Monday, 15 February 2010

Living with the dead

A few years ago I wrote a biography of Einstein. In fact, it was half anthology and half biography, being a collection of Einstein's bon mots on myriad different topics, set in a roughly but not entirely chronological account of his life. Now I am writing six science biographies, this time for children, and beginning again with Einstein.

Writing a biography is a strange process, something akin to starting a love affair if it goes well and you hit it off with your biographee. It begins with some cautious exploration. Could this be someone you can really like? He looks interesting enough. (I will stick with the masculine, it being Einstein.) As you learn more, you become entranced, and then even obsessed. Soon, I was eager to get back to him in every spare moment that could be stolen from domestic responsibilities and other work. It was a deep pleasure to discover every foible, every quirk of character. I spent far longer than was sensible researching every esoteric detail I could find. I stalked him shamelessly around the web and around the University Library. I kept the first edition of the General Theory of Relativity on my dining table for six weeks. His idiosyncracies - and he had many - became endearing. Character traits that other people might find irritating or alienating raised a wry smile and a feeling of familiarity and tolerance. Sometimes he would retreat into areas I didn't understand. Sometimes he didn't want to reveal anything I could work with. He could be frustrating and sometimes downright annoying. But his appeal did not diminish and the more I came to know him the more I felt he was mine. I learned to relax with him, to accept the bits I didn't understand and just work round them. He was my daily companion who understood everything I was doing, a rare treat for a writer whose work is usually solitary.

But then I came to the end of the book and, reader, I killed him. The worst part of writing a biography is that your character dies - and it is a terrible shock. The months you have put into knowing and loving him, showing him off to other people and doing your best by him as far as you can, only store up pain for the day you have to write his death. Of course I knew when I started that Einstein was dead. So in one way it's nothing like a love affair, for a love affair is nourished by its sense of the future, and my relationship with Einstein was doomed from the start. I didn't have to agonise about what I had done, and whether if I'd done things differently it could have turned out better. It was never going to be any different.

Einstein was a determinist, so he would have liked this conclusion. He believed (as many physicists do) that everything was fixed by the laws of science and we live in the illusion of freewill because it is essential to survival. I willfully ignored his inevitable death and frolicked with freewill, enjoying the moment. And his death hit me hard. 'He died!' I would say, shocked, to friends who asked about the book and how it was going. So maybe it is still like a love affair after all. We love - and write - knowing death will come, and not holding back. And now I'm writing about him again. Will it be like returning to an old lover, starting a new affair but with the benefit of established love and comfort? Or will his magic have gone? Maybe he won't excite me any more and I'll just be anxious to get him out of the way and move on to my next great scientist. I hope not. But I have learnt to write the death scene first. My heart has become cautious, with regard to biographees.


Penny Dolan said...

Great post, Ms Stroppy! Over the last while, I've been reading around several great men (usually they are men, and usually involved in the arts or theatre) and I am always fascinated by the cost of their drive and/or genius to themselves and to all the others around them. Glad your Einstein affair was a happy one!

Katherine Langrish said...

Do you know, I always find this when reading biographies. They die. Always the minor chord. Yet autobiographies are often unsatisfying for the same reason - they are incomplete (unless the author has managed to make them be about something else really, like Goodbye to All That or Memoirs of a Foxhunting Man'.)
I had never thought of the impact on the biographer, though - no wonder you feel it worse!

Nick Green said...

I must read that. Einstein fascinates me. I read the view of one physicist that the Theory of Special Relativity was something that another scientist might have come up with, given another fifty years... it had a logic to it. But that the Theory of General Relativity was so 'out there' that there was no guessing who else, if anyone, would ever have conceived of it.

Stroppy Author said...

Yes, Nick, it's interesting to ponder the 'what if there wasn't Einstein...' I do it especially with Newton, as he was expected to die the day he was born, and the priest prepared him for it. How different would the world be? How much longer would it have taken?

Lucy Coats said...

*sigh* I am such a science ignoramus and know a lot less than I should about Einstein and Darwin and all those. Don't know why I've never investigated, as am fascinated by other people's lives (nosy, you might want to call it), and I'd love to find out the men behind the physics or equations or giant tortoises etc. I can imagine that the 'dying fall' at the end must be a bit of a trauma to write--so sensible to get it over with and save the nice bits. Much like sugarlumps after vile banana antibiotics when a child.