I’m working on a scene where it’s hard to understand Einstein’s behavior. It’s mid-July, 1901, and Mileva is about to re-sit her exams at the Polytech, having failed them the summer before. It’s her last chance to pass, and, oh-my-god, she’s pregnant now, with Einstein’s baby. You might think he’d want to be there for her, to coach her through, to help her with geometry, a subject that eluded her, no thanks to a particularly obtuse professor in the subject. Surely she would have appreciated his presence. Whatever happens with the tests, she must head home to Serbia afterward, to tell her parents she’s going to have a baby.
Did I mention the two aren’t married?
How do I make Einstein’s behavior something other than a dastardly abandonment, when instead of staying in Zurich, he’s off vacationing with his mother and sister in Mettmenstetten? Yes, indeed. He’s at a cushy hotel, the Pension-Paradies in the Alps!
Fortunately, I have point-of-view on my side. The important thing here is not to look at the big picture and see what he might have done, but to get inside his head and see how the prospect looked to him. And I don’t mean the view from the hotel veranda. Behind his eyes, I see that the greatest threat to Mileva’s well-being is not the exams or her father. It’s his mother. He’s off to do battle with the dragon. I’m reminded of Grendal’s Dam and thinking I might need to re-read Beowulf. s
I’m curious as to how you decided that this wasn’t a selfish act reflective of an aspect of Einstein’s character. Is there some evidence that he was actually being protective of Mileva by being with his mother in a luxury spot rather than helping Mileva with her crucial exams? Or, lacking empirical data, is this an author’s choice to present Einstein sympathetically, in a better light? (I have no idea, but am very curious about the historical fiction process!)
I sympathsize, since I, too, found geometry puzzling..but it’s hard not to see the self-centeredness of Einstein here..
There are two reasons to go here, in addition to the sympathy issue you mention. That sympathy issue is, of course, real. From a writerly perspective, it’s early in the novel and the behaviors we think of as selfish have to have somewhere to go.
That said, Einstein thought exams were ridiculous torture, that to cram all the information into one’s head was an unnecessary fatigue that proved nothing and made students hate learning. When classmates, including Mileva, got upset about exams, Einstein was very matter-of-fact. “You either know it or you don’t,” he told them. For him, it ended there.
And his obsession with his mother was such that convincing her to let him marry and protecting Mileva from his mother’s draconian behavior likely, to him, seemed the loving priority. He wants to marry Mileva. What’s in the way? Her exams? No. His mother. I suspect he’d have preferred taking exams to telling his mother he’d got Mileva pregnant. It’s not clear when he told her, but it seems, from a dreadful, damning letter Pauline Einstein wrote to Mileva’s parents that fall, 1901, (regrettably not extant), that Pauline found out. The timing is what leads me to this conclusion. What Pauline called his “Dollie affair” had been going on for years. What prompted her suddenly to write to Mileva’s parents? Prior to that, Albert had assured his mother that they were not sleeping together and she appeared to have believed him, though it seems a little naive on her part, given she was addressing care packages for him to Mileva’s boarding house.
Imagine writing a condemning letter to the parents of the woman bearing your grandchild? Her disdain for Mileva was simply immeasurable. And they had not yet met.