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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The Things We Said in Venice

Venice, Italy — A gondola, Venice, Italy — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

There are many reasons why we enjoy traveling. The desire to see dreamlike places, the thrill of meeting new cultures with their art, food, drinks and folklore are of course the most common ones, but sometimes for somebody traveling could also be a way to heal wounds, thus giving the scars the time they need to be barely seen. A change of scenario could reasonably be regarded as the most natural way to turn your back to a distressing past, put all the pieces together and give yourself a new chance.

This is what the two protagonists of Kristin Anderson’s novel “The Things We Said in Venice” have in mind. Sarah Turner, a high school counselor in her late thirties has recently faced a dolorous divorce. She decides to leave her job and home in Bend, Oregon to go on a six-week holiday to Europe. It is a solo adventure. During this time Sarah needs to learn to take charge of her life, to be independent, even because once in Amsterdam, her final destination, she has made plans that will radically change her future. Alone.

For Fokke van der Velt travelling has always been a significant part of his life since he is a renowned travel writer. He is on a trip with a group of friends to the Dolomites, trying to blanking out the painful memories of a betrayal. He needs the company of his mates, who with their presence and laughter try to ease his mind from the recurrent ghost of his sorrow. Sarah and Fokke have one thing in common for sure: they are not looking for new partners.

A benign fate, however, will play its cards to make the two meet. An exchange of backpacks, a snowfall, a strike and above all Sarah’s diary, which is ungentlemanly read by Fokke, will allow him to have knowledge of the most intimate and delicate aspects of her life on one side, but it will light his interest for that stranger on the other. Of course any entanglement between two people with such a painful past never runs smoothly. Having become emotionally defenseless, they are ready to set barriers whenever they smell the danger of being wounded again.

The romantic background of Venice with its alleys and canals will be the perfect set where the two develop their acquaintance, but only once in Amsterdam, Sarah’s final destination, she will have to ponder whether new plans may replace old plans. At the end of a journey we are never what we used to be at the beginning, this is the wonder of traveling, so when you get to the harbor you know that other goals must be set if you want to move on. Your choice,whether it is right or wrong, will depend on what you have learnt on that journey.

 

I would like to thank Kristin Anderson, author or “The Things We Said in Venice” and fellow blogger for having given me the opportunity of reading her novel. It has been an honor. I did all my best not to spoil the end! 😉

 

Primitive Modernity

A Scene from Tristram Shandy (‘Uncle Toby and the Widow Wadman’) 1829-30, exhibited 1831 Charles Robert Leslie 1794-1859 Presented by Robert Vernon 1847 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N00403

I’ve always been of the opinion that Sterne would have been wonderfully at ease with modern means of communications: his great irony and wit would have made him a great blogger, for sure, but even twitter might have been his natural scene with its short, sharp, effective messages. And how he would have enjoyed scattering emoticons here and there throughout his “The Life and Opinion of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman” only if he could, but since there was nothing of the kind at his time, he used hyphens, dashes, asterisks, crosses, symbols  with the same function. He understood, in fact, that signs had a quick and powerful impact on the mind of readers, exciting their curiosity with the effect of drawing them into the story.

This is exactly what I felt when I first read Tristram Shandy,  I was part of it. The reader, in fact, is so central that very often becomes a character among characters but without a definite script. We are invited to make drawings of the people the author doesn’t feel like describing himself, share his feelings, whether of joy or sorrow, or furthermore he demands our undivided attention whenever he pretends to say something important. All of a sudden, we find ourselves part of a fictitious world just like sometimes it happens in the stagings of some modern plays, when actors arrive from the back of the theatre, thus making you feel baffled.

The characters we have to interact with have not the typical stamp of bourgeois heroes, but they are common people like us, with dreams, passions or better hobby-horses, frustrations and disappointed hopes mostly. There is nothing relevant to say, actually. In Tristram’s life, in fact, there are not grand events to be told, but incidents that make him the hero of ordinariness. Of course, his father, just like any other father, had dreamt for his son a future made of success and glory, that’s why he wanted him to be named Hermes Trismegistus, that means not one but three times great, however, it unfortunately turned out to be Tristram only because of a misunderstanding between his father and his Uncle Toby, thus descending from the Olympus of the gods and becoming one of the many, one of us.

The bits and pieces of his life are disorderly narrated and this is the other element of Sterne’s modernity. He was the very first one to focus his attention not only on the life of his protagonist, but on his “opinions”, that is: his mind. He instinctively understood that if he wanted to deal with his mental processes, he should sacrifice the backbone of the novel structure: chronological time. It is, actually, impossible to delineate its plot. Just few examples: the preface is unusually placed in third chapter, he is the ironic judge and spectator of his own conception in the first one – and what a taboo he breaks talking about his own parents having sex -, any attempt of narration is interrupted by digressions and associations, he decides to skip from page 146 to 156 on account of missing chapter 24 – he didn’t feel like writing it –  etc.  Therefore, even if Sterne couldn’t have the support of the studies of psychoanalysis, he succeeded in representing the chaos of our mind on paper anyhow, in a rather primitive way, of course, but it allowed him to have his place among the gods of English modern novel as their forefather.

