“How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.”
BY MARIA POPOVA
Under the tyranny of our present productivity-fetishism, we measure the value of everything by the final product rather than by the richness of the process — its rewards, its stimulating challenges, the aliveness of presence with which we fill every moment of it. In contemporary culture, if a marriage ends in divorce — however many happy years it may have granted the couple, however many wonderful children it may have produced — we deem it a failed marriage. What is true on the scale of personal history is triply true on the scale of cultural history, and few public marriages have been subjected to a more unnuanced verdict than that of Albert Einstein and Mileva Marić. The twenty years between the time they met as first-year university students and the time of their final legal separation get compressed into one blunt word itself emptied of dimension: divorce. And yet those were the years in which Einstein did his most groundbreaking work, forever changing the course of modern science; years which produced the only progeny of the quintessential modern genius; years filled with enormous, all-consuming love, which comes to life in Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters (public library) — a collection of fifty-four missives exchanged between the beginning of their romance in 1897 and their marriage in 1903.
Of course, the missives display the genre’s most prominent caveat — love letters are almost always exchanged by lovers during time apart, the distance only amplifying their desire and the longing adding a layer of intensity to their correspondence that may not exist in their daily life when reunited. And yet they capture a more intimate side of Einstein than any of his other published texts and reclaim the full dimension of a relationship gravely marred by our culture’s incapacity for nuance. In doing so, they are redemptive beyond the couple’s particular circumstances, reminding us of the dignity and dimension of all human relationships when untethered from the tyrannical verdict of their final outcome.
Young Albert and Mileva’s correspondence flows seamlessly from gentle taunting and sarcasm to besotted earnestness, always undergirded by a common tone of sweetness. Tucked between the amorous confessions are frequent discussions of science — in her first surviving letter, Marić confronts the paradox of infinity and tussles with the limits of science; in one of his early letters, Einstein shares the seed for his groundbreaking work: “I’m convinced more and more that the electrodynamics of moving bodies as it is presented today doesn’t correspond to reality, and that it will be possible to present it in a simpler way.”
Since the very beginning, Mileva was poised to be Albert’s equal — the only female student of physics in her university class and two years his senior, she was an intellectually and emotionally mature young woman. Einstein was immensely drawn to her. Like Vladimir Nabokov, who ended an earlier affair with an inferior partner when he fell in love with the brilliant Véra, young Albert grew disillusioned with his previous girlfriend, whom he quite bluntly described as a “foolish darling that can neither do, nor understand anything.” His feelings for Mileva were of a different order — they delighted in reading and discussing the scientific classics together, he frequently remarked on her intellect as superior to his own, and he considered her the grounding rational counterpart to the emotional roller coaster of his extreme moodiness.
Reading their correspondence, rife with deep intellectual companionship, steadfast affection, and extraordinary tenderness, makes one suddenly aware that while Einstein may have stood on the shoulders of giants as he made his monumental scientific breakthroughs, he also stood on the wings of love.
In his first surviving letter to Marić, penned while she was away visiting her family in Serbia, Einstein sets the sweetly sarcastic tone that permeates much of their correspondence:
The desire to write you has finally conquered the guilty conscience I’ve had about not responding to your letter for such a long time, and which has allowed me to avoid your critical eye. But now, even though you are understandably angry with me, you must at least give me credit for not adding to my offense by hiding behind feeble excuses, and for asking you simply and directly for forgiveness and — for an answer as soon as possible.
If you don’t my giving you some advice (entirely unselfishly?), you should return as soon as possible, because everything you need to catch up on your studies can be found tightly packed in our notebooks… You will, of course, have to give up your old peasant room which a Zurich philistine now occupies … serves you right, you little runaway!
But now back to the books. Best wishes, your
In an 1899 letter to Mileva, penned while visiting his family over spring break, Einstein articulates his sense of having found his soulmate in her:
I’m having a wonderful time at home; I’ve spent much of it tending to the innermost joys, that is to say, i’ve been eating a lot, and well, something which has already caused me to suffer a bit from our favorite poetic ailment, like the time at the Sterns when for hours I sat next to you, my charming table partner. It was then revealed to me in harsh tints how closely knit our psychic and physiological lives are.
