Parallel minds


By Daniel Kehlmann, translated by Carol Brown Janeway

Quercus, 272pp, 12.99

WHAT A WONDERFUL COUNTRY Germany must be. This novel, bursting with ideas of history, science and philosophy, displaces JK Rowling and Dan Brown from the top of the country's bestseller lists. Like its subjects - the early 19th-century German scientists Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Gauss - its author is something of a prodigy. At 31, Kehlmann has written a collection of essays and five books of fiction. Measuring the World is his first work to be translated into English.

It opens with the scientists' meeting in 1828 (when Humboldt is 59 and Gauss is 51), then flashes back to their independent lives told chronologically in alternating chapters. Humboldt leaves Prussia, lowers himself into volcanoes, explores the Amazon and scales the highest peak in South America to take its physical measurements. Gauss stays home in Gottingen, thinks his way into exotic mathematical realms and imagines space as curved. Two-thirds into the book, Kehlmann is back up to 1828. He narrates four chapters about his characters together in Berlin and then again separates them, though they are much on each other's minds until the end of their lives and the novel. Gauss believed parallel lines meet. 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.

The Humboldt chapters - with their physical dangers, odd flora, and cameos by notables such as Goethe and Jefferson - supply much of the narrative excitement. Portraying a stay-at-home mathematician's mind is more challenging, but Kehlmann provides enough geometry and physics to represent Gauss's inventive rigour and odd foresight without losing barely numerate readers. By treating the two men together, Kehlmann not only contrasts the inductive and deductive, the experimental and the imaginative, but also shows how these methods are connected to very different though occasionally similar sensibilities.

Humboldt is ecstatic when his mother dies, as it allows him to leave Prussia. Gauss's mother lives with him for the last 22 years of her life. Swashbuckling adventurer Humboldt seems asexual. Pure mathematician Gauss, however, is obsessed with women. His troubles with two wives and sets of children rival Humboldt's problems with colonials and natives. Humboldt is eternally optimistic about social progress. Gauss looks at the stars and sees entropy.

Although Humboldt and Gauss were extremely ambitious and highly serious, Kehlmann often presents them humorously. Gauss's physical complaints and atrocious manners are continually amusing. Humboldt's resistance to women and unwitting insults to others are equally funny. The scientists' dialogues with lesser intelligences - and even with each other - often sound like the non sequiturs in Waiting for Godot. Kehlmann gives ample credit to his characters' discoveries - they were two of the most renowned scientists of their time - but his treatment humanises their personas. Kehlmann includes Gauss's confusion about statistics and his attraction to spiritualism, and he suggests that Humboldt may have exaggerated several of his exploits. With these not-so-distant mirror characters Kehlmann reminds us that our own universal geniuses and vaunted measurements of the world will be superseded - and will look comic to people in the next century.

Kehlmann is a little self-conscious about playing with history and authority. He has Humboldt complain about "novels that wandered off into lying fables because the author tied his fake inventions to the names of real historical personages". "Disgusting," agrees Gauss. An admirer of magic realism, Kehlmann takes some liberties with biography. His portrait of Gauss's son Eugen as a dunderhead, for example, departs from the facts, perhaps to create a parallel with Humboldt's faithful - but incurious - sidekick, Aime Bonpland. Kehlmann also leaves out another of Humboldt's companions, Carlos Montufar, perhaps for the double structure of scientist and follower. Since Humboldt and Bonpland see what appears to be a UFO, readers who go to the biographies shouldn't be surprised at considerable dissonance between characters and "personages".

More problematic than "lying fables" is this novel's slim size: it can't calibrate with much robustness or precision two lengthy and rich lives in its 259 pages. The personal histories and published works of Kehlmann's subjects were extremely messy. Measuring the World is elegant and measured in design and expression. "The map is not the territory," the semanticist Korzybski reminded us. The novel is like one of Humboldt's maps or Gauss's formulas, the work of a probable prodigy but not prodigious; large-minded but not as large as its materials required.

For all the intellectual heaviness of the matters under discussion, Kehlmann has a consistent quickness of pace and lightness of touch. He has said he admires The Simpsons. 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.

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