 

 

The Novel Recipe

I: Mr B. Finds Pamela Writing 1743-4 Joseph Highmore 1692-1780 Purchased 1921 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03573

As everybody knows, those  writers who are commonly regarded as the fathers of the English novel started to write their masterpieces late in their lives. They were in their fifties or sixties at least, that is, after having done or seen much. Novel-writing was just their new playground at first. Daniel Defoe, for example, had a great writing experience and skill as journalist, but novel-making was something else. It was not about drawing up articles any longer, but rather, creating an organic structure where characters could move and interact for many pages. Since there was no psychoanalysis to help him yet, the simple ingredients he used were: an interesting subject, space, time. For what concerns the first ingredient, he was very lucky, because he was the witness of an age of great changes, that is, when the middle class was growing in importance thanks to trade and new politics. So, if we believe that literature is the mirror of the times, in that mirror Defoe saw the image of a bourgeois hero reflected: Robinson Crusoe.

He was perfect: young, middle class, Puritan, slave trader, traveller and sinner too. He was fit for an adventurous story.That was the second ingredient : the world.  He made him travel a lot, shipwreck and then placed him on a desert island where he remained in solitude for a long time before enjoying the company of a cannibal he named Friday. The narration was linear, chronological. But he felt that in those big spaces and with a few chances of human relations he had to do something for his hero so as to avoid the puppet effect, he needed more insight. So Robinson’s diary became part of the novel and his deepest thoughts surfaced on the page. Realism, intimacy, exoticism: a success.

But, what happens if we modify the dose of one of those ingredients? If we decide to make our characters act in smaller spaces: a house, for example. Very likely the complexity of their personalities will come out better, because the writer will have to deal more with the world inside rather than the world outside. This is exactly what happened in Richardson‘s novels, which are mostly focused on the dynamics inside family circles and their connections. Furthemore, they were written in the epistolary form so the reader was more deeply involved in the agonies of Clarissa or Pamela‘s moral fight between love and proper behaviour.

When Sterne decided to write not only about The Life“, that is the chronological sequence of somebody’s events, but also about the Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, that is his thoughts, he felt instinctively that time ingredient should have been employed in a complete different way. So, anticipating Bergson‘ s theory of “la durée”, he understood that in our mind past, present, future co-exist in random order and that the usual chronological sequence was no loger fit to mirror that chaos in a novel. As no psychoanalysts could have ever given him any advice about it, he created that chaos in a primitive way. First of all he upset the order of the novel and  placed the preface in the third chapter, rather than in its usual place, then he filled the book with digressions, blank pages, drawings, dashes , skipped chapters etc.. The experiment was a successful one, because out of all that chaos the delicate complexity of Tristram’s soul materialized. One last thing, no recipe works without another ingredient, the most important one, of course: “the genious touch”.

A Beast in Disguise

gt1

“What a piece of work is a man”: the noblest of all God’s creatures, the very essence of grace and beauty, “infinite in faculties”, in action how like an angel“,” in apprehension how like a god” (Hamlet Act 2, scene 2) or…. is he only just an animal endowed with a little reason which he can’t even use properly? Swift wouldn’t have had the smallest doubt in choosing the second option.In the second book of Gulliver’s Travels, there is an episode that well explains his point of view.

gt5Swift’s hero is in front of the King of Brobdingnad (the giants) with the design of acquainting him about all the wonders of English civilization. The king seems to pay great attention to Gulliver’s boast upon the political, cultural, scientifical achievements of his country, but in the end he comments his speech using the following mordant words:“I cannot but conclude the bulk of your natives to be the most pernicious race of little odious vermin that nature ever suffered to crawl upon the surface of the earth“.  It’s clear that Jonathan Swift didn’t share the optimism of an age that believed that modern man could reform society using reason, challenge ideas grounded in tradition and faith and advance knowledge through scientific method. Quite the contrary. To that “greatness” of the Enlightenment creed, he opposed his idea of the moral “smallness” of man.

gt3Throughout the novel Swift seems to be busy in analysing, dissecting, mortifying man with the only aim of demonstrating his viciousness, ineptitude and ignorance, making him thus meritorious of contempt rather than admiration. His characters are more body than mind and despite their use of reason, they cannot conceal their bestial traits. To convince us of that, he removes that veil of respectability and dignity that seems to characterize modern cultures and, without hiding a certain satisfaction, focuses his attention on those actions (defecating, urinating) or those parts of the body which, for good reasons of propriety, are usually considered taboo. Without that veil man is only a beast, a beast in disguise: a Yahoo.

gt4In Gulliver’s last adventure on the land of the wise horses, he meets the Yahoos, but he stubbornly doesn’t seem to recognize any human traits in them (but we do), even if he meticulously analyzes every single part of their body with scientific zeal, anus included. Gulliver/ Swift shows all his revulsion, lingering on long descriptions which have the aim of exaggerating and distorting, thus making the reader feel the same repugnance. At first he feels “discomposed” at the sight of the Yahoos’ “singular” and “deformed” features, but detail after detail there is a crescendo of unrestrained aversion that makes them become “beast“, “ugly monsters“, “cursed brood“. The act of defecating on Gulliver’s head is the ultimate proof of the degradation of the Yahoos/men, who don’t seem to feel the shame of their actions. But when after a while Gulliver bumps into the wise horses, they see only a Yahoo with clothes on: a beast in disguise.