Don’t be fooled by the cover claiming this to be a novel. It has no plot, no characters aside from Einstein himself and his friend Besso, who are featured in a series of brief interludes. The bulk of this short book comprises a series of vignettes only 2-3 pages long, each shaped by Einstein’s ruminations on various possible natures of time.
Time as we know it is linear, always moving forward, unstoppable, unswerving. But what if that were not so? What if time were not continuous, but stopped and started at intervals? What if it flowed backwards? How would these changes to time change our lives? What would be the experience of love? Death? Moments of sadness or joy? These are the questions that propel the scenes. Suppose, as author Alan Lightman does in one of the first vignettes, that time is a circle, bending back on itself, repeating precisely, without end:
For the most part, people do not know they will live their lives over. Traders do not know they will make the same bargain again and again. Parents treasure the first laugh from their child as if they will not hear it again. Lovers making love the first time undress shyly, show surprise at the supple thigh, the fragile nipple. How would they know that each secret glimpse, each touch, will be repeated again and again, exactly as before?
Lightman offers several glimpses into this world. A shopkeeper who goes about his day unaware of how many times he will sell the same sweater to the same customer. A woman who cannot know as she kisses her dying husband that “she will meet him again in the library in Fribourg and go sailing with him again in Thun Lake on a warm day in July.”
But there are exceptions:
Some few people in every town, in their dreams, are vaguely aware that all has occurred in the past. These are the people with unhappy lives, and they sense that their misjudgments and wrong deeds and bad luck have all taken place in the previous loop of time. In the dead of night these cursed citizens wrestle with their bedsheets, unable to rest, stricken with the knowledge that they cannot change a single action, a single gesture. Their mistakes will be repeated precisely in this life as in the life before, and it is these double unfortunates who give the only sign that time is a circle. For in each town, late at night, the vacant streets and balconies fill up with their moans.
In another vignette, time radiates outward from a center at which it stands still, and in each circle farther from the center time moves faster and faster. Those who want to experience life, or escape pain, move outward. Inward go new lovers who don’t want to let go of new love, but wish to stay lost in each other’s embrace. Parents travel there so that their child “will never stop smiling the smile she smiles now, will never lose the soft pink glow on her cheeks, will never grow wrinkled or tired, will never get injured, will never think thoughts that her parents don’t know, will never tell her parents that she does not love them…They would rather have an eternity of contentment, even if that eternity were fixed and frozen, like a butterfly mounted in a case.”
In another vignette, time flows backwards.
A man stands at the graveside of his friend, throws a handful of dirt on the coffin, feels the cold April rain on his face. But he does not weep. He looks ahead to the day when his friend’s lungs will be strong, when his friend will be out of his bed and laughing, when the two of them will drink ale together, go sailing, talk. He does not weep. 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, when the rain will slide down the glass of the window.
In one of the final vignettes, in which time is something that can be caught like light between two mirrors, a man stands up to play his violin in a room full of books. And as he stands and plays, another version of himself stands and plays, and another, and another. And the music of all these men bounces back and forth between them, as do their thoughts.
He feels himself repeated a thousand times, feels his thoughts repeated. Which repetition is his own, his true identity, his future self? Should he leave his wife? What about that moment in the library in the polytechnic? What comfort has she given him? What solitude, besides this hour to play his violin? His thoughts bounce back and forth a thousand times between each copy of himself, grow weaker with each bounce. Should he leave his wife? What comfort has she given him? What solitude? His thoughts grow dimmer with each reflection. What comfort has she given him? What solitude? His thoughts grow dimmer until he hardly remembers what the questions were, or why.
I came across this book many years ago and found it mesmerizing and brilliant, simple and profound. I lent it to the man I talk about here and never got it back. I bought it again recently and have been enjoying it anew.
It hadn’t occurred to me until I sat down to write this how melancholy it is. I tossed out some of the passages I wanted to quote because I realized they might be off-putting to readers not coming across them in context. At the beginning of this post I said the book was heartbreaking, and that I like a little heartbreak in my books. In revisiting the book, and in writing this, I’ve realized it’s also quite existential and godless, which is not a way of looking at things that I agree with at all anymore.
But that’s neither here nor there.
I feel that if a book isn’t worth reading twice, it’s not worth reading once. Einstein’s Dreams, which contains some of the simplest, most achingly beautiful writing I’ve seen, is worth reading many times.
If you like a bit of heartbreak, of course.