A Matter of Time

When the twentieth century novelists decided that those plots which frame our
lives and those masks we wear every day for the sake of conventions and society were no longer “interesting”, but rather, what’s hidden behind those masks, the very first victim to be sacrificed to the altar of modern narrative was time, or
better, chronological time .

As Sterne taught us, under the mask there is not hypocrisy, but chaos, the freedom of
thought, no fear of judgement, it is exactly what we are: naked. In that precious
tabernacle which is our mind, time flows free and ruthless. Hence, whoever dared
represent it should have employed new writing techniques, as the old ones could not go under the surface, the mask. Freud, with his studies on the unconscious, Bergson,
with his theory on mental time processes called ” la Durée” and William James, who
theorized “the stream of consciousness” gave those writers what they needed to forge the modern novel.

Rather than following actions linked by a cause-effect pattern, readers were involved by the train of thoughts of the characters that caused those actions. Therefore, at the beginning of a modern novel we don’t find any longer introductory pages with all the information we need to have about the central character/s, as in Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, for example:

I WAS born in the year 1632, in the city of York, of a good family, though not of that country, my father being a foreigner of Bremen, who settled first at Hull. He got a good estate by merchandise, and leaving off his trade, lived afterwards at York, from whence he had married my mother, whose relations were named Robinson, a very good family in that country, and from whom I was called Robinson Kreutznaer; but, by the usual corruption of words in England, we are now called – nay we call ourselves and write our name – Crusoe; and so my companions always called me(…)”. (Robinson Crusoe Chpt.1)

Or Jane Austen’s Emma:

“Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her. She was the youngest of the two daughters of a most affectionate, indulgent father; and had, in consequence of her sister’s marriage, been mistress of his house from a very early period. Her mother had died too long ago for her to have more than an indistinct remembrance of her caresses; and her place had been supplied by an excellent woman as governess, who had fallen little short of a mother in affection.”(Emma Chpt.1)

The heroes that people modern novels may remain without a face or details about their personal lives for many pages till those details cross the mind of the character and only then it is possible to attempt a picture of one of them. Novels become as treasure chests that chronologically may last even one day only, like James Joyce’s Ulysses or Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, chests that keep together the warm, virulent, indomitable power of the characters’ thoughts which freely skip from one way to another thanks to their association of ideas.

The fresh morning air of London”( What a lark! What a plunge!“) and the sound of the hinges of the doors which are to be removed to make more room for Mrs Dalloway’s party, take her to the past when she was eighteen at her summer-house by the sea and the ghost of Peter Walsh appears without any introduction, just few lines she remembers which are apparently meaningful for her, but absolutely meaningless for us :

Musing among the vegetables?”— was that it? —“I prefer men to cauliflowers”— was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace — Peter Walsh.” (Mrs Dalloway Chpt.1)

Peter Welsh is a central character of Mrs Dalloway’s life, even he is physically distant, he is constantly present in her mind, in fact he is the very first person we meet in her train of thoughts.

In Dubliners, Eveline has been motionless at the window for some time when she hears somebody’s footsteps:

“The man out of the last house passed on his way home; she heard his footsteps clacking along the concrete pavement and afterwards crunching on the cinder path before the new red houses.”

The sound of the footsteps, which turns from cracking to crunching takes her to the red houses where once there was a field, where she used to play with her brothers and friends and was happy. In that memory the censorious shadow of her father materializes, with a “blackthorn” stick in his hands. Her father is first in her thoughts rather than Frank, the young man with whom she had consented to an elopement that very night, as it is Eveline’s relationship with him the core of the story.

In this new way of writing, pages may chronologically cover few seconds, while a
line hours, as for the individual, time may speed up or slow down even if for the clock pace remains the same. Joyce tells us that “She(Eveline) sat at the window watching the evening invade the avenue“, however, how long had she been sitting there? Hours? Maybe, as we are brought to understand that there was still light when she sat there, but the day had then become night as pointed out by the alliteration of the “w”, which turns into a “v”, and the vowel sound, which grows darker and darker word after word. The incoming night presses her to go while her sense of guilt keeps her there, at the window motionless. Eveline feels both as an invasion of her soul. Very likely she would have preferred a third option, but hadn’t we plunged into the secrecy of her thoughts, we would have seen only a girl sitting at the window and not a word would have been spent on her.

