THIS book contains 30 brief fictional dreams. All are about time, and all are dreamt by Albert Einstein in Berne, in the spring and early summer of 1905, as he works on his paper 'On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies' and proceeds inefficiently towards the special theory of relativity. Some contain distorted traces of his discoveries. In one dream, people live up mountains and build their houses on stilts, having discovered that time flows relatively more slowly as one moves further from the centre of the earth. In another, banks, factories and houses are all motorised and constantly on the move, for time is money and slows down as you accelerate, so the faster you go the more you have.
Each dream presents a world. In one, human beings live for a day; in others, they live forever, or prepare for the end of the world, fall into the past, get stuck in time, know the details of their future in advance, or have no grasp of the future at all. Time in its turn speeds up, slows down, flows fitfully, curls and puddles, reverses, freezes, splits into several streams. It does everything that rivers and VCRs can do and more. It is space- like, three-dimensional, moves at different rates in different places, becomes causally irresponsible, ignores the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics, and travels in a perfect circle.
The idea seems good, but Alan Lightman does not know how to exploit it. He moves messily through the possibilities and impossibilities, proliferating distinctions without differences and rotating a severely limited stock of image types. He presents himself as a sensitive collector of precious particularities, and some of them come off. But his close observation is somehow fraudulent. It shows no real concern for detail. His delicacies are coarse in conjunction - women in silks, tremulous flowers, Alpine sunsets.
Lightman is at his most characteristic in his description of a world in which there is no time, a world of stills:
An osprey framed in the sky, its wings outstretched, the sun rays piercing its feathers. A young boy sitting in an auditorium, his heart racing as if he were on stage (timeless?). Footprints in snow on a winter island . . . Dew on leaves, crystal, opalescent. A mother on a bed, weeping, the smell of basil in the air . . . A worn book lying on a table beside a dim lamp. The white on water as a wave breaks, blown by wind. A woman lying on her couch with wet hair, holding the hand of a man she will never see again.
The style is very mannered, but it is not pretentious. A tolerant reader, having acclimatised to the prettiness, and having overcome the temptation to associate each image with a body lotion, a beer or a building society, may be able to see why Salman Rushdie judged the book to be 'so very beautifully written'. The real problem is that Lightman's failings typify those of the members of the sentimentalist school of painting described by Rilke in his Letters on Cezanne: 'They painted 'I love this' instead of painting 'Here it is',' as Cezanne did.
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