October 20, 2018

Alan Lightman turns to remembering a life in the South

It feels as if Alan Lightman has been forgetting large pieces of his past for decades; his reinvention seems intentional.  This very talented 66-year-old writer and theoretical physicist has produced beautiful works of fiction that examine the fragility of the human experience using spare and elegant and sometimes mystical prose.  In interviews, Lightman comes across as eager to please, very much the Southern Memphis gentleman he was raised to be.  His good looks and youthful demeanor are almost unsettling; he is mannerly and offers smooth, perhaps overly rehearsed answers to questions that seem to simulate an intimate exchange.  Which is why his decision to write a memoir, “Screening Room: Family Pictures” (Pantheon Books) is surprising. 

Lightman grew up the eldest of four boys, whom his mother gave birth to in less than five years.  She was an unhappy and nervous woman prone to insomnia and depression, and she channeled her manic energy into giving dance lessons to the local children.  She was emotional needy, which further alienated her husband, who was quiet and self-contained; an unhappy man too timid to pull away from his domineering father whom he worked for until he retired.  Their family was a wealthy secular Jewish one, under the thumb of Lightman’s paternal grandfather, M.A. Lightman, who opened up a chain of morethan 60 movie theaters throughout the south.  Lightman’s parents were mismatched from the start, and he writes about their marriage with a restrained candor that reveals his disappointment.

Alan Lightman seemed to always possess the ambition and wounded daringness of a precocious and unhappy child.  He was going to escape and was helped enormously by his dual talents in science and literature.  He was ashamed of the insularity of the South and his few memories of being nurtured involve his beloved nanny Blanche, a black woman who took the time to stroke his forehead when his mother wasn’t able to.

I think he knew when he left he wasn’t going home again.  And he didn’t.  He got a Ph.D. in Physics from Cal Tech, and then taught at Harvard and M.I.T.  He began writing essays that blended his scientific fascination with human longings and eventually turned to fiction.  For example, in one of his novels, titled “Reunion,” he writes poignantly about a sad and lonely man who returns to his 30th college reunion and is catapulted into a whirlwind of memories about a passionate romance he had in college with a ballerina.  In another work titled “Ghost,” he chronicles the agonized thoughts of a 43-year-old man who has trouble connecting to everyone around him.  Although not directly autobiographical, we sense much of Lightman fills his lonely characters, and is the more genuine alter-ego to the polished persona he presents to the world.

But when called upon to reflect upon his past in a direct manner, he falters frequently and loses focus.  He even invents two characters and throws them into the mix which we don’t find out about until the final pages of the book.  It feels contrived and disingenuous.  His relatives seemed to blend into an indistinguishable lump of characters who drink and eat a lot and say little of substance.  The same goes for his brothers whom he spends some time with when he returns home for a brief visit.  We are unclear how his relatives view him, or whether they are affected by his presence at all.  Similarly, he seems detached from all, a ghost-like presence observing quietly from the sidelines with little to offer them but his quiet attendance.  Even when recalling old friends and girlfriends, no one takes star billing.  His most poignant memories seem to recall being alone in his childhood bedroom pondering the great questions of the universe and his own trajectory out of there.  Or the few moments of pure pleasure he experienced walking home by himself from school looking around at the beauty of the natural world which still continues to captivate him.

The Lightman’s family’s rise to prominence is an exceptional one; a Jewish tale of resilience and daring and imagination.  His great-grandfather, Papa Joe Lightman, came to America in 1881 from Budapest, Hungary, and made a name for himself in the construction business.  His son, M.A. Lightman, became entranced with the movie business after seeing people line up and wait for hours to watch a film in front of a converted store front which was filled with folding chairs and an old projector installed in the back of the room.  When Papa Joe, died, M.A. began building his movie empire; the first theatre in Sheffield, Ala. and the second one in Florence, Ala.  The flagship theatre was in downtown Memphis and called the “Malco.”  It was where his father worked, and was an opulent 2500 seat emporium that dazzled crowds with movies that were now able to produce sound.  The business today still employs the majority of Lightman’s relatives including two of his brothers. 

Lightman’s father died two years ago, at 91.  In the book, Lightman recalls his father once trying to tell him a story that seemed very important to him during the late 1980s.  It involved a moment of indecision, perhaps hesitation, while fighting during the Second World War, that his commander told him had cost them lives.  Lightman remembers listening to his father talk, but his mind was elsewhere.  He writes, “What I should have done right then and there was put my arm around him.  I wonder if I really heard what he just said to me.  What could I have been thinking about at the time, at the moment?  And I remember.  I was thinking about moving to a different university to teach.  What I actually did at that moment was listened to Dad and said nothing.  Was I so wrapped up in my little problems?  Or was it that I had no outcroppings in his psyche to grab on to?  I knew so little about his insides, and then suddenly I was confronted with this vast summation of his life, or at least how he felt about his life.  How could I begin to fathom what he had just said to me?” Lightman’s response here seems cold and controlled; overly analytical.

Ironically, the underlying emotional intensity can be found elsewhere. In another book Lightman wrote earlier, called “Einstein’s Dreams,” which is considered by many to be his masterwork.  The book is a dizzying and inspired fictional meditation about a young Albert Einstein who is reimagining the notion of time.  Einstein considers how time might be circular, or perhaps compelled to forever repeat itself, or maybe just an unstoppable force that threatens to trample us.  Einstein ponders how some of us are able to live mostly in the present, yet others remain lost in time.  Lightman’s Einstein feels that time contains multitudes of secrets we have yet to decipher.   In one very moving passage Einstein imagines a desolate and remorseful man that seems a lot like Alan Lightman.  The man is harboring an almost irrepressible desire for a reunion with his father who is now dead and beyond his grasp.  Lightman writes majestically, “In another house, a man sits alone at his table, laid out for two.  Ten years ago, he sat across from his father, was unable to say that he loved him, searched through the years for some moment of closeness, remembered the evenings that silent man sat alone with his book, was unable to say that he loved him.  The table is set with two plates, two glasses, two forks, as on that last night.  The man begins to eat, cannot eat, weeps uncontrollably.  He never said that he loved him.”  One can’t help but wish that Lightman had been able to bring some of this fury to his own personal memoir. 

Elaine Margolin is a frequent contributor of book reviews to the Jewish Journal and other publications.