Take two C18th giants of science, one a mathematician, the other a natural scientist. Both are German and this novel tells of their great discoveries. Not immediately appealing, is it? Yet look at the cover:
It’s colourful, vivid and a little eccentric – the perfect foil for Kehlmann’s comic take on the insanity that accompanies genius.
Alexander von Humboldt and Friedrich Gauss were as chalk and cheese: Humboldt, aristocratic, gay, diplomatic and practical; Gauss, working class, straight, plain-speaking and theoretical. Their methods also were diametrically opposed. While Humboldt travelled and measured the world, Gauss stayed at home and theorised. Yet they shared purpose and lived contemporaneously. Kehlmann builds his novel around the one time they met in 1828 …. and surprise, surprise, they didn’t like each other very much!
There is plenty of science in the novel and while Gauss’s; mathematical theories are sometimes hard to follow (because they are theories), Humbold’s and Bonpland’s particularly intrepid (mis)adventures travelling down the Orinoco both entertaining and shocking. As here:
They came to a pond. Bonpland pulled off his clothes, climbed in, stopped for a moment, groaned, and then sank his full length. The water was full of electric eels.
Three days later Humboldt wrote down the results of their investigation with a numb hand …..
for, of course, he had experiment with himself as the guinea pig for days. So, too, with the ingestion of curare (it was Humboldt who discovered that poisoned arrows work only if the poison hits the blood stream). Luck, good judgement or insanity? Certainly Humboldt felt that the means always justified the end as the rather unfortunate dogs discovered when he decided to observe the hunting skills of the crocodile.
Reputation secured by the South American expedition, Humboldt became a celebrity, fêted by Jefferson in his “eliptically-formed study”. Unfortunately Humboldt was to find this celebrity rather restricting and the subsequent trials during his Russian tour raise many a smile.
Gauss, the undisputed father of mathematics, published his most important work at the age of 21. Was it arrogance or naiveity that prevented him from publishing further discoveries because they were self-evident? He later regretted it when others claimed the discoveries for themselves. Certainly he became a curmudgeon with poor people skills and many domestic difficulties. But what can you expect from a man who declares, rather endearingly to me at least (!), that
it was unfair and unjust …. 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-à-vis the future.
I could pull favourite pieces from almost every page. (My copy has at least a dozen bookmarks in it, and that, after only one reading.) Kehlmann’s novel is both entertainment and education. Next time I stroll round a Humboldtplatz or down a Gauβstraβe I shall know the reasons behind the homage.