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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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”.

Grand Tour

grand 1Year after year always more and more many students of my school decide to experience a student exchange programme in order to improve their knowledge of a foreign language. The destinations may range from the English-speaking countries like the U.S.A., Ireland, England, Australia  to the more exotic ones like Japan, China or Taiwan. At first they are convinced it will be only a matter of studying in a new school, changing habits for a while and why not, enjoying the exciting flavour of independence, to understand very soon that they have been involved in something more complex than simply learning a language. I want to use the words of one of my students to explain it, who, once invited to report about her one year experience in Taiwan, was happy to say with such eager eyes that she felt like having lived a whole life in that year and even more.

grand 3Sterne would have called it a “Sentimental Journey“, where sentimental refers to those emotions that arise from both the vision of a new landscape and the confrontation with completely different habits and cultures. The belief that travelling was a fundamental step for the “Bildung” of an adolescent is not something new, but it was rooted more or less in the seventeenth century, when it became fashionable among the young offspring of European aristocracy, artists and cultivated men to undertake a travel to Italy or better a “Tour“. The term “tour” replaced “travel” or “journey” as it marked the peculiar nature of this kind of voyaging, which was particularly long and broad, with start and finish in the same place. Many countries were visited but the dream destination was Italy.

grand 4In 1670, Richard Lassels coined in his “Italian Voyage” the expression “Grand Tour” a neologism that would have been universally adopted since then. For the “grandtourists” Italy was a mythical place, an open-air museum where the climate was always sunny and bright and nature wild, uncontaminated. The wealth of its archaeological sites, the legacy of Renaissance, the extraordinary musical vein were powerful appeals, but that was the myth as the reality these travelers found was very often quite disappointing.Impoverished countryisde, lifeless ports  and towns, dusty cultural activities and political institutions that seemed so rusted if compared to the more advanced European models, especially those in England. Goethe, who  had toured Italy for a couple of years, marked the contradictions of the country in his “Italianishe Reisen”  and in a second trip to Italy 1790 he sentenced: “Italy is still as I left it, still dust on the roads, still cheating habit. If you look for German honesty, you will look in vain.There is liveliness here, but no order and discipline. everybody thinks only of itself,  politicians included…..” uhmmm, if he could see Italy today, I think he would use more or less the same words. However, despite some bad reviews, the Italian seduction still worked.

grand 5The phenomenon, in fact, became wider and rich travelers had the habit of touring in the company of valets, doctors, musicians, painters. The Earl of Burlington , Richard Boyle, arrived in Italy with fifteen people besides his  gardener and accountant, Lady Marguerite Blessington used to travel on double spring carriages provided with mattresses and pillows and William Beckford, the son of a wealthy London merchant, was accompanied in his second trip to Italy by the artist JR Cozens, the Rev. John Lettice, his guardian and factotum, the doctor  Projectus Errhardt, the harpsichordist John Burton and by such a large party of friends that once in  Augusta he was mistaken for the Emperor of Austria. An anonymous traveler wrote: “this travel mania is so widespread, that there is not one wealthy citizen that doesn’t  wish to enjoy the beauties of Germany, France and Italy”. Furthermore the new extraordinary archaeological discoveries of Herculaneum (1738) and Pompei (1748) had enriched the itineraries of the “grandtourists”.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, with the modernization of society (new roads and railways, industrialization) the new generations of “grandtourists” seemed to have less time and money at their disposal. The length of the “tours” started to shorten and the new travelling rhythms  were signs of  the impoverishment of those cultural aspirations which had characterized them for more than a century. Travelling became less “sentimental” and more diversion, a sequence of organized information rather than a personal discovery. Hence these students, who have had the chance to experience the world just like the “grand tourists” used to do, are the last, fortunate “romantics”.

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