 

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15 thoughts on “A Matter of Time

  1. Pingback: A Matter of Time | Stormfields

  2. I was wondering about the significance of the image (a postcard of which we treasured for a long time, sometime last century) and I had to wait a delicious minute or two to find out). And I also delight in the English near homonyms ‘wander’ and ‘wonder’ which echo each other’s peregrinations in a discursive post like this. Lovely. Thank you.

    • I am so glad you enjoyed the post, Chris. This is a faithful reproduction of my “wanderings” in class. Some of my students may feel a sort of true ‘wonder’ at this, but for what concerns the others I’m sure that their attention is very likely to ‘wander’. 😉🙋

  3. Nice piece, and it got me thinking (usually, not a good thing).

    Oddly enough, what you describe is what turns me off in most novels. I don’t mean the distortion of time (that’s necessary or fiction would be boring) but the introspection as a way of revealing character.

    I’m often faulted for avoiding that path in my infrequent fiction; that is, some readers bemoan the lack of understanding one supposedly gets from reading a character’s deepest thoughts.

    The problem — as I see it, and here I must stress the lack of any credentials — is that we often come up short in explaining our own thoughts, especially when it comes to reconciling our actions.

    When a writer chooses to justify an action (or lack of action) by doing a deep dive into a character’s state of mind and thought process, I find they mostly fall short unless dealing with very basic stuff (killer chasing you ==> fear, hungry ==>need food). By that, I mean that I not only don’t find the thought being explored credible but that I don’t care. A crude example would be a murderer . . . I don’t care if they feel bad after the fact or were conflicted before the fact. I don’t care to explore their state of mind because 1) I could never identify with it and thus, 2) I could never really understand it.

    The introspective approach is more geared toward having readers identify to individuals whereas actions broaden the narrative to include not only individuals but their spatial and social environment.

    I much prefer description of action as a vehicle to showing the character of a person and reactions exploring the effect of those actions. That’s not to say it’s to the exclusion of the character’s internal conflicts, fears, and hopes, but rather emphasizing the reality of one’s interactions (via actions) with people around us.

    After all, that’s all we have in real life, where time is pretty much linear.

    • Dear Emilio, I totally agree with you. It’s the teacher in me that wrote the post, in fact, I don’t actually enjoy reading this kind of novels, but I cannot but admire the writer’s skill.

    • So, not an endorsement per se but rather an academic observation . . . fool me, you did, and now my time and space perception is all screwed up as I ponder the nature of reality. Thanks.

  4. Hurray, so glad I read the last commenter and your reply… I still tend to judge myself if I don’t identify with a critical response to a book… and wonder what is missing in me…Wonderful to know that I’m okay after all ! and I so agree with what you say, and love Jane Austen precisely because of the clarity of her descriptions and her style…and I love too how her characters reveal themselves both through their actions and their speech mannerisms as well as the words they actually choose…. oh Mrs Elton, and oh Miss Bates !!!..I’d love to write a book about Jane Austen’s books, but know there are a plethora of those already !
    Love the picture … open windows are always so intriguing and tantalizing…

    • Thank you Valerie. You are ok. When I read a book, I want to be involved in the story, I want to feel and modernist style doen’t work on me. I must admit it and I am not ashamed. Looking forward to your book on dear Jane Austen, there is room for anybody if you have got something to say. 🙂

  5. Pingback: A Matter of Time — e-Tinkerbell – Earth Balm Creative

  6. Aside from the genius of the above mentioned writers, what I find truly inspiring is reflecting on how actually hard they dared to break the schemes. That is pure innovation and, in my opinion, makes the whole even more genius!
    I find that most of the times we live in our closed and comfortable schemes, although we hate them, but we’d rather stay there than taking the risk of failing.
    Who knows, maybe Joyce, Wolf etc. were considered failures for their time, for the schemes of that age. And yet look at how unreachable is their greatness today, and how precious the treasures they left us..

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