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Sunday
Feb262012

Book Reviews

Two (or Three) Views of Time

 

By Noel Mawer

 

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

Pantheon, 1993

 

The Body Artist by Dom DeLillo

Scribner, 2001

 

I can no more think like a physicist that I can walk like an Egyptian. And I fear that many a physicist might have a problem seeing Shakespeare and Milton and Shelley the way an English professor (such as I) or, more to the point, a literary artist would. I have been testing this hypothesis by reading a novel by a physicist, Einstein’s Dreams, by Alan Lightman (1993) and a novel by a novelist, The Body Artist, by Dom DeLillo (2001).

The film critic Pauline Kael once asserted, speaking of Last Year at Marienbad, that “time” cannot be the subject of art. But I don’t recall if she also rejected the artistic rendering of the subjectivity of time that we all experience, for this is what DeLillo does in his novel, which is primarily about the effects of loss and isolation on a recently widowed woman: “There has to be an imaginary point, a nonplace where language intersects with our perceptions of time and space…. But what did she know? Nothing. That was the rule of time. It is the thing you know nothing about.” And, “How much myth do we build into our experience of time?”

 

Yet “[T]ime is the only narrative that matters. It stretches events and makes it possible for us to suffer and come out of it.” In other words, time is the element in which we live and move and have our being, and its evident expansions, contractions, aberrations of all sorts are simply the product of the relative significance of events in our lives. DeLillo, writing in the literary tradition, sees time as this element, this product of our lived lives.

Now this is different from physics. Physics gives us E=mc2--energy, mass, and the speed of light--which makes up the time-space continuum. (Don’t quote me on any of this scientific stuff--I’ll deny I even said it.) Religion, philosophy, poetry: all have their concepts of time and its meaning, and yet, in my many, many years of study in the humanities, and particularly literature, I don’t recall anything about time and space somehow being transmutable, one into the other, or maybe this isn’t the physical principle I think it is.

 

So I read Einstein’s Dreams, wherein a bona-fide physicist takes off from what purport to be Einstein’s thoughts to fashion dozens of dreams about time that Einstein might have had. These imaginings take the form of worlds where time goes slowly for some, faster for others. Or it goes backward. (I think I saw that movie. It had Brad Pitt being born old and getting younger.)

 

Maybe physicists are more evolved than I. I find it only faintly amusing, as well as totally incredible, that one could go from the supposed physical observation that time passes more slowly as one gets farther from the earth to the envisioning of a society where people build their houses on stilts on mountaintops, the better to age more slowly.

Frankly, this book isn’t even very good science fiction. Maybe I don’t get the tone, or I’m missing the point, or even the genre. Swift did this sort of satire much better--if it is satire (of what?). Lightman constructs one scenario after another to ring the changes on the passage of time, none of which seem to me to capture the way people actually experience time, “the thing [which] no one understands” but which “makes and shapes you.” DeLillo I get. As for Lightman, I’ll shelve Einstein’s Dreams somewhere between Monopoly and Pictionary. He has reduced physics to a board game: how many ways can you imagine time passing or not passing?

 

But let me rather leave this with the words of a poet, W.H. Auden:

 

Time can say nothing but ’I told you so.’

Time only knows the price we have to pay.

If I could tell you, I would let you know.

 

Noel Mawer has a Ph.D. in English from Bryn Mawr College and is the author of A Critical Study of the Fiction of Patricia Highsmith: From the Psychological to the Political (Studies in American Literature V. 65 (Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press). She has previously been a book reviewer for Utopian Studies and is the Book Review Editor for Lost Coast Review

 

 

The Only Game in Town

 

By Randall Mawer

 

The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By

By Georges Simenon

New York Review of Books Classic Books, 2005

 

            Some years ago, while passing an agreeable summer in southern California, I discovered, on a bookshelf in the bungalow we were subletting, a dozen or so Inspector Maigret novels by the prolific Georges Simenon.  Looking back, I remember--more clearly than the boat ride to Catalina, the Dodgers game at Chavez Ravine, the chock-a-block bookstores of Pasadena, or the pier at Santa Monica--the atmosphere of those wonderful books, set in Paris and the French countryside, where the imperturbable Maigret inhales beer, rich soups, and pipe smoke while methodically unriddling one interesting crime after another.

 

Not until lately did I hear of the “hard” fictions which Simenon regarded more highly than his ‘tecs.  (Like Graham Greene, he wanted his “novels” strictly segregated from his “entertainments.”)  One of the former is The Man Who Watched the Trains Go By (1938), the tale of a hyper-conventional Dutch businessman, Kees Popinga (!), who backs into a crime and, fleeing, discovers disreputable talents which enable him to hide out in the Paris underworld.

 

Having just read Noel Mawer’s take on Camus’ fiction (see the last Lost Coast), I was ready to regard Trains as an existentialist parable:  Popinga will face up to the absurdity of his expectations and pretensions, like a hero out of Hemingway, Sartre, or Hitchcock (see North By Northwest), meanwhile digging down to bedrock truths about life, especially the essential post-Kierkegaardian mandate that the only salvation lies in making your own rules, however arbitrary, and sticking to them.

 

It won’t do, though.  No Cary Grant or Richard Kimball, the fugitive Popinga is every bit as conformist as ever.  It’s only the particular conventions that have changed, not the man, now French demi-mondaine rather than Dutch puritan but nonetheless in thrall to a firm code not of his own devising.  In a crisis, he vents the most simplistic existentialist cri de coeur:  “He, at least, had played the game!”

 

            This from the same man who, having murdered without remorse an innocent woman, condemns the French for having too good a time on Christmas Eve.  (Doesn’t anyone here go to midnight mass?)

 

            Simenon’s satire diminishes not at all the delight which we, if not the narcissistic Kees, may take in the worlds he visits—the bars and night trains, the cheap hotels, the criminal hide-outs—or the people he meets—the prostitutes, the cabbies and waiters and flower girls, the thieves, the beat cops.  We are permitted to have it both ways, smiling at Popinga’s evasions and hypocrisies while appreciating what he does not:  the devotion of his wife and daughter, the courtesy of strangers, the zest of tabloid reporters, the sheer plod of police officers, men like Inspector Maigret if otherwise named, whom Popinga, and perhaps Simenon himself, undervalues. 

 

Randall R. Randall Mawer is Poetry Editor of Lost Coast Review.  His Sycamore and Other Poems was published in 2000 by Writer’s Club Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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