Bookshelf – Einstein’s Dreams, Alan Lightman

What if?

There is hardly a more revolutionary question. All human accomplishment rises from this two-syllable query, both beneficial and malevolent. The seeds of tools, language, art, philosophy, and science always sprout from an imagining of possibility.

In this context, think of young Albert Einstein, on the verge of publishing his famous formula, his mind churning with dreams about “the many possible natures of time.”  What if, he wonders, that unlike our familiar concept of linear time, there are worlds in which “time is a circle, bending back on itself,” or where people live just one day or, the opposite, live forever? What would life be like in such worlds?

In “Einstein’s Dreams,” physicist and novelist Alan Lightman answers that question with short, fantastical scenarios that presume how other versions of time would shape human behavior. In one imagined world, for example, where time advances more slowly at higher altitudes, the wealthy occupy the most vertiginous terrain in order to live longer. In another world, one without future, “each laugh is the last laugh” and “beyond the present lies nothingness (so) people cling to the present as if hanging from a cliff.”

In each tableau, people do what they always do: some conform to the demands of time out of greed or fear or simple acquiescence, others choose their own paths, occupying eddies of tranquility amid the surging river of time. These choices offer meditative lessons for your consideration.

Lest “Einstein’s Dreams,” seem too wonky, I assure you it is not. Lightman writes in spare, entertaining language whose rhythmic nature at times flirts with poetry. It is highly descriptive and fun to read.

Bookshelf — The Man Who Saw Everything, Deborah Levy

Despite being, as the title declares, a man of omniscient vision, Saul Adler manages to live his rather truncated and self-consciously disengaged life without every becoming himself.

From the opening of the book, when Saul is struck by a car on London’s Abbey Road and then hours later kicked out of his girlfriend’s bed after he asks her to marry him, he is a man in flight – fleeing from intimacy, seeking what cannot be had, indulging in pleasures that consort with pain.

A professor of history whose field is the communist countries of Eastern Europe, Saul is a cipher, an androgynous wraith of a man berated by his father and bullied by his older brother for being a “Nancy boy” and told by his girlfriend, “You are much prettier than I am.” His beauty attracts men as well as women, but it alone cannot sustain relationships that wither for lack of emotional commitment. His girlfriend, a photographer, tells him, “You were so detached and absent, the only way I could reach you was with my camera.”

The story begins in 1988, just before the fall of the Berlin Wall – a moment critical to the narrative – and leaps to 2016, when another car accident in the same place (the crosswalk immortalized by the Beatles album cover) sends Adler somersaulting through his memories, a jumble of conflated moments lacking a cogent timeline. His life of flight becomes a free fall.

This is a beautiful book, exquisitely written, and loaded with trenchant dialogue, both spoken and heard through Saul’s introspection. The story is intimate, but not idle. There are many surprises, but Levy delivers them slyly. If you read “The Man Who Saw Everything” looking for the blow of a hammer you will miss the sting of Levy’s stiletto.

Finally, about the ending (without giving it away): the last few pages are among the most moving I’ve ever read, forcing a reader to turn toward a mirror and ask: Who am I?