From Publishers Weekly
Loosely based on the lives of 19th-century explorer Alexander von Humboldt and a contemporary, mathematician Carl Friedrich Gauss, Kehlmann's novel, a German bestseller widely heralded as an exemplar of "new" German fiction, injects musty history with shots of whimsy and irony. Humboldt voyages to South America to map the Orinoco River, climb the Chimborazo peak in Ecuador and measure "every river, every mountain and every lake in his path." Gauss is the hedgehog to Humboldt's fox, leaping out of bed on his wedding night to jot down a formula and rarely leaving his hometown of Göttingen. The two meet at a scientific congress in 1828, when Germany is in turmoil after the fall of Napoleon. Other luminaries appear throughout the novel, including a senile Immanuel Kant, Louis Daguerre and Thomas Jefferson. The narrative is notable for its brisk pacing, lively prose and wry humor (curmudgeonly Gauss laments, for instance, how "every idiot would be able to... invent the most complete nonsense" about him 200 years hence), which keenly complements Kehlmann's intelligent, if not especially deep, treatment of science, mathematics and reason at the end of the Enlightenment. (Nov.)
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*Starred Review* In 1828, scientist-explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) summons the great mathematician Carl Gauss (1777-1855) to join his party to Berlin, where he is to be feted before embarking on an expedition across Russia to the Urals. The perpetually testy Gauss, whose great trial in life is that everyone else thinks so slowly, which makes virtually any kind of human interaction infuriatingly boring for him (though he does fancy a fine young figure), would go back to sleep, but his wife, Minna, whom he barely tolerates, rousts him out and gets him on the road with youngest son Eugen. They no sooner arrive at Humboldt's mansion than Kehlmann diverges to recap his two principals' lives and careers in chapters alternately concerned with globe-trotting aristocrat Humboldt and genius-from-the-gutter Gauss, who willingly leaves home only to earn a living and escape Minna. The uncomfortable humor of being, in Gauss' case, too brilliant (he frequently bemoans having to live before the innovations he foresees can be constructed or even understood); in Humboldt's, too focused (he scrupulously abjures whole theaters of human experience to concentrate on measuring), suffuses Kehlmann's heady historical novel, which may especially delight science-fiction connoisseurs. Ray Olson
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