Book review: ‘The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein’

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The great physicist’s own words reveal a figure who as well as being a genius was an ordinary human being and a man of his time.

Meeting one’s heroes in the flesh isn’t always a good idea. When the Daily Telegraph asked me to interview Yevgeny Yevtushenko at the Cheltenham Literary Festival some years ago, I was initially overwhelmed with anticipation and joy, for he had been my favourite poet since childhood. I knew many of Yevtushenko’s poems by heart and had been a great admirer of his talent.

The meeting, however, proved disappointing. Not only was my idol two hours late, but his whole manner - erratic, arrogant and self-absorbed - and his ridiculous attire of green trousers and bright yellow shirt, not to mention his passion for the ‘Irish cream’ that he kept imbibing in considerable quantities during the morning interview, nearly put me off his beautiful poetry. Well, they didn’t in the end, because talent always takes precedence over its carrier’s character traits.

I remain tremendously saddened by Yevtushenko’s demise last year; one of the reasons that made me recall my encounter with him repeatedly as I was reading this beautiful edition of Albert Einstein’s travel diaries, resplendent with the great physicist’s little-known photos and facsimile samples of his handwriting.

Einstein’s name was sacrosanct in my family. My Dad – himself a particle physicist – kept a copy of the famous photo in which the Nobel laureate pulls a funny face, with his tongue stuck out, in the centre of his desk. My father also told me about Einstein’s escape from Nazi Germany and his warning to President Roosevelt about the dangers of nuclear weapons, so although not a scientist myself, I grew up with profound respect and admiration for the creator of the Theory of Relativity. Leafing through this book felt like finally meeting Einstein in person, which I now wish I hadn’t.

Don’t get me wrong. ‘The Travel Diaries of Albert Einstein: The Far East, Palestine and Spain, 1922-1923’ (Princeton University Press, £29.95, ISBN 9780691174419) did not shatter my respect for the great man. Yet, I have to confess, it did undermine it slightly. Why? The answer can be found in just one sentence of the publisher’s blurb on the back cover: “Entries also contain passages that reveal Einstein’s stereotyping of members of various nations and raise questions about his attitudes on race”.

Having spotted this sentence prior to reading the book itself, I found it hard to believe. How could Einstein, himself a target of genocide and racial prejudice, allow his brilliant mind to resort to racial stereotypes?

Yet, the diaries speak for themselves and for him, too.

With surprisingly few original insights, they are full of stereotypical and at times openly racist comments. While the diarist is full of respect and admiration for the Japanese, whom he finds, without exception, “unostentatious”, “decent” and “altogether very appealing” (I wonder if he had changed his mind somewhat in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbour attack?) and openly admires the country’s beauty, orderliness and cleanliness, he describes the Chinese as “incapable of being trained to think logically” (and that is said about the country that gave the world the great Confucius, among many other brilliant philosophers and thinkers) and “having no talent for mathematics”. Einstein also notes rather condescendingly that in China “there’s... little difference between men and women”.

Travelling in India, he states categorically that the people there not only “live in great filth”, but also “do little and need little”. The Levantines, in his eyes, are mostly “bandit-like” and “filthy”, with only a few of them being “handsome” and “athletic”. And so on.

I could quote endlessly from this lovingly compiled, richly illustrated and thoroughly honest book, which does not try to conceal the great man’s controversial views. On the contrary, Ze’ev Rozenkranz, the book’s editor, highlights them in a detailed preface that tries to look into the roots of Einstein’s obvious racial bias: his angst at being stereotyped himself, his lack of insight and general knowledge? Rozenkranz doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but any thoughtful reader can make their own guesses.

His genius aside, Einstein was first and foremost a man of his time, one of the most volatile and hate-ridden periods in Europe’s history. This might be one of the reasons, as well as the one identified by the book’s editor: “It is still a particularly difficult challenge to recognise ourselves in the Other and their Otherness in ourselves”.

Pleasant reading or not, this book modifies our perception of Einstein as he really was – a genius on the one hand and an ordinary human being, with all his merits and faults, on the other.

If we are to believe some of Beethoven’s contemporaries, the great composer was in real life often difficult and by the end of his life a grumpy old man. Does it make him a lesser composer? I don’t think so. As Einstein himself once famously said: “Reality is an illusion, but a very persistent one.”

Well, illusions come and go, yet reality will always be there for us to keep wondering at.

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