This is the first of the reviews of some of my favourite books (see Revisiting Old Favourites).
What if time flowed in a different way from the one we know and we are used to? What if it circled in on itself, so we relived our lives endlessly without ever knowing it? What if it moved in fits and starts? What if you could travel back into the past or make three different decisions, each one simultaneously in different worlds?
In this book, Alan Lightman imagines the way a young Einstein would see time. He uses as foundation Einstein’s early years, when he was a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland, and where he wrote some of his most ground-breaking papers.
But the bulk of this book is about the different permutations that time can take and the worlds they create. It makes you really think about how time works. We know that it is relative: it rushes by when you are late for a train, moves like molasses when you’re waiting to meet your lover; when you were a child, five minutes was long and summers went on forever, but as you get older, the years fly past.
The worlds Lightman creates here are myriad: time travellers to the past lurk in corners, afraid to affect events in case they change the future. A man decides not see a woman again because she is too manipulative; in another world, he goes back to her; and in a third, he goes to see her but nothing comes of it. All of these events take place simultaneously. (Reminds me of an episode of Red Dwarf, where Rimmer meets another version of himself from another dimension.)
There is the world where time moves fitfully and people get occasional glimpses into the future, which guides their actions. A woman sees where her son will live and moves there. In another world, time moves slowly for those who move quickly, everyone rushes from place to place, dodging buildings that are on wheels. No one sits and reads book anymore. In yet another, time flows slower the higher you live so people build houses on the top of mountains on stilts and look down on those living in the valleys. Or the one where people only live for a day, so they never see the change of seasons and are bewildered by the change from day to night or night to day. A lifetime of 24 hours means you never get to know anyone. An old man looks back at his past. “His life is scattered in fragments of conversation, forgotten by fragments of people. His life is divided into hasty episodes, witnessed by few.”
This is a dreamlike book, and Lightman’s writing is lyrical. Take this description of day breaking in the patent office where Einstein is working:
“All that can be seen at this moment are the shadowy shapes of the desks and the hunched form of the young man. … Minute by minute, new objects gain form.Here, a brass wastebasket appears. There, a calendar on the wall. Here, a family photograph, a box of paperclips, an inkwell, a pen. There a typewriter,a jacket folded on a chair. … Outside, the tops of the Alps glow in the sun. It is late June. A boatman on the Aare unties his skiff and pushes off, letting the current take him along Aarstrasse to Gerbenstrasse, where he will deliver his apples and berries.”
Or this passage, set in a world where time goes backwards. A man scatters dust on his friend’s grave, but he is not sad. He looks forward to his friend becoming stronger. “He waits longingly for a particular day he remembers in the future when he and his friend will have sandwiches on a low flat table, when he will describe his fear of growing old and unloved and his friend will nod gently, and the rain will slide down the glass of the window.”