Meet the author: Philip Sington

The Einstein Girl by Philip Sington

Meet-the-author event at Ingeborg Drewitz Library in Steglitz, 18 May – Philip Sington reading from his novel “The Einstein Girl” which we discussed in March

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JB – Welcome to everyone and especially to Philip Sington- thank you so much for coming from London to meet the groups.

Question and answer session with host Jan Bild and the audience

Q:  What inspired an English author to write about Berlin in the 1930s? Where did the idea for the novel come from?

A:  Well, first of all thank you for having me here, it’s always a pleasure to be in Berlin.Now to your questions. Initially I had wanted to write a play and my brother, a documentary filmmaker, said why not write about Einstein and his annus mirabilis 1905. Dramatizing physics turned out to be a problem, but I found out about the private part of Einstein, his having had an illegitimate child from his private letters that had recently been published. These papers had been in complete control of Einstein’s trustees, his former secretary and an economist, who had during their lifetime prohibited any release, especially on Einstein’s first marriage [to Mileva Maric]. When I began to research the life of Einstein’s daughter, I saw parallels between how Einstein kept his life and his work separate.

Q: Did Einstein feel he had to disconnect his personal life from his work?

A:  Yes, for example, as a young man, Einstein had been engaged to a girl whom his family loved, but he broke it off to concentrate on his work which is really a tough thing to do when you’re 19. He thought that distance was the key to his work, that he had to detach himself to gain the independence he felt he needed. Oddly enough, once he had achieved this detachment, he didn’t achieve anything in his work for 23 years.

Q: How did you choose the fictitious characters, e.g. Elisabeth(Mariya), Martin Kirsch?

A: For Mariya,the Einstein girl, I blended two famous cases. One was the Anna Andersen case, the woman who had been pulled out of the Landwehrkanal in Berlin and who later claimed she was Princess Anastasia, the only surviving daughter of the Russian Tsar. The press soon found out that she was actually a Polish factory worker, for instance she spoke neither Russian nor French, the language of the Russian aristocracy. And yet a lot of people believed her story, even many Russian aristocrats, and raised money for her for years. The other case was Greta Markstein, a German actress who surfaced in Oxford around 1935 and claimed to be Einstein’s daughter. Although she was too old to be Lieserl Einstein, she curiously stated the year of Lieserl’s birth correctly although at that time no one knew about her. I wanted a scientist like Martin Kirsch who would research to find out about this and I wanted to bring the two characters together.

(First reading, the scene at the Tanguero where Martin is looking for “Elisabeth” pages 28-31)

Q:  That read a bit like a love story, but the novel is really a mixture of various genres. Which part was most important to you?

A: It’s the emotional call that makes you write. As you write, you become more and more involved, so the emotional parts are quite important. Once you take this away, the book is utterly pessimistic. Martin thinks wisdom equals love and that if he manages to reconnect Elisabeth to her father, all is well. The hope is that there is love. Without this as I said, the book would be very pessimistic. Martin dies believing he has really helped Mariya. It is a noble death and a loving one.

Q: You portrayed Martin as the goody to whom many of the readers really warmed because he saved so many psychiatric patients by burning their records. How important was it that Eduard Einstein was a patient himself?

A: All is tied up with his relation to his father, he had a unique perspective on Einstein. Eduard was expected to be the bright one, but once he started to study physics, his mental problems began. Part of the problem was that Albert Einstein’s image had to be protected and the fact that Eduard was neglected and suffered mental problems as a result had to be kept hidden.

Q: So you gave Eduard a voice?

A: Yes, you see, Einstein had this effect on people that they became mentally ill  because he just couldn’t connect with them. So, yes, I wanted to think what a book that Eduard Einstein would write would be like. But even he would have been stopped by the faithful protective trustees. Albert Einstein was the first modern celebrity, his face was virtually known all over the world. So it was all about image and that went a bit to his head in the way he treated the people around him.

( Second reading. The Einstein girl in hospital. Pages 41- 47 )

[Audience asking questions now]

Q: What was fact and what was fiction, who was real and who wasn’t?

A: Well, obviously Einstein and his family are historic characters, Mariya, Kirsch and Eisner were fictional.

Q: In Berlin many streets have been renamed again and again – where did you find the street names of that time?

A:  Among my grandfather’s  possessions I found a Baedeker Guide for Berlin from 1920, that was very helpful (laughs).

Q:  Did the unpleasant characters really exist?

A: Eugen Fischer, who invented the idea of racial hygiene, was real. The staff at the Charité were all fictional, except Bonhoeffer.

Q: The historic and political background was very accurate and portrayed subtly, how did you achieve this?

A: Germany and particularly Berlin at that time had very good journalism, there were about 300 newspapers in print back then, so you can get fairly good accounts of the life at that time. In particular, the journalist Joseph Roth gave very good accounts of Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, so the research was a real pleasure.

Q: What about the scenes in Switzerland? Were they more of  a challenge to research?

A: No. The Burghölzli Clinic is a very famous institution, which you can easily find out about even today.

Q: What about the class system at the clinic?

A: This really existed although obviously the 3rd class patients were not to be aware that there was a first class. Of course they must have wondered where the nurses and doctors always vanished to.

Q:  There is a fine line between genius and madness. The treatment and understanding of psychiatric illness can seem barbaric – even today. Did the cruel therapies take place at the Burghölzi clinic or did they just happen in Germany?

A: These therapies had all been recently invented and were very popular in every mental institution at that time although they were brutal. Electric shock therapy is still used today.

Q: How important a role does Martin’s brother Max play?

