Tuesday, July 27, 2010

A Daniel Kehlmann Primer (Measuring the World, Ruhm, usw.)

I discovered German/Austrian writer Daniel Kehlmann's books in an interview with him in a German magazine a few years ago. He sounded intelligent, and he was getting a lot of praise. Luckily for me, his book Die Vermessung der Welt had just been translated into English and published as Measuring the World. I read it immediately, and I found the praise for him was justified.

If you don't know the book yet, I strongly recommend it. When I tell people it concerns two towering figures of the Enlightenment – Carl Friedrich Gauss and Alexander von Humboldt – who embark on a global quest to literally measure the world, I realize it sounds either fanciful or dull. Two scientists measuring distances and quantifying the planet? But it's a beautifully, and cleanly, written book that is funny, smart, and never dull.

The only other book so far released in English by the 35-year-old Kehlmann is Me and Kaminski, which is even funnier. It concerns an unbelievably conceited journalist trying to interview a quirky artist. Again, that brief description does this short novel a great disservice.

Basically, if you have a brain and want to read a first-rate talent (not to mention if you want to read someone who's not just regurgitating the same themes and self-absorption of young American novelists), then I suggest you give Kehlmann's books a try.

I am currently reading the German edition of his still-untranslated first novel, Beerholm's Vorstellung. But I am eagerly awaiting the release of the third translated book this September, Fame (original title, Ruhm). In this video below, Kehlmann talks about Ruhm (sorry, it's in German).

What? You don't read or speak German? Sigh. Well, here's a video that looks like it's a commercial for the translated edition of Kehlmann's recent blockbuster Vermessing Der Welt. The video has text in Chinese (I think). You've simply got to know either German or Chinese to get along in this world. You knew that, right?

It is no surprise to me that his books are being translated around the world. His works are huge bestsellers in Germany, and I hope they enjoy similar success elsewhere. First, because he is such a good writer. Second, because he deals with issues that are of critical importance; he actually makes the Western Enlightenment something that people can see and experience. Perhaps that's possible because he was a philosophy and literature student; but having that knowledge means nothing if you can't make the words say what you want, the way you want.

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