Jean-Claude Carrière: Einstein's scriptwriter

The screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière has worked on some of the great classics of our time. He tells Peter Forbes why he turned his gaze to science and the stars
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The Independent Culture

It was Albert Einstein who dethroned our naive ideas about space and time, introducing us to a universe in which they are warped and distorted by heavy objects and anything travelling close to the speed of light. So it is a nice conceit to think of Einstein himself as inhabiting for ever his own personal space-time, a realm in which he can still - 50 years after his death and 100 years after his annus mirabilis of discoveries - answer questions on his theories and converse with Newton. This is Einstein as the Time Lord of Relativity or, less grandly, the master of a Lewis Carroll-ish wonderland in which the language spoken is usually Jabberwocky to our ears.

This is the thinking behind Jean-Claude Carrière's new book, Please Mr Einstein (Harvill Secker, £12.99; translated by John Brownjohn). Carrière, a vigorous 75-year-old with a classic Gallic beard and doleful-eyed countenance, is one of the world's most illustrious screenwriters: Buñuel's collaborator for 18 years, with Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, and That Obscure Object of Desire under his belt, plus other classics including Louis Malle's Milou en Mai. He adapted the Mahabharata for Peter Brook's original French production in 1985, later translated by Brook and performed in England.

So what strange twist of space-time brought such an artist to Einstein? "I had a classical education," he tells me, "without any contact with science - it wasn't chic at the time. But when I was almost 50, I felt that something was missing in my life. I had the vague feeling that I was missing out on the greatest advances of the mind in the 20th century. In other words, I was going to die an idiot. I had vaguely heard about quantum mechanics, but at 47 I didn't know the difference between a neutron and a proton."

In the course of his travels as a screenwriter, he met the Canadian astrophysicist Hubert Reeves, who introduced him to two French colleagues, Michel Cassé and Jean Audouze. "We got along very well," he explains. "It was the time when I working on the Mahabharata. So I invited them to see our work. And they invited me to see their work. I went to see the Astrophysics Institute in Paris. And we decided... that I would go and see them once a week."

It was the ideal pedagogic situation. "I had lots of stories to tell them. Myths, legends, the origins of art, desires and dreams. On the other hand, they had a lot to teach me. It was blackboard teaching. For once there was one student and two teachers, and teachers who didn't always agree!" One of Carrière's mentors was an Einsteinian, the other inclined to Einstein's rival theorist Niels Bohr.

The result of the tutorials was a collaborative book called Conversations on the Invisible. Another collaborative physics book followed. "Then, about two or three years ago, I thought: why couldn't I write a book by myself? I love collaboration, but from time to time I write books by myself... So my idea was to write a book about Einstein without using any mathematics or scientific symbols."

Carrière was inspired by the fact Einstein himself had tried many many times to explain in simple words what he was working on: "You know that he answered all the letters that he received in his life - people were always trying to convince him that he was wrong. So the fact that Einstein himself tried to explain his science was a real encouragement to me."

Despite his reputation as the man who turned space and time inside out, Einstein was a realist. "God does not play dice with the world," he famously said - a phrase that has caused some confusion because Einstein was not a believer. It was a metaphoric shorthand for the guiding principle of the universe.

As a screenwriter, Carrière knew that the book had to be anchored somehow and, Sophie's World-style, he made the book hang around an anonymous girl who approaches Einstein: "You said that time doesn't exist so I decided to take your word for it." According to Carrière, "These simple lines gave me the key. Without this phrase maybe I wouldn't have written the book." And, paradoxically, all of the time-travelling action takes place in a single room: "You have a room with a door. You open the door and you can be whenever and wherever you want to be. You can be among the stars."

Ah, the stars! It is one of the least-known great scientific discoveries that the spectrum of the stars proves that the chemical elements within them are the same as those on earth, and Carrière is fascinated by the fact that when we discovered the unimaginable vastness of the universe, we also discovered our kinship with the stars. "Apparently the universe has gone very far from us, but at the same time we discovered that we are made of the same stuff. So, going away and coming back - I love that movement".

One of the delights of Please Mr Einstein is that, although Carrière clearly reveres Einstein, he doesn't have an embarrassing attitude of prostration before genius. Carrière presents Einstein as a reluctant prophet who just wanted to get on with his work and who despised the celebrity nonsense that dogged him: "He hated to be called a prophet. When he went to Japan huge crowds followed him in the streets in silence. He was the one who knew the secrets of the universe."

In the space-time-warp of this book, the two greatest physicists in history can meet and argue. Newton is distressed that Einstein has ruined his tidy universe. As Carrière puts it, "Newton thought that space was an empty box into which God had placed the stars". At the time, Newton's system seemed so soothingly rational, so much a vindication of the human striving for order, that his distress on learning of Einstein's partial demolition job on his theories is understandable.

Carrière's Einstein project has fulfilled several goals. It has ensured that he won't (on his own reckoning) die an idiot, and a conscious purpose was "to seduce young people into science". And it has hardly dented his prolific film work. He is currently working with Milos Forman on Goya's Ghosts, due this year.. But the most famous of Carrière's many collaborations with illustrious directors was his 18 years of working with Luis Buñuel.

So close was their method of working that Carrière "wrote" Buñuel's autobiography for him in pretty much the same way that they worked on the films. Buñuel didn't like to write: in his foreword to Buñuel's selected writings, An Unspeakable Betrayal, Carrière says: "That task fell to his scriptwriter... who by night was charged with giving form to notes - frequently disordered, if not incoherent - taken during daytime improvisations. On the following morning we would read over these drafts together." And now Carrière is Einstein's amanuensis.

Carrière is a benign and patient man whose interest in time spans not only the cosmic dimension of the universe but also the management of personal time. For some years he was a Buddhist and he retains an unflustered serenity. One of his time-management tricks is to write into his diary an afternoon or even a day with appointments with himself. The Hindu epic the Mahabharata is one of his greatest projects, and his interest in India is deep. He applauds that country's recent burgeoning development: "I'm not nostalgic for the old, poor India."

One of Carrière's early jobs was cartooning, and he has a deeper than average interest in the current world controversy: "I have two reactions: first, of course it's a pity to see this hysterical reaction from a small part of the Muslim community... These people are so frustrated from centuries of emptiness... They are paralysed by a book; they should venerate the Koran and put it in a place somewhere, close the drawer and get on with their work, live their lives."

In Please Mr Einstein, Carrière addresses the responsibility of science in general, and Einstein in particular, for the tragedies of the 20th century, especially the bomb. Carrière's Einstein is certain that human beings in the 20th and 21st century are no worse or better than they have ever been; science has certainly given us new means of creating mayhem, but such knowledge has always presented us with moral dilemmas. Carrière's humane sensibility makes him the ideal man to humanise Einstein, a man who was "a victim of his own genius".

Peter Forbes's 'The Gecko's Foot: Bio-inspiration - Engineered from Nature' is published by Fourth Estate


Jean-Claude Carrière was born in Combières-sur-Orbes in 1931. After writing one novel, Le Lezard (1957), he was commissioned to novelise Jacques Tati's films. As a screenwriter, he has worked with many directors, including Luis Buñuel, Louis Malle, Andrej Wajda and Milos Forman. His films include Belle de Jour (1967), The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988), and Milou en Mai (1990). He translated the Hindu epic the Mahabharata for the stage with Peter Brook in 1985. In 2000, he was one of four writers included in Conversations about the End of Time (Penguin), with Stephen Jay Gould, Umberto Eco and Jean Delumeau. He lives in Paris with his Iranian wife.