Something unusual has been happening in Germany. For more than a year one of the bestselling books has been a novel by a young Austrian writer named Daniel Kehlmann that is neither a thriller nor a racy love story. Even more surprising: It has nothing to do with Hitler. It is “simply” a well-written tale about two famous scientists of the nineteenth century, Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss, whose feats of intellectual prowess and all-too-human weakness are narrated with humor, lightness and (for novels in German) uncharacteristic dispatch. Published in 2005, the hardcover edition has sold almost a million copies and been translated into some twenty languages. In a felicitous English version by Carol Brown Janeway, Measuring the World has also received glowing reviews here, with Time magazine(not exactly a champion of foreign-language fiction) declaring it one of the “ten best” books of 2006. So what is going on?
First, to German readers Kehlmann is not completely unknown. The son of a prominent German-Jewish theater director, he had already published four novels and a collection of short stories (all still untranslated into English) by the time he was 30. His fourth novel, Kaminski and I, revealed a gift for satire and unusual characters–the narrator is an amusingly unself-conscious, overambitious art journalist–and was a genuine popular hit. Kehlmann has also distinguished himself as a remarkably discerning and independent critic, equally at home with contemporary American writers (Updike is a characteristically unfashionable favorite), Latin American magic realists (especially García Márquez and Vargas Llosa) and the European masters (Cervantes, Stendhal, Proust). Trained in philosophy at the University of Vienna, he has written on Voltaire and Isaiah Berlin. And as if this weren’t enough, he is a fan of popular culture, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings to The Simpsons.
At 32, Kehlmann is something of a Wunderkind, and he may well feel a special bond with the two Enlightenment Wunderkinder in his latest novel. Alexander von Humboldt began publishing scientific articles while still a teenager, and in his late 20s he embarked on a five-year exploration of South America that made him world famous. At the end of that tour he spent two weeks with President Jefferson, returned to a hero’s reception in post-revolutionary Paris and spent the next five decades publishing book after book about the “great harmonies of Nature.” In a recent study of the “Humboldt current” in American intellectual life, Aaron Sachs praises him as the first ecologist, a proto-Transcendentalist who influenced Poe, Emerson, the Hudson River School painters and a host of scientists and explorers. For the centennial of his birth in 1869 the New York Times dedicated the entire front page to him with a single-word headline: “Humboldt.”
That fame has long since ebbed in America, but in Germany Humboldt is still celebrated as a genius embodying the scientific ideal of broad-minded inquiry. Along with his brother Wilhelm (a celebrated linguist who founded the first modern research university in Berlin), he belongs to die Klassik: the classically minded generation of writers and thinkers, including Goethe, Kant and Schiller, who set the terms of modern German culture.
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. Unfailingly fleissig (hard-working) and proud, Humboldt tilts his way through the South American jungles, Quixote-like, in a vain search for the grand unity of the cosmos. In the meantime the bumps and scratches of mundane reality intercede: Brother Wilhelm tries to poison him as a child; flies and mosquitoes pester him in the Amazon; a prostitute horrifies him with an attempted seduction. Playing Sancho Panza to Humboldt’s Quixote, his French assistant Bonpland can only sigh and wonder: “Did one always have to be so German?”