Daniel Kehlmann: A global literary sensation
Viennese writer Daniel Kehlmann became a global sensation with a comic novel – about German scientific heroes. Boyd Tonkin asks him about the magic formula
Published: 20 April 2007
Even though it tracks the parallel paths of two experimental scientists who gave their lives to truth, Daniel Kehlmann’s Measuring the World dives into fantasy from time to time. A flying saucer buzzes the explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt as he searches for the channel linking the Orinoco and the Amazon. As for the mathematician and physicist Carl Friedrich Gauss, he slips into a vision of the future that his theories will create: a city where “metal capsules were pushing themselves along the streets in antlike columns”, and the background “electrical vibration” feels like “a wobble in reality itself”.
Mysteries still cling to the fictional edges of the measured world that Humboldt (1769-1859) and Gauss (1777-1855) brought into being. The age of miracles is not quite past. After all, a comic German-language novel about two Enlightenment scientists can still sell a million-plus copies in little more than year, throw the glare of celebrity onto its heroes, and attract 39 translations, including two for China – one into modernised Chinese for the People’s Republic, one old-style for Taiwan. “I’ve no idea what they did to some of my jokes,” chuckles Kehlmann, “but it’s great to have it.”
Measuring the World (translated by Carol Brown Janeway; Quercus, £12.99) is a phenomenon as extraordinary in its field as the beasts, peaks and cataracts that the wanderer Humboldt discovered on his epic trip through South America – or the laws of number, geometry, cosmic motion and magnetic force that stay-at-home Gauss deduced as “a man alone at his desk” in Brunswick and Göttingen. Pacey, witty, splicing high ideas with low slapstick, it keeps mockery of its odd protagonists and respect for their adventures in perfect balance. “I never found it in me,” says their creator, “to make fun of this urge to understand.” The Viennese Kehlmann might well remind British readers of an erudite spellbinder with family roots in another corner of the old Habsburg empire: Tom Stoppard.
So this is a rare gem of a novel, both a virtuoso entertainment and a moving double portrait of two strange minds that forged our calibrated, calculated world. Still, that doesn’t account for the scale of its success, an eruption as violent as the volcanoes Humboldt studied. “At the beginning, when we sold one, two hundred thousand, I still had some theories,” says the 32-year-old Kehlmann, as we talk in a café not far from the British Museum. “After we sold half a million, I stopped trying to look for explanations.”
He suspects that, in Germany, one reason relates to dawning of another age of faith. “As a reaction to religious extremisms,” he reports, “famous people and even philosophers are saying that we have to go back to being good Christians, to find our own religious roots again. Maybe, when there’s so much talk about religion, there is a kind of urge in people to remind themselves that the tradition of our culture is not only based on religion; that there was something like Enlightenment; that there is something like science; that there is a way of looking at the world without any preconceived ideas.”
Measuring the World – with its classic double-act between Humboldt and his hapless sideback Bonpland in the pest-ridden jungle, and its grumpy-old-man routines with Gauss back in muddy, shambolic Germany – has had to squash some “preconceived ideas” itself. The Viennese wunderkind who wrote it has re-acquainted readers throughout Europe with the comic and ironic side of German prose. Although his idol is Nabokov, Kehlmann loves the humour of Thomas Mann, well disguised in some translations (“His whole work is a huge parody of ponderousness”), and reveres the scorching prewar Viennese satirist, Karl Kraus.
The son of a Viennese stage and TV director, and a German mother, Kehlmann moved back from Munich, aged six, in 1981. He studied philosophy and literature in Vienna, started a thesis on Kant, and published his fictional debut at 22. “I never had a decent job,” he laughs. “In the beginning, I had a few government grants, then from my writing itself I could support myself. I still hesitated to call myself a professional writer for about a year, because it felt immodest. But after another, and another, book, there’s nothing else I’m allowed to call myself.”
His first book, Beerholms Vorstellung in 1997, made use of the magic tricks that Kehlmann once performed in its fictional life of a conjurer. He says that “I lost interest in the whole business of conjuring” after that novel – or maybe just transferred his formidable sleight-of-hand to the page. After the time-travel experiments of Mahlers Zeit (“a playful study of paranoia”), he exposed the ruses of biography, and media culture in general, in his novel about a parasitic journalist and a veteran artist: Ich und Kaminski.
