A blue gondola cascades gently down a waterway in Venice. It crawls in languor, the afternoon sun immersing it in all its glory. As it rolls along under a stone bridge, Alan Lightman rests on his back, gazing at the blue sky, lost within his mind. He blinks. He finds himself in Bern, Switzerland, 1905, at the zenith of twilight. ‘It is a quiet time of day. Shopkeepers are dropping their awnings and getting out of their bicycles. From a second floor window, a mother calls to her daughter to come home and prepare dinner.’ Just as he sees the two colleagues who are coming home from the Patent Office, he blinks again. He is back at the gondola, but no time has passed. As Lightman imagines Einstein’s Dreams, so do I imagine Lightman’s own.
Such is the distinctive quality of Lightman’s book, Einstein’s Dreams (1992). It does not concern itself with a specific plot; it instead depicts different conceptions of time that appear as dreams to Einstein, who appears at regular intervals with his working partner, Michele Besso. No variation of the different paths time can take is excluded, including such prominent examples as “sticky time”, “mechanical time” and “time in fits and starts”. Lightman eloquently paints each variation with an ethereal and surreal texture. He does not concern us with the scientific possibility and theoretical probability of these wondrous concepts. Instead, he explores the real world implications and human reactions to different timescapes.
In a world where the center of time exists:
‘And so, at the place where time stands still, one sees parents clutching their children, in a frozen embrace that will never let do. The beautiful young daughter with blue eyes and blond hair will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose this pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never unlearn what her parents have taught her, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never know evil, will never tell her parents that she does not love them, will never leave her room with the view of the ocean, will never stop touching her parents as she does now.’
The writing is simple, the images are indelible. A tortured Einstein roams the streets of Bern, formulating his new theory of time, but Lightman pays little attention to his titular character. Instead, through Einstein, he depicts our interaction, infatuation, relationship and obsession with Time as well as our desires and the consequences that spring from it. Snapshots at faceless individuals gaze upon the fragility of human existence, a tale woven with the barest of threads, worn at the edges, glowing in fits and starts, overseen by the tick of the Grand Clock. A proto-Groundhog Day scenario takes place with each chapter, as the citizens of Bern are manipulated under the rules that govern each new concept of time, thus making the city a prominent figure in these vignettes.
As we struggle to control this ever elusive group of nightingales, Lightman forces us to consider the possibilities that emerge from twisting pretzels with the sand of the hourglass. But for Einstein, on an early morning in June 1905, history has not been made, and time moves on.
Einstein statue by maveric2003, CC-BY-2.0