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Measuring the World (Book Review)

Measuring the World: A Novel by Daniel KehlmannIts dust jacket declares Daniel Kehlmann’s novel Measuring the World to be “this season’s The Name of the Rose“. I find a closer affinity between the German novel (translated into English by Carol Brown Janeway) and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Eco’s The Name of the Rose and Kehlmann’s Measuring the World are both historical-ish fiction, both containing adventure, both written by Europeans about Europeans, to be sure. But The Name of the Rose is at base a murder mystery; Kehlmann only toys with conspiratorial intrigue in a short passage of his book. Like Jonathan Strange, Measuring the World is a novel using the trappings of revealed esoteric knowledge (magic to Clarke, science to Kehlmann) as reader-bait: the deeper purpose of both novels is to consider how the search for knowledge reflects and affects the quality of the relationships we have with one another.

Lowly, classless and forced to traffic with the world for his livelihood, mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss considers humanity to be a burden and burdens others with his unrepressed id. His quest to understand the universe eschews direct observation as much as possible, retreating to an intellectual consideration of mathematics. Baron Alexander von Humboldt has all the material resource a man could wish for and uses it to satisfy his lust for empirical exploration of the world, making an encyclopedic recording of the particular characteristics his of biological and geographical specimens as he explores South America. Von Humboldt’s expeditions are put in heroic terms by trailing journalists but characterized by privation and suffering, suffering von Humboldt unwittingly or uncaringly sloughs off onto others.

Fire illuminates the dark but also burns; Gauss and von Humboldt pursue their versions of truth with a purity of vision that limits the range of their focus; they are blind to the consequences of their actions for others. As Clarke does in Jonathan Strange, Kehlmann in Measuring the World refuses to dilute the essence of his characters to make them more palatable, more digestible, more nice. Is the pursuit of knowledge and progress is above, beyond, fiercer than nice? In turn, neither of the two main characters is treated nicely by the politicians who seek to exploit them or by the universe itself which in its own progress shunts their discoveries in the past and reduces them to the status of footnote in the waning years of their lives.

Kehlmann’s prose trusts the intellect of the reader enough to suggest and to hint at the context of characters’ words and actions without bald declaration; what’s unstated between the written lines is important to attend to, and this makes for a longer reading of the short 259-page novel than you might expect. Take the time to pay attention and you’ll be rewarded. Measuring the World” has my strong recommendation.

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