The Russian poet Joseph Brodsky once described prison as a place where there was not enough Space and far too much Time. Although the hours in a day remain as constant as the turning of the Earth, the pace of time varies according to the biology of every living creature, and changes with age even within our own species. This is an experience puzzled over by philosophers, calculated by mathematicians, and analysed by psychologists. Eva Hoffman, one of our most lucid thinkers, explores cosmology and physiology, neuro-science and the deepest reaches of the unconscious in order to probe the nature of this mysterious dimension.
We are unusually privileged to live, at least in the developed world, at a period when human longevity has been amazingly extended. When the ancient world talked of the brevity of life they had in mind an average span of 25 years - though if you made it through the perils of infancy you might expect about 40.
These days an increasing number of people live beyond 80, and succeeding generations may hope to reach a hundred. It could well be the young will come to rebel against the burden put on their shoulders by further advances in medicine. Nevertheless, however we exceed the Biblical span, our time will one day run out, and all our efforts are predicated on that knowledge. Given such impermanence, what significance can we attribute to our exertions? Hoffman sees the prevailing ethos of the late capitalist world bleakly: faith in God replaced by hedonism, moments of pleasure consumed desperately, all of us driven onward by our desires.
After decades of expansion and its spoilages, we no longer find ideas of human perfectibility, or even progress, sustainable. Instead, we are driven, as she puts it, to submit ourselves willingly to rigid schedules, which might have been thought tyrannical in most other places and periods.
Surely this is not quite right? Consider the drudgery of women in ages past, the slaves of Pharaoh, the mill fodder for the Industrial Revolution, the Siberian inhabitants of the Gulag. Many periods in human history come to mind from which people might look on the pressures of our own days as little more than inconveniences. What makes this book so original, however, is the way Hoffman uses the tools of contemporary science to consider these matters; to explore, for instance, the mechanisms that have evolved in our brain, the map euroscience can now draw between our centres of thought and response, the precision of animal adjustment to the rhythms and cycles of the earth. Even questions that might have preoccupied Sir Thomas Browne in his 17th-century Urn Burial - do mice in fact feel as though they live as long as an elephant? Is there a relation between the rate of heartbeat and longevity? - are given a context of contemporary scientific thinking.
Yet her description of our subjective inner world is most arresting. Hoffman is already something of an authority on the differences between the culture of Eastern European countries and the freewheeling West. In this book, she explains the absence of pressure felt by people trapped in a world where change seems unlikely as if it were not altogether a loss. As a consequence, there are acres of time available for introspection or metaphysical speculation. Using Ryszard Kapuszinski's travels too she is able to contrast European time in general with African time, where the "ubiquitous energy-defeating presence" of the sun may lead to the appearance of apathy.
This not an impersonal book. Hoffman writes poignantly about the dystopia in Milan Kundera's novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being. There Sabina chooses exile above her native land and finds a freedom which eventually becomes an unbearable burden, and a loneliness in which nothing any longer matters. At the opening, Hoffman confesses to a lifelong obsession with time. As we go on, it becomes clear that the true subject of this intriguing and highly readable book is the nature of being alive.
Elaine Feinstein's translations of the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva, 'Bride of Ice', are published by Carcanet