I am rereading Proust. If anyone asks why, I tell them the story of Franklin Roosevelt and Oliver Wendell Holmes. Roosevelt paid a visit to the aged Holmes to find him reading Plato in Greek. He asked him why and Holmes replied: ‘To improve my mind, Mr President.’ My first encounter with Proust was in the spring of 1959. I was finishing my second year at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. I had won a National Science Foundation fellowship which allowed me to work anywhere I wanted for two years. I chose Paris even though I knew almost no French. I thought that reading Proust in English might be a useful preparation. Needless to say it wasn’t. When I got to Paris, I enrolled at the Alliance Française and five nights a week I went to class. I studied very hard and that is why I can now read Proust in French.
It is commonplace to observe that both Proust and Einstein, in their different ways, were concerned with the subjectivity of time. I find most of these comparisons uninteresting. There is at least one moment in A la recherche du temps perdu, however (I'm on page 71 of 2599), at which Proust reveals himself to be au courant with contemporary physics. In 1907 the mathematician Hermann Minkowski realised that the best way to understand relativity was as a four-dimensional continuum with time being the fourth dimension. In 1908 he wrote:
The views of space and time which I wish to lay before you have sprung from the soil of experimental physics, and therein lies their strength. They are radical. Henceforth space by itself, and time by itself, are doomed to fade away into mere shadows, and only a kind of union of the two will preserve an independent reality.
Minkowski introduced a four-dimensional formalism which Einstein at first rejected but then adopted in his theory of gravitation. Proust was writing his novel at about this time. ‘An edifice occupies, if one might put it this way, a space of four dimensions,’ he wrote near the beginning of the first volume, ‘the fourth being that of time.’ I cannot believe that the idea of time as the fourth dimension simply sprang out of his head. He must have read it somewhere.