Posted by: Lisa Hill | March 8, 2010

Measuring the World (2005), by Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

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.

Gauss. Source: Wikipedia

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).

First photo of a person (bottom LHS) by Daguerre, click to enlarge

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?

Von Humboldt. Source: Wikipedia

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
Hearest thou

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…

Judith Armstrong at The Age liked it.  So did Tom at A Common Reader.  Amazon reviewers are ambivalent.

Author: Daniel Kelhmann
Title: Measuring the World
Translator: Carol Brown Janeway
Publisher: Pantheon 2006
ISBN: 9780375424465
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I just read your review about Measuring the World. I really loved this novel and the only facts which were not true is that Gaus and Humbold ever met in real life and other reall encounters. The inventions, the characters.. .all that is pretty much true. Maybe it is the bad translation and not knowing the two characters too well made it not worth reading in another language. It was definitely not a book against academics… to the contrary. Kehlmann wrote warmly about these two men with a lot of humor..but maybe this was German humor. Kehlmann had great admiration for both men, maybe he even saw himself a little in these men as I saw him on an interview where he stated that he (Kehlmann) travels as much as Humboldt but with so little enthusiasm as Gaus. At the end, Kehlmann shows us how fast theories and scientist are obsolete as new ones come and they soon were forgotten. I think it was a homage to these 2 great German scientists. Here in Germany not many people know them. Humboldt’s brother is more famous as he founded the humanistic university system here in Germany. Unfortunately, this is being changed now by introducing the bachelor’s and the master’s.
    I want to add that Kehlmann did an enormous research on these 2 men. As you mentioned we deal with a fictional biography and there is a little freedom of speech. All which is not really being known can be taken by the author and he can extend on it….like the feelings, dialogs etc. One really funny fictional biography is Baudolino by Umberto Eco. When you read it you just think: “It could have been that way.”…..but Umberto Eco made the entire novel even more complex as he put Baudolino, the liar, who tells the story in the middle of the novel. Reading both books it is not actually necessary to know what is true and what is not true.


    • Oh, fancy that! I thought the meeting was one of the events that was real!
      Thank you so much for setting me straight about this, do you think maybe it was so popular in Germany because it celebrates the lives of Germans they can admire?

      What a coincidence that you mention Baudolino! I am listening to it on my way to and from work at the moment, and reading bits of the book by night beause sometimes I lose track of the plot a bit. Wonderful book, I think Umberto Eco is terrific.


  2. I’m sorry this comment is in the wrong place, bit I stupidly couldn’t seem to leave a comment back on the must read books page and wanted to say that I got slightly sidetracked from following your list exactly Lisa because on looking up David Malouf I was directed to his most recent book( I think) Ransom which I loved and it has led me to buy a pile of his books to read. I am also part way through Highways to a War which is beautifully written but somehow not urging me on with it. I also read your review of The Trout Opera by Matthew Condon which I had already purchased based on 3 times dipping in and loving it at my fav bookshop so I am definitely expanding my knowledge of Australian literature and have several others form your list on the tbr pile.


  3. That’s great to hear, Cheryl (have I got your name right?)
    If I have led one just one reader to discover the joy of reading David Malouf then I am delighted!
    And Matt Condon – well I think he is such a talented writer and I can’t wait to see what he brings out next:)
    PS It’s not your fault you couldn’t leave a comment on the right page, I had set comments to lock down after 180 days. I have altered the settings now.


  4. I found your review very interesting, and also the responses. Fictionalised biography is a bit of a minefield – the best examples perhaps are those which make no pretence at all to be anything other than fiction (British writer Beryl Bainbridge for example) – it seems from your review that perhaps this one took itself a little too seriously and it was hard to detect where reality stopped and fiction started. Strangely, I am inspired to have a look at this book and I have been able to place a reservation with my local library


  5. Hi Tom, I’m reading another fictonalised real life now, The Virtuoso by Sonia Orchard and finding myself bemused by it. It says it’s ‘inspired by’ the life of the Australian pianist Noel Mewton-Wood. I find myself vaguely uneasy reading these fiction/faction books, as if I’m intruding into a real life without the subject’s permission…


  6. Gosh, I’d never thought of it that way! I think a fictionalised version of my life might be better than the real thing anyway – I grant permission herewith to all and sundry to have a go if they wish to


  7. Oh, ok Tom. Here goes…
    Once upon a time there was a well-regarded blogger with an international audience who gave his readers permission to fictionalise his life. He was tall, dark, handsome and breathtakingly rich, so one of his readers decided to write a bodice-ripper romance that took place in cyber-space…
    (how can a bodice be ripped in cyber space?)
    *starting again*
    Once upon a time there was a well-regarded blogger with an international audience who gave his readers permission to fictionalise his life. He was tall, dark, handsome and breathtakingly erudite, so one of his readers decided to write the story of how he came to win the Nobel Prize for writing really good book reviews…
    (is there a Nobel prize for writing book reviews? Hmm, probably not. But if it’s a fictionalised life *cunning grin* it doesn’t have to be true, right?)
    *pressing on*
    One of his rivals was somewhat jealous of him so….
    (hmm, what shall we have? slander? hacking? a plot involving crude violence? I’m not very good at crime writing…)
    *starting again*
    Once upon a time….


  8. Thanks for your entertaining response – DEFINITELY fictional!

    I’ve read Measuring the World now and you may be interested to see my review which I published today


  9. Thanks, Tom :) As you can see I have added a link to your review at the bottom of my post.
    BTW Any chance you will be in London 22-26 September??


  10. Thanks for the reference Lisa. Oh dear, we’re in Italy then! My wife has just booked a cottage in Tuscany for September. You’re obviously over here at that time.


  11. Oh Tuscany in September! Have a truffle for me!


  12. Amazing! You are far more travelled than I am


  13. *chuckle* I was probably more travelled than you are by the time I was 10! My father was a research scientist before he retired and so there were opportunities to travel in search of places more congenial than postwar Britain. We went first to Africa (the Cape, and Natal) and then we came here. But I had to wait (mortgage, school fees) to visit Europe until 2001 and have yet to see the Americas. Everything is so far away from here *sigh*


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