A: Martin is a healer who can’t heal anyone. He is damaged by his guilt of having survived WWI while his brother hasn’t and Max is very important because his loss makes Martin an orphan – even though his parents are still alive – just like Mariya. Max is also passionate about the latest developments in physics and passes on this interest to Martin. Many of Martin’s actions are for Max – he senses he is still with him in some way.

[Jan Bild asking questions again]

Q: Back to science: was it really necessary to go into so much detail about quantum physics? Some of our group members struggled with the scientific details.

A:  I wanted to give a flavour of who Albert Einstein was and also I had to balance his shortcomings as a father by showing his scientific brilliance.

Q:  But Einstein detached from his early work later, didn’t he?

A: Well, Einstein was the one who had put quantum physics on the map. But within a few years he declared it was rubbish, which is really bizarre. But you see, the theory of quantum mechanics states that you change something by looking at it. Interaction is reaction. Maybe compared with his own life, Einstein simply couldn’t accept this anymore, because it made his life a lie. Eventually he came to hate the idea to be subjected to relativity himself.

Q: You didn’t make him look very nice, for instance you suggest that he attempted to seduce, even  rape, Mariya.

A: Ah, now you’re niggling (laughs). He did have a habit of throwing people down the stairs, there are various reports of that. And he used to have women at his house every Tuesday – his wife had to leave the house then – to have sex with them. As I said earlier, he was a celebrity and those women threw themselves at him. So he may well have assumed that Mariya had come for the same reason and wouldn’t have thought of it as rape. I am not portraying him as a monster, I just show him as he reportedly was, which is not the cuddly old man people want to see. He wasn’t cuddly at all.

Q:  Did you know the story wouldn’t work out when you started, I mean in terms of a happy ending?

A: I don’t think I knew that Martin was going to die, but it was clear to me that there wouldn’t be a happy-ever-after. Yet I think it is a happy ending in that he saved Mariya.

Q:  That part reads like a spy thriller…

A:  Yes, it’s really a “dirty hit”.

[Last question from the audience again]

Q:  Did Martin have to have syphilis because he had to die anyway?

A:  I chose syphilis because it affects the minds in that it breaks down linear thinking – which is what happens in this story and also in life itself, for instance colour is just the effect of wave lengths on your brain, it doesn’t really exist. I liked how Martin’s thoughts became muddled as the story gets muddled, how they became much more circular than linear.

Jan Bild: Now to close, I would like to read my favourite scene.

( the ride on the S-Bahn along Schönhauser Allee page 9 )

From the S-Bahn you could see things invisible at street level: a solitary cherry tree flowering in a courtyard, children washing in a tin bath, a young girl hanging up a turqouise dress from a tenement balcony. The railway was part-scalpel, part movie-camera, slicing the city open, producing its inner workings at fifty frames per second. It was on the S-Bahn that she felt least abandoned, as if the act of travelling turned back the clock, and brought her nearer to the future she had lost.

PS- Thanks Jan – I’d forgotten that description of the S-Bahn and jusr how apt it is being brought nearer to a future lost. After all, this is a quantum novel !

Selected comments from our group meetings in March on “The Einstein Girl”

I loved the book- it’s the best since I’ve started coming to the groups.”

“ A great, great story even if there are almost too many themes.”

“Very cleverly constructed and very well written.”

“I didn’t expect an English writer to write about Germans. I was very impressed but kept forgetting the characters were German!”

“ It was full of suspense- I wanted to know what had happened- I liked the mixture of fact and fiction.”

“Very captivating, interesting and clever. There were so many subjects and things, almost too much to take in.”

“ It was a pleasure to read- I especially liked Kirsch’s compassionate personality.”

“ It was refreshing to see Einstein wasn’t a God! “

“ I enjoyed it. I am fascinated by this period of history. I read it twice.”

“It annoyed me considerably. I didn’t know who or what the main theme was.”

“I’ve read a lot of books set in Berlin and I liked it very much.”

“ Oh dear. I found it boring and very putdownable. It plods on from page to page- I couldn’t believe in the characters.”

“I’m very interested in Einstein and his theory but the book depressed me very much. Everything was grey and dark and depressing. “

“The tensions in the psychiatric hospital were very well described.”

“In 2002 I translated a biography of Einstein- the details in the novel felt right. The story of Einstein’s son was very touching and very sad.”

“How could a father have been so cold to his family?”

“My worst subject has always been physics- so it took me a long time to read. But it was worth it.”

“  The minute, accurate details made the story more authentic. The research about Berlin was brilliant.”

“ I had no problem with how Einstein was portrayed. He obviously was a genius but not a very nice man.”

“It wasn’t thrilling enough for my thriller tastes.”

“ It wasn’t literary enough for me!”

“I hate to admit to my limits but there was too much stuff about physics for me.”

“This was one of the best books I’ve read in the groups- I like to go deeper into things I don’t understand. “

“ It contained so much – an excellent historical background, a moving love story, thrilling aspects and fascinating scientific detail. A thumbs up from me.”

“I would absolutely recommend it – it was super entertaining and I learnt a lot at the same time. I’m married to a physicist and for a long time we’ve had a photo of Albert Einstein hanging in our flat. If I’d known how he’d treated women, I wouldn’t have kept his picture on the wall !”

“I liked the book within the book- the playing with appearances- the playing with physics- the layers of uncertainty. How much is reality? What is reality? “

Highly Recommended

A fascinating historical thriller set in Berlin. Excellent period setting . Very stylish. A very good read – but quite challenging- not to everyone’s taste. But a superb blend of fact and fiction.

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One Response to Meet the author: Philip Sington

  1. Pingback: Feedback for “The Bean Trees”, Sington event | The English Reading Group In Berlin

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