsessiveness, and what they are willing to do to achieve their ends -- as well as of two great minds at work, minds capable of the remarkable, yet also stooping to the foolish and unpleasant.
The Humboldt and the Gauß on these pages come surprisingly alive: these are perhaps not accurate portraits of these historical figures, but they are great fictional characters.
Measuring the World is clever, but wears its learning very lightly.
It's full of sly humour (the characters lend themselves to it), and never takes itself too seriously.
And Kehlmann's touch, as in his earlier fiction, remains astonishingly light: this is effortless story-telling that makes for a book that looks deceptively simple, but contains a staggering lot.
Very good fun.
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Measuring the World:
Measuring the World - the movie:
Carl Friedrich Gauss:
Alexander von Humboldt:
Other books by Daniel Kehlmann under Review:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Daniel Kehlmann was born in Munich in 1975.
He lives in Vienna, where he studied philosophy and literature.
He has published several works of fiction.
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© 2005-2012 the complete review
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