Vienna Diary, July 7th

I finished Measuring the World by Daniel Kehlmann. The novel recounts (with certain liberties and license) the lives of the German mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss and the similarly German, but much wealthier, geographer Alexander von Humboldt. We are to understand that the pair were not motivated as other men and women of their time nor thought like others thought, and the material of their lives is presented with understated black humour and pathos at the loneliness their dedication to science and mathematics cost them.

I was particularly struck by the presentation of Gauss, whose mathematical powers read on the page as supernatural. He doesn’t merely have prescient ideas about how science and technology, but sees the actual that future will arrive, informing those around him as we might explain a new metro-line will gentrify the neighborhood. Like superman, he has arrived on a planet that is not his own, granting him insights as powerful as a Kryptonian’s strength is magnified under Earth’s weaker gravity. By the end Gauss is having ecstatic visions of a 21st century city. It would seem silly, were I not more than half convinced that it is deliberate. Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but suspect that the author might well understand the mathematics better than he understood the mathematician.

The penultimate chapter is a modernist tour de force, carried along on the momentum accumulated over the previous chapters. Up until that point Humbert and Gauss alternated chapters, providing an ostensibly conventionally styled account of the men’s lives. But then the narratives merge as the perspectives of the men are shared and the prose moves back and forth without announcement. I want to say it is one of the more effective employments of the modernist style that I have read. But perhaps it is fairer to say it the most accessible and generous to the reader.

Not everyone has been so taken with the text, however:

Hard to argue against the chap’s position of authority on the matter.