But young Albert’s genius came at the cost of a certain social sensitivity. Seeing Mileva as his intellectual equal, he seemed to assume that she was impervious to what he considered the superficial concerns of most women — namely, beauty and the insecurities related to it. In a testament to the toxic and illusory dualism of beauty and brains — the patriarchy, after all, has pitted the two as a tradeoff for millennia — he makes a rather insensitive remark, which he no doubt believes to be a compliment: In reporting on his mother’s response to seeing a photograph of Mileva, who wasn’t considered conventionally beautiful, he writes:
Your photograph had quite an effect on my old lady. While she studied it carefully, I said with the deepest sympathy: “Yes, yes, she certainly is a clever one.” I’ve already had to endure much teasing about it, among other things, but I don’t find it at all unpleasant.
To be sure, Einstein didn’t think highly of his mother’s intellectual capacity — he often described his family by his favorite putdown, “philistine” — so the comment was likely intended as an expression of his conviction that Mileva was different from all other women. In a letter from home penned during summer break a few months later, he affirms this in a particularly poignant passage, speaking to the mystery of how personal identity evolvesas he considers how his chosen life-path has diverged from that of his family and writes:
Here is Paradise. I live a nice, quiet, philistine life with my mother hen and sister… You, poor girl, must now stuff your head with gray theory, but I know that with your divine composure, you’ll accomplish everything with a level head. Besides, you are at home being pampered, as a deserving daughter should be. But in Zurich you are the mistress of our house, which isn’t such a bad thing, especially since it’s such a nice household! When I read Helmholtz for the first time I could not — and still cannot — believe I was doing so without you sitting next to me. I enjoy working together very much, and find it soothing and less boring.
My mother and sister seem somewhat petty and philistine to me, despite the sympathy I feel for them. It is interesting how gradually our life changes us in the very subtleties of our soul, so that even the closest of family ties dwindle into habitual friendship. Deep inside we no longer understand one another, and are incapable of actively empathizing with the other, or knowing what emotions move the other.
For many of us, our romantic relationships are a way of building a new family from scratch, revising and improving the imperfections of our family of origin. But for Einstein, his life with Mileva was a particularly palpable alternative to the family for which he felt sympathetic affection but no intellectual respect. In another letter a few days later, he further solidifies this sense:
My aunt from Genoa is coming, a veritable monster of arrogance and insensitive formalism. I’m nevertheless enjoying each and every day of my vacation in this wonderfully peaceful place. If only you could be here with me for a while! We understand one another’s dark souls so well, and also drinking coffee and eating sausages etc…
By the end of the summer, they were already addressing each other by their pet names — Albert was “Johnnie” and Mileva “Dollie.” (Lest we forget, name-giving is a high act of intimacy.) “Dear Fräulein” became “Dear Dollie,” then simply “DD.” In a letter from September 28 of 1899, Einstein writes:
It was nice of you, you sweet girl, to write me when you have so much strenuous work to do. But you should also know that your letters make me so happy that everyone teases me about it. You must have had to swallow a lot of book dust recently, you poor thing, but it will soon be over — I know how you feel. I’ve been quite a bookworm myself lately, trying to work out several ideas, some of them very interesting…
I’ll be back at “our place” around the 15th. I’m really looking forward to returning because it’s still the nicest and coziest place I can think of.
Over the following year, Einstein’s family grew increasingly disapproving of his relationship with Mileva, which his mother termed “the Dollie affair” — they had come to believe that settling down at such a young age would compromise 21-year-old Albert’s career prospects. In a letter from July of 1900, penned while vacationing with his family, he recounts a tragicomic exchange with his mother over the matter:
So we arrive home, and I go into Mama’s room (only the two of us). First I must tell her about the exam, and then she asks me quite innocently: “So, what will become of your Dollie now?” “My wife,” I said just as innocently, prepared for the proper “scene” that immediately followed. Mama threw herself onto the bed, buried her head in the pillow, and wept like a child. After regaining her composure she immediately shifted to a desperate attack: “You are ruining your future and destroying your opportunities.” “No decent family will have her.” “If she gets pregnant you’ll really be in a mess.” With this last outburst, which was preceded by many others, I finally lost my patience. I vehemently denied that we had been living in sin and scolded her roundly, and was about to leave the room when Mama’s friend Frau Bär came in. She is a small, vivacious lady: an old hen of the most pleasant variety. We immediately began talking about the weather, the new guests at the spa, the ill-mannered children, etc. Then we ate, and afterwards played some music. When everyone had left, and the time came for Mama and me to say good night, it started all over again, but “più piano.” The next day things were better, largely because, as she said herself, “If they have not yet been intimate (which she had greatly feared) and we are willing to wait longer, then ways and means can always be found.” The only thing that is embarrassing for her is that we want to remain together always. Her attempts at changing my mind came in expressions such as: “Like you, she is a book — but you ought to have a wife.” “By the time you’re 30 she’ll be an old witch,” etc.
