Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman – a review
One minute before the end of the world, everyone gathers on the grounds of the Kunstmuseum. Men, women, and children for a giant circle and hold hands. No one moves. No one speaks. It is so absolutely quiet that each person can hear the heart-beat of the person to his right or his left. This is the last minute of the world. In the absolute silence a purple gentian in the garden catches the light on the underside of its blossom, glows for a moment, then dissolves among the other flowers. Behind the museum, the needles leaves of a larch gently shudder as a breeze moves through the tree. Farther back, through the forest, the Aare reflects sunlight, bends the light with each ripple on its skin. To the east, the tower of St. Vincent’s rises into sky, red and fragile, its stonework as delicate as veins of a leaf. And higher up, the Alps, snow-tipped, blending white and purple, large and silent. A cloud floats in the sky. A sparrow flutters. No one speaks.
In the space of the week or so that I’ve spent with this little book it has become a firm friend. Lightman is a teacher of physics and writing at MIT and Einstein’s Dreams is his first work of fiction. Ostensibly, technically a novel, it has little plot and concerns itself with the dreams about time Einstein may have had throughout 1905 when he was working as a patent clerk in Berne and formulating , privately, a theory of relativity.
The dreams, thirty of them, are about the possible or impossible shapes of time. We are offered worlds in which time is shifted or altered, skewed in one way or another, perhaps,in some of these vignettes aligning itself more readily with our experience.
We are led through worlds with or without timepieces, where time is a function of circularity, where it is possible to shift from the present to the past, or where time actually flows backwards rather than forwards. We meet characters who only live for one day and others who endure eternity and we share their experiences, their inner responses to the bizarre worlds which they inhabit.
We visit a place where time is frozen; another where time slows with altitude; and yet another where you can gain time by moving faster.
But, as you will have gathered from the extract printed above, Lightman doesn’t just have imagination and ideas. He is also a wordsmith and his book reads and sounds like the finest prose.
I don’t grade these reviews with stars, and books like this one remind me exactly why that is. I’d need a lot more than five stars to grade Einstein’s Dreams. Just go out and get a copy.