Measuring the World is a bestseller in Germany, but I can’t quite see why.
I’m interested in the Age of Enlightenment (see my previous post) but this fictionalised life of Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt was a bit of a plod. There is a bit of sly humour, the occasional amusing anecdote or a snippet of information to intrigue, but overall the book failed to engage me.
Since it’s fictionalised biography, (like Evelyn Juers’ House of Exile), it’s not even possible to know what’s true and what’s been invented for the author’s purposes. Gauss, for example, is a precocious mathematical genius, whose work is routinely appropriated by his professors at the university in Gottingen. Is this true, or is the author, Daniel Kehlmann on a mission to discredit academics? Goethe really did believe in Neptunism, a bizarre theory that the ‘fire in volcanoes didn’t come from deep in theearth, it was fed by burning coalfields’ (p22) - but I only know this now because I looked it up on Wikipedia out of irritated curiosity. (Ironically, I would have recognised the allusion if I’d read Measuring the Earth later this year because Faust is no 4 on my 2010 Year of European Reading List at Library Thing).
So, did Humboldt’s older brother really try to kill him, and did his long-suffering faithful companion Aime Bonpland die a prisoner in Paraguay? (Wikipedia says he was freed and died in Argentina, who’s right?) Did Immanuel Kant, when Gauss made one of his very rare journeys, really respond to Gauss’s enthusiastic mathematical propositions (p78) by telling his servant to buy sausages and stars? Who was the Count Hinrich Von der ohe zur Ohe and why is his name funny, eh? And was Gauss really the one who suggested to Daguerre a simple salt solution as a way of fixing silver iodide – and so influenced the invention of daguerreotype photography??
Should an educated person already know any of this, and would it be worth trawling the web to find out?
To confuse us further, there are: occasional visitations by ghosts; hallucinations (when Humboldt samples curare, that poison on the tips of arrows used by the indigenous people of South America); fevered reminiscences by Bonpland; and characters who routinely tell lies, like the oarsmen on the Amazon. It’s all very postmodern, but it serves as a reminder that postmodern playfulness only works when the reader is familiar with the subject of the play. German schoolchildren probably learn all about these two giants of the Enlightenment, and I expect they know chunks of Goethe’s poetry and plays by heart too. Will it succeed in an international market amongst people like me who aren’t familiar with Gauss, von Humboldt, Goethe and Kant? Will the story captivate such readers enough to spur them to seek out its allusions (a frustrating task if my online experience is anything to go by), or will they settle for reading the book at face value – and occasionally be mystified?
A better translation would help. It was quite strange in places, with ‘bad-temperedly’ on p3 as a portent of worse to come. Because of the shortcomings of the prose, I can’t tell whether this is a case of a book that doesn’t really work in translation or if it’s just a case of needing a better translator. (I am reminded of how I found War and Peace unreadable until I found a good version.) I was grateful, however, that Janeway included a wry footnote to alert readers to Humboldt’s prosaic paraphrasing of a famous poem by Goethe. This reference I did look up: Longfellow’s translation is a bit different:
O’ver all the hilltops
Is quiet now,
In all the tree-tops
Hardly a breath;
The birds are asleep in the trees:
Wait; soon like these
Thou too shalt rest.
(The rest of the poem – complete with drawings by Goethe of the place that inspired him - can be seen at NaturePark Travel, which offers literary tourism for the energetic.)
It was really only the feeling that I ought to know more about German culture that kept me going, but it was frustrating because I couldn’t be sure that what I was reading was true. I’d picked up the book at the library to redress my ignorance, but really I’m none the wiser.
So it was a bit pointless really…
Author: Daniel Kelhmann
Title: Measuring the World
Translator: Carol Brown Janeway
Publisher: Pantheon 2006
Source: Kingston Library