Please, Mr Einstein

Please, Mr Einstein

by Jean-Claude Carriere

A young woman enters a building in a nameless contemporary European city. She walks into a waiting room where a dozen other people, with briefcases or sheaves of documents are waiting patiently. Shortly afterwards she is requested to go into another room where she meets Albert Einstein who is engaged in trying to figure out the equation that explains the universe.

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A young woman enters a building in a nameless contemporary European city. She walks into a waiting room where a dozen other people, with briefcases or sheaves of documents are waiting patiently. Shortly afterwards she is requested to go into another room where she meets Albert Einstein who is engaged in trying to figure out the equation that explains the universe. He is charmed by her, and agrees to answer her questions. He seems quite used to receiving visitors. Among them, Isaac Newton is certainly the most regular and the most argumentative, desperately trying to prove Einstein wrong.

Einstein and the student discuss his theories as well as his responsibility for the creation of nuclear weapons. He also talks about his personal life, the difficulties of fame, and how his dreams of worldwide peace were shattered. He appears bright, witty, hugely sympathetic but also tormented and dreamy.

This remarkable book makes complex concepts of physics and philosophy accessible to the non-scientific reader in a captivating and utterly charming way.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“In Carrière’s story…undecidability and doubt have leached out of science and into ethics.”
–Lisa Jardine, The Times
Dennis Overbye
… Jean-Claude Carrière comes with some serious mojo as a thinker and writer, having worked with the likes of Peter Brook and Luis Buñuel on films like “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” and “Belle du Jour.” He’s obviously worth risking a few hours with, and I’m happy to report that he far exceeded my meager expectations. Please, Mr. Einstein, unobtrusively translated from the French by John Brownjohn, isn’t so much a novel about physics as it is a novel about how people feel about physics — presumably Carrière, who gives his fictional Einstein all the best lines. Some, in fact, are like open doors you could wander through and never come out of: “Being distrustful of those who persistently deceived us, we developed the habit of also distrusting the night, which enshrouded us, or so we thought, in gloom and illusion. We put our faith in light alone.”
— The New York Times
Publishers Weekly
French screenwriter Carriere (he worked on Belle de Jour and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie) sets out to make the elegant beauty of Einstein's ideas manifest to lay readers in this thin, pleasant novel-dialogue. It is the early 21st century, and a young, nameless student intent on learning more about Einstein finds her way into a mysterious office that houses-Einstein himself, walking and talking, full of generosity and the urge to make his ideas plain. The expected thought-experiments (an elevator with no frame of reference, two trains moving side by side) cover the basics of relativity, but soon the young student presses Einstein, who thought deeply about such questions, to examine the morality of his achievements: could the world after Hiroshima truly be a better place? Carriere's Einstein, like the real one, is decidedly conflicted on the topic, and one of the novel's few dramatic moments comes when the smartest man in the world is unable to provide all the answers. The book offers the certain pleasure of knowing the world better, and, even more important to Carriere, of knowing oneself as one who can understand it. (Nov.) Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
"The time travel that Einstein predicted in his revolutionary physics wonderfully harmonizes with the time travel Carriere delivers through fictional wizardry." —Bryce Christensen
Library Journal
In an unnamed city at an undisclosed time, an anonymous girl walks into an unspecified building to interview Albert Einstein for unclear reasons. This fictional work by French screenwriter Carri re (The Secret Language of Film) then proceeds as a dialog between the girl and the noted scientist, during the course of which Einstein explains his theories and the girl prods him with questions. (In this respect, the book recalls the novelistic popularization of philosophy in Sophie's World.) Einstein muses about his life, including his pro-Semitic activities and his responsibility for the nuclear bomb, though not without first entertaining a lively debate with Sir Isaac Newton, the only other interlocutor in the book. Then, at the end, the whole scene vanishes: Was it only a dream, or a Twilight Zone episode involving time travel? This is less a novel than a simplified treatise on Einstein's works; readers unversed in physics will find it pretty roughgoing at times. Recommended for academic and public libraries as well as for those for whom fiction reading is synonymous with intellectual stimulation. Lawrence Olszewski, OCLC Lib., Dublin, OH Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Einstein made (relatively) simple. There's always a market for a layperson's slim guide to modern science-not to mention Albert Einstein-and this novel by veteran screenwriter Carriere (The Secret Language of Film, 1994) has a few entertaining quirks that set it apart. For one thing, it is indeed fiction, and has a plot: A young woman discovers a building somewhere in central Europe that contains the office of the late theoretical-physicist, who's still hard at work more than 60 years after his death. Einstein's waiting room is stuffed with people eager to consult with him about some theory, business proposal or complaint, among them cranky and insecure Sir Isaac Newton, who's baffled by this business of the space-time continuum, relativity and his successor's heretical notion that God is absent from the universe. The office has numerous doors that open to reveal various pivotal ideas or points of time in Einstein's life. Much of the discussion between Einstein and the young woman takes on the subject of his role in the creation of the nuclear bomb, both passively (by moving science into the realm of the atom) and actively (by helping to draft the letter to President Roosevelt about the Nazis' work on nuclear fission that led to the Manhattan Project). Those conversations occasionally read like dutiful catechisms designed to explain Einstein's key ideas, but more often than not, they bring to life a genuinely charming man. The genius scientist comes across here as genially self-effacing about his celebrity and deeply concerned that he helped engineer humanity's destruction. Best known for his impressionistic scripts for Luis Bu-uel, Carriere here sticks to precise, straightforward prose.A playful yet carefully engineered pop-physics excursion, with a host considerably livelier than most narrators on the Discovery Channel.

