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Life and times
Novelist-physicist Alan Lightman talks to Sue Wilson about his imaginary excursions through time.
Alan Lightman is one ofthose rare individuals who might justly be described as a Renaissance man. A poet. essayist and scientist. he teaches both physics and writing at the Massachusetts Institute of'l‘echnology. and his first novel. Einstein '5 Dreams. just published here. has been received with rapturous acclaim in the US.
Taking as his framework the fact that in 1905 Einstein was working as a patents clerk in Berne. Switzerland. Lightman has imagined thirty dreams he might have dreamed while working out his theory of time. The dreams are written as a series ofshort tableaux in which vivid. sensual images — the shadows of trees in a full moon. the glow of a purple gentian. the smell ofsmoked beef. a child’s skates clicking on a stone street — are used to depict a semi-magical world where time behaves in strange ways. It is like a flow ofwater. eddying. slowing. quickening; it has three dimensions: it is sticky; it is a perpetual present where memory does not exist; it goes backwards. Weird and
wonderful ideas. which Lightman approaches with l
beautiful. almost child-like wonder. imagining what ordinary life in a small Swiss town in 1905 would be like. how human actions and exchanges
would be. if time worked in these different ways. ‘I wanted the dreams to suggest the creative aspect ofscience.’ Lightman says. ‘When scientific ideas are emerging. before they become distilled in an equation. that period ofcmergence in the scientists mind is very similar to the artistic process. in which many different possibilities are explored. l resisted the idea ofmaking it a scientific book: instead I used each initial hypothesis as a way to explore the human condition.‘ And so. in a world where time is fixed. predetermined. there is no satisfaction in achievements and no sense of personal responsibility. Where everyone is immortal. people are divided into the Laters — those who
endlessly plan what they will do with their endless
time — and the Nows. who rush around trying to do :
Much in the book seems oddly familiar. since Lightman is drawing not only on theoretical approaches but ‘the many different psychological manifestations oftime‘ — the way time can go quickly or slowly. even stand still: deja vu; the desire to capture a moment forever; a feeling of immortality. or the sense that time is limited and precious. In this way. Einstein ‘5 Dreams forges links between subjective experience and the rarefied world of theoretical physics. pursuing Lightman‘s larger goal of building bridges between the often mutually hostile worlds of arts and science.
‘We don‘t treat people as whole human beings; that‘s one concern.‘ he says. explaining why he sees this interdisciplinary communication as so important. "l‘he world has become more and more specialised. with more and more different areas in which people work. more and more categories. Though this has enabled rapid progress in certain areas. it's also had the negative effect of splitting us off from one another. sometimes even from ourselves. I think we need to recapture some sense ofwholcness. the ability to communicate across these narrow categories. to think in broad terms. I do see some signs of improvement - we're being forced to cross the divides in our thinking by things like genetic engineering. weapons of mass destruction. environmental problems. Also. some ofthe questions coming out of theoretical physics and cosmology are deeply philosophical — the birth ofthe universe. for example. But I think the frontiers ofscience have always had strong philosophical overtones: what's different now is that more ofthe public is learning about these developments. and that enriches the discussion.‘ Einstein '3 Dreams is published by Bloomsbury at
_ Latin lovers
Cecile Pineda is a short, ebullient woman; a small ball of (hyper) activity which is amply reflected in her latest novel, The Love Queen of the Amazon. It is the story of Ana Magdalena, born into an impoverished Peruvian family, brought up by nuns and expelled from the convent for losing her clothing while saving a fellow student from drowning.
This inadvertent nudity sets the agenda forthe rest ofAna Magdalena’s life. She marries an eminent man of letters whom her family supposes to be immensely wealthy, but who turns out to be hopelessly in debt and years behind with his latest book. Finding herself in charge of the household while he locks himself away in his room to write, she discovers an innate ability to give herself and men , immense sexual pleasure, and spends ‘ more and more time in her great-aunt‘s
Cecile Pineda: “there are elements of my own character that play way past bedtime.‘
So how much of Ana Magdalena's character derives from Pineda’s? ‘I will I never lose my innocence and my sense
of fun and play, which is both very good and very bad,’ she reflects rather seriously, adding, with a guffaw far largerthan she is, ‘but there are elements of my own character that play way past bedtime. Ana Magdalena certainly enjoys herself; she loves money and she loves lying — in that sense she is a fiction writer. There is something innocent about her, but it is her very innocence which allows her to take the terrific chances she does.’
Pineda began her literary career in the late 603, when she founded a San Fransisco-based theatre company specialising in original works devised through the rehearsal process. After twelve years of theatrical creation, around the time that Reagan ‘assumed imperial powers', she turned to solitary writing. Her first three novels are more serious works; the third, as yet unpublished, being ‘about the fact that we live with the mythology of total annihilation.‘ The Love Queen was started because she needed to make herself laugh.
And it is an amusing book, full of myths and legends, picaresque and
wiitten in magical-realist style. ‘A lot of the anecdotes in the book are stories that my father told me when l was little,’ Pineda says. ‘I have a Mexican
; family, and you don’t need any magical realism in Mexico: people are
magically real, or realistically magic, orunrealistically magic, and my family is no exception. They are most amazing people, they live extremely prosaically, but in their manner of being and in the extraordinary, almost legendary, proportions of their personal lives they are magic.‘
There is, however, a darker side to the novel, as the forces of extortion exert their destructive influence on Ana Magdalena. ‘I wanted to address the age of corruption, because I think we are right in bed with it,‘ says Pineda, remarking darkly on the daisy-chain of corruption between war, big business and politicians. ‘I wanted to show the whole world as a whore house.‘ (Thom Dibdin)
The Love Queen of the Amazon is published by Hamish Hamilton at
'l'he—List 2‘)January— l 1 February WV} 65