Mileva was only two years older than Albert, so that would have made her a 32-year-old “old witch.”
To seal his contempt for such judgments, he adds:
The people here and their way of life are so hopelessly empty… Every meal lasts one hour or more — you can imagine what hell that is for me…
If only I could be with you again soon in Zurich, my little treasure! A thousand wishes and the biggest kisses from your
Two days later, he writes:
My sweet little one
I’m so happy to know that you’re back home again with your old lady, who is now fattening up my dear Dollie so she can rest in my arms healthy and happy once again, as plump as a dumpling… I just realized that I haven’t been able to kiss you for an entire month, and I long for you so terribly much. No one as talented and industrious as my Dollie, with her skilled hands, is to be found in this entire anthill of a hotel. Mama-in-law has already more or less made up with me and is slowly resigning herself to the inevitable…
I long terribly for a letter from my beloved witch. I can hardly believe that we will be separated so much longer — only now do I see how madly in love with you I am! Indulge yourself completely so you will become a radiant little darling and as wild as a street urchin… Our hotel is a particularly excellent feeding establishment, but I feel uncomfortable among these indolent and pampered people. Especially when I see these overdressed, lazy women who are always complaining about things. It is then that I think proudly: “Johnnie, your Dollie is a different kind of girl.”
A few days later, Einstein — who had a lifelong interest in psychology — captures the root of his parents’ resistance in a remarkably insightful letter to Mileva, in which he addresses his views on gender equality more directly than he ever did elsewhere. Just a few years before George Bernard Shaw’s searing condemnation of marriage as an institution built upon the systematic oppression of women, young Einstein writes:
Papa has written me a moralistic letter for the time being, and promised that the main part would be delivered in person soon. I’m looking forward to it dutifully. I understand my parents quite well. They think of a wife as a man’s luxury, which he can afford only when he is making a comfortable living. I have a low opinion of this view of the relationship between man and wife, because it makes the wife and the prostitute distinguishable only insofar as the former is able to secure a lifelong contract from the man because of her more favorable social rank. Such a view follows naturally from the fact that in the case of my parents, as with most people, the senses exercise a direct control over the emotions. With us, thanks to the fortunate circumstances in which we live, the enjoyment of life is vastly broadened. But we mustn’t forget how many existences like my parents’ make our existence possible. In the social development of mankind, the former are a far more important constituency. Huger and love are and remain such important mainsprings of life that almost everything can be explained by them, even if one regards the other dominant themes. Thus I am trying to protect my parents without compromising anything that is important to me — and that means you, sweetheart!
He then launches into a lyrical love letter brimming with the quintessential lover’s restlessness:
When I’m not with you I feel as if I’m not whole. When I sit, I want to walk; when I walk, I’m looking forward to going home; when I’m amusing myself, I want to study; when I study, I can’t sit still and concentrate; and when I go to sleep, I’m not satisfied with how I spent the day.
…tender kisses form your
By August, Einstein is back at the couple’s shared apartment, but Mileva is still with her parents in Serbia. He writes:
Though my old Zurich makes me feel very much at home again, I still miss you, my dear little “right hand.” I can go anywhere I want — but I belong nowhere, and I miss your two little arms and that glowing mouth full of tenderness and kisses.
Have courage, little witch! I can hardly wait to be able to hug you and squeeze you and live with you again. We’ll happily get down to work right away, and money will be as plentiful and manure. And if it’s nice next spring, we’ll pick flowers in Melchtal.