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Product Details

Random House UK
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
5.00(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.45(d)

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Let's follow that that girl who's walking down the street. She waits for some cars to go by, then crosses without bothering about the lights.

We're in a Central European city — Prague or Vienna, perhaps, or Munich or Zurich. There's no well-known monument in sight that would enable us to identify the city in question. The weather is quite fine, the time of year indeterminate. It's late afternoon and the shadows are beginning to lengthen. The girl is wearing jeans, flat-heeled black shoes and a blouse. Aged between twenty and twenty-five, she's on the slim side, with an animated face and brisk movements. She's carrying a shoulder bag. We might take her for a student, but a student in her final year.

This, then, is the moment at which we first catch sight of her. We shall never know where she comes from, or what her name is, or what her parents do, or how her life will turn out. We're following her simply because our gaze has lighted on her in the street.

She hears the bell of an approaching tram and skips onto the opposite pavement. The yellow and black tram, which she has failed to see or hear until now, narrowly misses her. It bears the number 17.

She watches it recede, then looks up. Above her she sees a building dating from 1910 or 1920, with a ponderous, rather dreary façade. She takes a crumpled piece of paper from one of the pockets in her jeans and checks the address on it.

Yes, this is the place all right. She goes in.

There's nothing remarkable about the entrance hall. She makes her way along it and up a shadowy flight of stairs whose varnished treads, partly covered by a narrow strip of beige carpet, creak in places. Running her hand up the rather chunky wooden banister rail, she quickly climbs the stairs to the first floor. There, after peering into the gloom for a moment or two, she rings a doorbell.

We don't know exactly what time it is, but in any case, the girl seems quite unconcerned whether it's morning or evening, Monday or Wednesday.

She settles down to wait on the landing, but the door opens almost at once. It's held ajar by a dark, elderly woman in a longish skirt and an old-fashioned blouse trimmed with lace. We can't tell if the lace is handmade (though it's possible).

The woman has a strong, calm face with a prominent nose and pale skin displaying only faint traces of makeup — a kindly enough face for someone who's answering a door. She asks the visitor if she's expected. Does she have an appointment?

'Not really,' the girl replies. 'I had some time to spare, so I came just like that - on the off chance, so to speak. I can come back if necessary. Or wait for as long as I have to.'

'You're sure you've come to the right address?'

'I think so.'

She holds out the piece of paper. The pale-faced woman glances at it. She hesitates briefly, very briefly, then opens the door a little wider and steps aside.

'Come in,' she says grudgingly.


The girl squeezes into the apartment. We follow her.

After making her way through a kind of recess she finds herself in a windowless waiting room where a dozen people, men for the most part, are patiently seated on some nondescript chairs, not all of the same design.

They glance up at the new arrival. As for her, she surveys the room with interest but little surprise before sitting down on the only unoccupied chair. Some of the men are wearing clothes and shoes that look as if they date from the first half of the twentieth century, or the 1950s at latest. They've all taken the trouble to put on ties, though one or two of their rather grubby shirt collars are curling up rebelliously. Their jackets are buttoned. Nearly all of them are holding leather briefcases or bulky folders under their arms or on their laps. Reposing on some of these folders, most of them firmly secured with straps, are felt hats.

Out of the corner of her eye, the girl notes that the majority of the people waiting here are clutching their briefcases and folders tightly, even to the extent of digging their nails into them as if they contain fortunes in paper.

One of them gives a start whenever he hears the muffled hiccups of the central-heating system buried somewhere in the old building's pipework.

Also audible, and emanating from the street, is the sound of trams passing in both directions with bells clanging. But that startles no one. It's like a punctuation mark, an urban cadenza.

One of the waiting men, who had deposited his black briefcase on the floor, propped against the legs of his chair, bent down and retrieved it when the girl came in. As if suddenly afraid of something, some indiscretion or attempt to steal it, he's now clasping it to his chest with both hands.

Another man, seated in the waiting room's only armchair, is a stern-looking individual in a grey wig, quite a long, curly one, which he doesn't attempt to disguise. He's wearing a kind of voluminous, old-fashioned cloak over his street clothes, which appear to be dark, and shoes with silver buckles.

The girl notices these unwonted details without seeming too surprised to find herself with such people in such surroundings. Was she expecting it? We can't tell, not being privy to her thoughts. At all events, she isn't intimidated. She glances at her watch, glances at it again, then peers more closely and shakes her wrist as if it has stopped. She looks round enquiringly, but there's no clock on the wall or the mantelpiece.

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