In their own way, both Humboldt and Gauss in Measuring the World fall prey to the celebrity mania of their day. Humboldt finds his explorer’s steps dogged by journalists and hangers-on until, on his final progress through Siberia, he can’t even pick a flower without a town band and banquet to acclaim him. Gauss may travel only in his head (when he sights the sea, it’s just “soup under a scum of mist”). Yet his mental exploits bring onerous honours when they advance the profitable arts of land-surveying or touch on the dark glamour of astronomy.
And, thanks to the novel, the practical but melancholy Gauss (“I had a feeling that his sadness came out of his supreme intelligence”) has gained a second wind of fame. Kehlmann sees Humboldt as the plodding specimen-collector who belongs to the past, Gauss as the far-seeing theorist who heralds a technological future. “Gauss’s science – the victorious kind of science, because it’s so efficient – is the one that always deduces laws.”
Kehlmann speaks beautiful English, but the one idiom he seeks advice about has to do with knocking a statue off its pedestal. “This is not what I wanted to do. I wanted to play with history, to play with the way history is written, and to write a novel… I think I rather put Gauss on a pedestal.” As a result, “Three new biographers are now working on Gauss who were not working on him a year ago”. He was even consulted as to whether the Hanoverian prodigy ought to join a Tussaud-style exhibition of German worthies in Bavaria called, inevitably, “Valhalla”.
Humboldt, in contrast, has perched securely on his pedestal in Valhalla for two centuries. “He carries this wonderful world-view of German Classicism with him, which may be the most humane way of looking at the world ever developed. But in these surroundings it proves unusable. This is, of course, the material for comic situations”. Yet Humboldt remains “such a German Hero, written with capitals”.
Kehlmann notes that “There are even political interests behind presenting Humboldt as the Good German who travelled everywhere – but not with tanks, only with knowledge.” The academic keepers of his flame bridled at the novel’s naïve and distracted figure: a scatty, polymathic Eric Morecambe, blundering through the tropics, in contrast to Gauss’s sadly clued-up Wise. “I don’t think I treat him that badly,” he says. “But I use him for comedy – and there were some people who didn’t like that at all.”
Comedy aside, how reliable is this double-headed romp through the golden age of German intellect? (The narration takes sideswipes at the kind of novel “that wandered off into lying fables”.) In short, Kehlmann’s big picture does match the record, but the details stray into fiction. “If you decide to use historical material, you decide not to be completely free… I tried not to invent something that would not have been psychologically possible.” Humboldt, innocent to the point of cruelty, really did throw live dogs to chained crocodiles merely to observe their deaths.
When Humboldt sizes up a mountain, or Gauss inspects the stars, measurement and meaning coalesce. And the question of what “accuracy” signifies matters as much to the author as to his scientists. “There are strict rules as to how far how you can go,” says Kehlmann, the Viennese illusionist who can still salute the value of Prussian exactitude.
“I thought of the historical figures as strong magnets. I had to stay within their magnetic field. If I came too close, I would just write biography, but if I would leave the field, I would be putting historical names to made-up characters – and I didn’t want that either.” Caught in this force-field, Measuring the World vibrates delightfully between sympathy and satire – and that vibration, as Gauss might foresee, generates a very modern buzz.
Born in Munich in 1975, the son of Austrian director Michael Kehlmann, Daniel Kehlmann moved to Vienna in 1981 and studied philosophy and literature there. His first novel, Beerholms Vorstellung (1997), was followed by four more books, including Ich und Kaminski (2003). Published in 2005, Measuring the World topped the German charts for almost a year, won three prizes, and has been or will be translated into 39 languages. Carol Brown Janeway’s English version is published by Quercus. Since 2001, Kehlmann has given courses at Mainz, Wiesbaden and Göttingen universities, and in 2005 he published a volume of essays. He lives in Vienna, and has just bought a small flat in Berlin.