Many followers of this blog have undoubtedly read Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World [Die Vermessung der Welt]. In contrast to the books of Fonseca and Désérable, it has been a major international success, winning too many prestigious awards to list. Yet it has also attracted the attention and admiration of numerous literary scholars, many of whom nevertheless feel compelled to characterize it as “best-selling.” “It was on the bestseller lists for weeks on end,” writes literary scholar Nina Engelhardt (in a private e-mail), “even competing with Harry Potter and Dan Brown. It has also received a lot of critical literary attention and is generally viewed as a successful and innovative example of combining literature and science.” My German-speaking friends tend to describe Kehlmann as a celebrity, often to be seen on TV talk-shows; he lives in Berlin and Vienna but also holds a visiting professorship at NYU.
Measuring the World devotes alternate chapters to the historical figures of Alexander von Humboldt and our very own Carl Friedrich Gauss, familiar to every German in the widely-circulated portrait reproduced above. Soon after Kehlmann’s novel was translated into English, Frans Oort published a review in the AMS Notices. It’s an understatement to say that Oort was disappointed with Kehlmann’s depiction of the Prince of Mathematics. The review begins with a report of a dream, no doubt fictional:
The young Gauss started to smile, knowing that I recognized him, and remembered this story. Then his face and and figure changed into the beautiful portrait of the young Gauss published in the Astronomische Nachrichte, 1828…. He looked at my desk, and he started to talk to me. “I see that you are reading that book! What can this man mean, slandering me in this way?”… “why does this man have so little appreciation for the deep thoughts engendered in the beautiful things that I encountered and enjoyed in my life? Do you know where I can find this Kehlmann, so that I can explain to him the beauty of my ideas, and the reasons why I set out to measure things?”
It’s one of the most elegantly written and informative reviews I’ve ever read in the Notices, but the book I had just finished left a very different and altogether more positive impression. So I wrote to Engelhardt, whom I had already consulted in connection with the Pynchon chapter of MWA, in search of clarification. In her lengthy reply, she agreed with Oort that readers looking for historical accuracy in Measuring the World are likely to be unsatisfied. But, as she explained (and as already should be clear from the title), that’s precisely the point. I quote one of the articles* she has recently published on the book:
the humorous tone of the novel, the indirect discourse continuously indicating that events and dialogues are mediated, and the characterization of the eternally grumpy Gauss and an obsessed and naïve Humboldt can leave little doubt that Measuring the World is a work of fiction.
Here Engelhardt inserts a footnote with a reference to Oort’s review, naming at least one reader who failed to detect the telltale signs that Kehlmann’s novel is a specimen of historiographic metafiction. Her comparative study of Measuring the World and Pynchon’s Mason & Dixon actually suggests that both novels belong as well to the rather different genre of scientific metafiction:
historiographic metafiction contests the accessibility of the past, an epistemological concern that does not challenge the reality of the past, while scientific metafiction problematizes the literally “natural,” namely the nature of the physical world, and thus introduces an ontological dimension.
The telltale signs include the consistent use of indirect speech in the German original, and pointers to Kehlmann’s “epistemological concern” are pretty hard to miss, frankly. The one on the very first pages could not be more self-referential:
Even a mind like his own, said Gauß, would have been incapable of achieving anything in early human history or on the banks of the Orinoco, whereas in another two hundred years each and every idiot [Dummkopf] would be able to make fun of him and invent the most complete nonsense about his character.
The liberties Kehlmann takes with the empirical historical record — measurable liberties, one might say — are too numerous to mention. For example, the 11-year-old Gauß discovered the curved geometry of the earth while flying in a hot air balloon with Pilâtre de Rozier, Montgolfier’s associate. A quick calculation shows that Pilâtre had died several years before Gauss turned 11. Oort made the calculation, as did the literary scholar Karina von Tippelskirch; yet they draw diametrically opposite conclusions — another illustration of the indeterminacy of measurement.
Humboldt forges his journal when, afraid and refusing to go back into the jungle to shoot a jaguar, he is embarrassed about his actual behavior: “He decided to describe events in his diary the way they should have happened” (90).… it is not even certain whether it is Humboldt or a hallucination who tells his travel companion Bonpland that they “had climbed the highest mountain in the world. That would remain a fact, whatever else happened in their lives.” (152) Humboldt communicates the “fact” to Europe in “two dozen letters” (153), but it is incorrect on two accounts—readers witness that Humboldt and Bonpland have to turn back before reaching the summit and that, with the discovery of the Himalayas, Chimborazo proves not to be the world’s highest mountain.
er schämte sich daß ihm ausgerechnet in diesem Moment klar wurde, wie man Meßfehler der Planetenbahnen approximativ korrigieren konnte… weil er fühlte, daß sie erschrak, wartete er einen Moment, dann schlang sie ihre Beine um seinen Körper, doch er bat eine Verzeihung, stand auf, stolperte zum Tisch, tauchte die Feder ein und schrieb, ohne Licht zu machen: Summe d. Quadr. d. Differenz zw. beob. und berechn. -> Min.
The scene is unlikely, as Oort points out, as well as historically inaccurate; and I haven’t yet figured out the author’s cunning purpose in placing this particular discovery at this particular point of the narrative. And apparently it wasn’t enough to redeem the movie — I did mention that there was a movie, didn’t I? A 3-D movie in fact, directed by Detlev Buck, with a screenplay by Buck and Kehlmann, starring Florian David Fitz as Gauß and Albrecht Abraham Schuch as Humboldt, and universally panned by German critics, in spite of an estimated 10 million € budget. I found that figure on IMDB, where the film rates a miserable 5.7. There are no reviews at all on Rotten Tomatoes, and I don’t know whether the film was even released to English-speaking audiences.
The trailer is up on YouTube, however, and if you want to add an image of a Gaussian bunda to your private canon of mathematical nudity you will find one at 0:39 (and another bunda a few seconds later).
*‘Scientific Metafiction and Historiographic Metafiction: Measuring Nature and the Past’. Twentieth-Century Rhetorics: Metahistorical Narratives and Scientific Metafictions. Ed. Giuseppe Episcopo. Napoli: Cronopio: 2014. 145–72. In press.