Time, Death, and the Perfect Novel

In Jane Tompkins’s Reading Through the Night she offers a lovely description of how she felt after reading a memoir: “And when I finished it, I wanted to read it again. I wanted to remain within the aura of the book. And I wanted to discover why it fascinated me so” (24). Why it fascinated me so–maybe that’s as good a short phrase description as I’ll find of whatever method informs what I’m trying to do. Figuring out why a book so fascinates me may require a form of close reading–asking exactly what happens, exactly where in the text–but this close reading is in the service of a project that Tompkins describes as looking for how a book “could help me live my own life” (33).

I write today wanting to remain within the aura of Daniel Kehlmann’s 2005 novel Measuring the World. It’s an historical novel about the German Enlightenment and the parallel careers of Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Friedrich Gauss. The novel has been much praised and translated, and I needn’t add to that. I want to ask Tompkins’s question, or at least begin to ask it. I’m not a science person. My resolutions to read books about science peter out with depressing consistency. It’s a sort of habitus thing: I just can’t get myself to make it a priority, a choice within a life that requires choosing. So my engagement in a book about two scientists is worth reflection. Kehlmann’s art as a storyteller is to make Humboldt’s and Gauss’s respective obsessions not just credible but habitable: we live within those obsessions–vicarious living at its limit–and very strange choices become more than reasonable. These characters live the only way they could live, and we readers now know that as necessity.

Let me single out two passages that affect me especially. Both can be quoted without spoilers. In the first and briefer, a journalist is interviewing Humboldt’s traveling companion and colleague, Bonpland. “So why,” the journalist asks, “had he remained this man’s collaborator through all these trials, for years on end?” Bonpland thinks of many reasons; the journalist asks for an example. “Well, said Bonpland, he’d simply always wanted to get away from La Rochelle. Then one thing led to another. Time went by so ridiculously fast” (168). The journalist replies that isn’t an answer. For me, it’s exactly the answer; the irreducible answer to most of the why questions about my life. I often wanted to get away from something, not necessarily a place, then one thing led to another, and time has gone by so ridiculously fast. Reading Bonpland’s reply, my life flashes before my eyes. I realize why my father, when he was about my present age, started talking about a sense of the inevitability of decisions in his life. Which, if inevitable, shouldn’t really be called decisions, a word that misses the point Bonpland is making. The journalist wants to hear about decisions. Bonpland has a more subtle understanding,

The second passage is longer. Humboldt, now old and much honoured, concludes an after dinner speech to a collection of dignitaries. For someone obsessed with measurement, he waxes philosophical.

“What, ladies and gentlemen, is death?” Humboldt asks, not rhetorically. “Fundamentally it is not extinction and those seconds when life ends, but the slow decline that precedes it, that creeping debility that extends over years: the time in which a person is still there and yet not there, in which he can still imagine that although his prime is long since past, it lingers yet. So circumspectly, ladies and gentlemen, has nature organized our death” (225).

What backs up these words within the novel is that we see the older Humboldt still very much in the world, doing a great deal, yet increasingly not there. He takes a final trip, collecting plants and minerals across Russia, reaching the Chinese border. At one point his entourage–he now, inevitably, has an entourage–put masks over their faces to protect from the mosquitos. Humboldt doesn’t. “They didn’t disturb him,” Kehlmann writes; “they reminded him of his youth and the months [discovering rivers in South America] when he had felt most alive in his entire existence” (243). When, I ask, was that for me, and how doubtful I am now of feeling that way again. That is what is called old age. Not that it’s a bad way to feel; it’s just another way of feeling, inevitable.

Humboldt is honoured because he went places that others had the excellent good judgment not to go. Gauss went places others could not imagine. I’d like to see one of the many edited volumes on research methods end with a short coda, asking the presumably young reader: So, realize that how you utilize any of these methods will bring success depending on these final questions: exactly how far are you willing to go? What are you willing to sacrifice and suffer for the journey (although if you need time to consider this question, reconsider going)? Above all, must you go? Research, not only science, Kehlmann’s novel reminds me, is what some people must do to feel most alive, and that feeling is the final measure of the research.

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