Tender kisses from your
A few days later, he once again bemoans the psychoemotional strain of being apart from his soulmate:
Dear little sweetheart,
Once again I’ve let a few lazy days slip by without accomplishing anything. You know, the kind of days when you sleep late because there’s nothing important to do, then go out until the room has been made up, and then study until fatigue sets in. Then you loaf around for a while and half-heartedly look forward to dinner, listlessly contemplating highly philosophical questions while whistling a little… How was I able to live alone before, my little everything? Without you I lack self-confidence, passion for work, and enjoyment of life — in short, without you, my life is no life.
After a few habitual laments about his parents, he adds:
Don’t study too hard when your books come; rest instead, so you can become my old street urchin again. There is only one thing I ask of you, and that is to take care of yourself — if not, then I’ll spank you…
With best wishes and tender kisses, the last especially, from your
By mid-August, Albert’s longing for Mileva has turned him so restless that pens her a playful poem, which he includes in a letter from August 20, masterfully translated by Shawn Smith:
Oh my! That Johnnie boy!
So crazy with desire,
While thinking of his Dollie,
His pillow catches fire.
When my sweetie mopes around the house
I shrivel up so small,
But she only shrugs her shoulders
And doesn’t care at all.
To my folks all this
Does seem a stupid thing,
But they never say a little word
For fear of Albert’s sting!
My little Dollie’s little beak,
It sings so sweet and fine;
And afterwards I cheerfully
Close its song with mine.
Oh how happy I’ll be to hold you close to my heart once again! … But in the meantime you should enjoy yourself, my only sweet little woman.
But you haven’t written me in a long time, you wild witch! Are you afraid it will “miss its mark,” or are you just mad at me, you little rascal? Or do you want me to wonder and hunger for you?
That, too, he illustrates with a playful verse:
From him she now does hide away,
What should he make of this?
To him she is with all her soul
Devoted with a kiss!
In early September, he once again leaves on vacation with his parents, who launch another offense on the relationship. He reports to Mileva:
My parents are very worried about my love for you. Mama often cries bitterly and I don’t have a single moment of peace here. My parents weep for me almost as if I had died. Again and again they complain that I have brought misfortune upon myself by my devotion to you… Oh Dollie, it’s enough to drive one mad! … If only they knew you! But it’s as if they’re under a spell, thinking all the while that I am…
I’ll only be able to recover from this vacation gradually, by being in your arms — there are worse things in life than exams. Now I know. This is worse than any external problem.
My only diversion is studying, which I am pursuing with redoubled effort, and my only hope is you, my dear, faithful soul. Without the thought of you I would no longer want to live among this sorry herd of humans. But having you makes me proud, and your love makes me happy I will be doubly happy when I can press you close to my heart once again and see those loving eyes which shine for me alone, and kiss your sweet mouth which trembles blissfully for me alone…
Kissing you from the bottom of my heart, your
Two weeks later, he writes:
No matter what happens, we’ll have the most wonderful life in the world. Pleasant work and being together — and what’s more, we now answer to no one, can stand on our own feet, and enjoy our youth to the utmost. Who could have it any better? When we have scraped together enough money, we can buy bicycles and take a bike tour every couple of weeks.
Albert and Mileva were married fourteen months later, in January of 1903. Their first son, Hans Albert — to whom Einstein would one day write that beautiful letter of advice on the secret to learning anything — was born in May of the following year. They remained married for eleven years and together for eighteen, and although the relationship ended in divorce, Einstein did spend his formative years as a scientist enveloped in Mileva’s love and intellectual companionship. The apathy, listlessness, and distractedness permeating so many of the letters penned while away from her do make one appreciate just how creatively and spiritually nourishing their love, the full dimension of which comes to life in the remainder of Albert Einstein / Mileva Marić: The Love Letters, was for young Albert’s developing genius.
Complement these tender missives with the magnificent love letters of Vladimir Nabokov to Véra Nabokov, Franz Kafka to Felice Bauer, Mozart to his wife, Violet Trefusis to Vita Sackville-West, Oscar Wilde to Bosie, and Frida Kahlo to Diego Rivera.