Measuring the World - Daniel Kehlmann

“It was both odd and injust, said Gauss, a real example of the pitiful arbitrariness of existence, that you were born into a particular time and held prisoner there whether you wanted it or not. It gave you an indecent advantage over the past and made you a clown vis-a-vis the future.”

I’m not sure what to make of this one: I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It certainly was not what I expected.

I do admire Kehlmann for trying a different angle on a historical novel about two eminent characters in their own time. The novel style and focus on what basically is a sequence of vignettes work well to bring out the character in Kehlmann’s two subjects – Humboldt and Gauss.

However, this is at the expense of any historical facts (other than that the two people existed):

There is one (or maybe two) references to dates in this book, and I felt this was only to give the reader a time frame to anchor the story in.

Other than this, there are very few facts in this story that could be referenced back to anything. Yet, this is not due to a lack of research on the part of the author. To draw a picture of both characters in as much detail as he does would have required a lot of research. The book just does not bring this across which makes this more a novel that featured two characters with the names of actual people and some enterprises these people may have set out to, but little else makes this book feel like a historical novel.

And this is where my problem is again: If I want to read about actual people, I want facts, I want references, I want to be able to go away and read more about something they did.

I do not want speculation about what they have thought or felt, or whether their brother tried to kill them when they were little. Unless I can go away and find other supporting material about any of this, I am simply not interested.

The upside to the book was that there was no love triangle, which so often spoils historical fiction books.


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