Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Book Review Club - The Other Einstein

The Other Einstein
Marie Benedict
Historical Fiction

To review or not to review - The Other Einstein. I've got serious reservations about the story told in these pages. Reviewing it gives the work press (teeny tiny press, but press). I don't know if that's a good thing. At the same time, the reason I have such reservations is based in a dilemma all authors at one time or another face - ethical boundaries to truth stretching. Given the current climate in the United States, maybe it's a dilemma worth revisiting, if for no other reason than to foster healthy dialogue.

But we'll get there. First, the premise.

The Other Einstein is an historical tale told around Albert Einstein's first, wife, Mileva Maric. Maric was a brilliant physicist who met Albert while they were both physics students at university in Zurich. Accounts vary as to whether she actually tutored him to help him get into the school, or was "just" his love interest. While Albert managed to pass the rigorous exams and earn his PhD, Mileva got pregnant with their first child, out of wedlock (early 1900s), flunked her exams, twice, thus never completing her degree. This fictional account begins when Mileva travels to Zurich to begin university, and ends with the couple's divorce. It is told in epistolary form.

Many of the facts about Mileva's life are lost to history. Historians aren't even sure what happened to their first child, a daughter, Lieserl. She disappears from Mileva's life within the first two years after her birth. They don't know for certain what role Mileva played in Albert's academic work. Some posit she was a collaborator and/or the mathematical brains behind his theories, including the theory of special relativity.

And it is at exactly that juncture - Mileva's role in Albert's work - that Benedict begins to dance on the boundaries of ethics, especially for an academic. [Confession: My first career was as an academic. I have a PhD in poli sci.] There is truly nothing worse for someone who spends her life working on theory and discovering new aspects of the world to have recognition of said work stolen. Benedict writes into her story that, while they collaborated on a number of papers, Albert stole Mileva's ideas, that the theory of special relativity was hers. He had the academic title and thus took the work and all the credit, even the ensuing Nobel Prize.

Benedict states in the Afterward that there is no proof of any sort of role Mileva may have taken on in Albert's research, but why not take the supposition to its ultimate possibility - Albert stole her ideas. It's a hefty lie, and while fiction, even its lies require justification.  Which brings up all sorts of questions:

1. Is the lie really necessary to create a riveting tale? Mileva's story is already fraught with personal handicaps (both physical, and given the time period, gender-related), loss & grief (of a child & a second son with a mental illness), grief (of her marriage and failed career), disaster (see all of the above), heartbreak (divorce).

What does adding fictional fuel to the already massive bonfire that became the Einsteins' unhappy union do for the story? Why paint Albert Einstein as such a louse? He divorced his wife to marry his cousin. It's bona fide, juicy NONfiction scandal. He create a cruel list of demands if they were to stay married that turned Mileva into his servant. He was unfaithful. Some researchers have found evidence he beat Mileva (also a facet Benedict includes in her story). Isn't that enough? How does making him seem an unforgivable, unethical thief add to this tale? When does too much thrill begin to do harm?

2. What effect does the lie have on fact? So little is known about Mileva Maric. This may be the only book many will read about her, and it skews the facts we do know. How many readers will scour the libraries, talk with academics, spend hours on the internet to learn the truth? And how many will simply write off Albert Einstein as a brute of the worst sort?

3. Which gets at my final and most soul-searching question: what responsibility do we writers have to the truth in our fiction, especially when that truth is so heavily laden with its own ghosts and trauma? When is weaving lies from truths to make story going too far?  Sure, we do it all the time. Every good lie has an element of truth. Every damn fine story does too. But how far can we go? When have we gone too far?

Clearly, ethical boundaries are ever shifting, and dependent on more than one variable. And a writer's first responsibility is to the work. She is supposed to kill her darlings, write as if she has a knife to her throat, entertain her reader, hell, keep them on the edge of their seats, but sometimes, the truth is more than up to the task, and sometimes the lie, while entertaining, does harm that cannot be undone. And that leaves me wondering: when does the lie become intolerable, even for fiction?

For more fascinating Fall reads, head over to Barrie Summy's website. She's got a bushel full.

6 comments:

Linda McLaughlin said...

Great review, and I share your concerns. I've been reading a book called Wired for Story by Lisa Cron about how the human mind is hard-wired for story, how we use stories to learn. After reading even a little of the book, I realized how much power authors have, and I've been pondering our responsibilities to our readers ever since. In most fiction, where everything is made up, it's not such an issue, but in historical fiction, where real life people become characters, I think it's especially important to be responsible to the facts and up front with readers. I don't have an answer, but I certainly share your concerns. I was quite unhappy with Deborah Harkness's decision to cast Kit Marlow as one of the villains in her book, Shadow of Night (second in the All Souls Trilogy.) I loved everything else about the book, but not what she did to Marlow. And that was fantasy!

And in these days when some people think "alternative facts" are okay, we do have a dilmma on our hands. Thanks for the thoughtful review.

Stacy Nyikos said...

Thank YOU for your thoughtful comments. I really appreciate them.

Helen Pyne said...

A fascinating and thought-provoking review. I have to confess it makes me want to read the book. But given the state of our world today, I believe one of the most important things we can do is listen (or read) very carefully and then ask the kind of questions you posed like "How far can we go?" and "When have we gone too far?" Love that you're not afraid to grapple with tough topics!

Stacy Nyikos said...

Thanks, Helen! Honestly, if you want to learn more about Mileva Maric, I'd suggest the mockumentary that National Geographic did on Albert Einstein, an 10 part mini-series featuring Geoffrey Rush. They do a fair and interesting portrayal of Mileva, which was what sparked my appetite to learn more. This book doesn't really fill in any details that are missing in the mini-series and it's so skewed from fact I am not sure I'd recommend reading it. It's a huge time suck because you have to do so much work to figure out what's fact and what's not.

Sarah Laurence said...

Excellent review! I too have degrees in Poli Sci, which might be why I always love your critical analysis. I think historical fiction needs to be extra careful with the truth, especially when creating alternative facts based on scarce evidence, especially in this Trump era. I prefer fictional characters in a true setting for historical fiction. I often avoid that genre because I don't like muddled facts.

Barrie said...

Wow. Tough questions. And what a dilemma....how much of the truth does a writer obscure in order to get a better fictional story? I wonder what would happen if the author added an afterward detailing where she took liberties. That would help, I think. Thank you for reviewing. So interesting to get your thoughts on a book quite a bit off the beaten path.