Many writers of fiction attempt on occasion to set their work two or three decades back from the present, sometimes to recall the world of their childhood when their sense experience was sharpest, sometimes to dramatize the process of how we as a society got here now from what we were then, and sometimes just to relieve themselves from the pressures of interpreting the contemporary world.
Going further back in time into another age altogether—as with Orhan Pamuk’s great novel, My Name is Red, set in 16th century Istanbul, or Kiran Nagarkar’s Cuckold, set in the Rajput kingdom of Mewar around the same time—is a different matter altogether. Personal experience or the testimony of family members no longer count for anything; libraries are more useful than memory. Perhaps this is why works of fiction set in the distant past feature fictional recreations of actual historical personages. Such figures serve as a familiar anchor and there is a thrill in seeing them come alive.
Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World, one of the unlikeliest best-sellers of this season in the US and UK, summons from relative obscurity two Germans of the early 19th century: the great naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, whose studies of the natural life of Latin America were revolutionary in their time, and the mathematical genius Carl Friedrich Gauss, still thought of as perhaps the greatest mathematician since antiquity.
Describing the efforts of these two men to measure the world—Humboldt on arduous journeys, Gauss from the comfort of his study—at a time when “things weren’t yet used to being measured”, Kehlmann presents a study of the single-mindedness of scientific genius, leavened by the comedy of their family life and dealings with society.
The novel’s lightness of tone is crucial, because it offers two registers, rather than the single one available from a more dedicated historical reconstruction in which the narratorial voice subsumes itself to the characters. While Kehlmann faithfully summons up period details and the specifics of the work of his protagonists, he does not historicize his language—his characters speak a contemporary idiom. This is a clever compromise.
The language is skittering on the edge of comedy, a comedy stoked by the contrast of the infinite patience of the protagonists with the challenges of measuring the world, and their absolute puzzlement with the behaviour of other, normal human beings with modest intellectual capacities and many wants.
The defining feature of a historical novel is its time, and the question of time is given an added edge in Kehlmann’s book by the way his protagonists themselves feel the yoke of time on their backs. Gauss, for instance, is acutely conscious of how speedily civilization is progressing scientifically, and thinks it unjust that “you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not”.
Readers will smile at this thought for, of course, reading is one of the ways in which we can escape being held prisoner by time. Even as we join Kehlmann in looking backwards, his protagonists are looking forward, to a day when everything about the world will be known, thanks in part to their research.
Another of the novel’s little ironies is that both Humboldt and Gauss have no time for art, and think it a frivolous pursuit, a distraction from the main business of life. Science is about fidelity to empirical truth, but “artists held deviation to be a strength”. Humboldt is shown in one scene criticizing novels in which the author ties his inventions “to the names of real historical personages”. That he does so in the capacity, here, of a historical personage in a novel himself is one of the many witty touches of this charming book.
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