by Jessica Levine
When I was around fifteen and my father almost sixty, he said something that shocked me: “There are whole chapters of my life that I can’t remember.” And he proceeded to tell me which years he could no longer recall.
Because I wanted to write novels and knew that writers draw on their memories, the idea of not remembering years of one’s life, the major as well as the minor events, terrified me—like a kind of dying before the fact, an enormous loss not only of experience but also of creative raw material. It confirmed in me my habit of keeping a journal, for I saw my brain as a kind of library in which I was storing ever more volumes of remembered personal experience that might come in handy later on. A diary would serve as a kind of card catalogue, enabling me to go back and retrieve any information I would need when I began to write fiction.
My father was a devotee of Proust and liked to brag that he had read Remembrance of Things Past three times. This year I am currently living in Paris for the third time and remembering how, when I spent my 21st year here decades ago, I was inspired by my father’s example to plow through all of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu over the course of nine months. Having attended a lycée in New York, I’d learned to read in French before English, but much of the meaning escaped me as I waded through Proust’s long sentences and convoluted syntax. Yet I kept reading, addicted to his ruminations about love. I was too young to appreciate the depth of his reflections about the passage of time and would only become aware of his gifts as a humorist and social satirist later on. Still, the process of following the arc of a life over many volumes of fiction has remained with me as a real experience. Just as decades pass for the narrator of the Recherche, so the weeks and months passed for me as I read its volumes, one after the other. The form of the narrative as much as its content gave me a lived experience of the passage of time.
On the final page of the final volume, Le temps retrouvé (Time Regained), the narrator, encountering friends from his youth decades later at a social gathering, compares the perspective of looking back in time to that of standing on stilts looking down. The metaphor is introduced in two steps; in the first, the narrator describes his sense of the length and inescapability of his own past:
And I felt, as I say, a sensation of weariness and almost of terror at the thought that all this length of Time had not only, without interruption, been lived, experienced, secreted by me, that it was my life, was in fact me, but also that I was compelled so long as I was alive to keep it attached to me, that it supported me and that, perched on its giddy summit, I could not myself make a movement without displacing it. A feeling of vertigo seized me as I looked down beneath me, yet within me, as though from a height, which was my own height, of many leagues, at the long series of the years.
The metaphor of the stilts comes next, when the narrator sees an old friend, the aged Duc de Guermantes:
[He] had advanced with difficulty, trembling like a leaf, upon the almost unmanageable summit of his eighty-three years, as though men spend their lives perched upon living stilts which never cease to grow until sometimes they become taller than church steeples…
I found the passage haunting and mysterious enough to recall through the passing years. Now, in my fifties, I recognize the full richness of the stilts metaphor. Prior events, personal as well as historical, if not forgotten, do indeed seem “smaller” with the passage of years, as though seen through the wrong end of a telescope. Yet if I go back to those past events and “zoom” in on them¾using memory, diaries, or accounts of historical events¾they take on a certain massiveness, a kind of “crystallization” (to recycle a term Stendhal used in writing about love). Events can be shrunken or magnified, warped or embellished by memory. And what is memory but the way in which we tell ourselves stories about our own lives?
Proust was one of a wave of modernists, including Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, and Faulkner, who changed the way writers approach time and memory in fiction. In Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses entire lives are evoked through the minute examination of a single day in which descriptions of present time are augmented by memories. In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, we travel backward and forward in time through different consciousnesses. The first section of that novel uses the consciousness of a mentally disabled person, Benjy Compson, as an excuse to do something that was innovative in 1929—to completely disregard linear time in order to evoke the jumble that is lived experience. The irony is that the resulting incoherence resembles the mental processes of many a healthy person. Clock time and the aging of the physical body may move forward in a linear fashion, but the mind has a tendency to wander back and forth, going one way or another depending on the emotional trigger of the moment.
It’s no coincidence that Time should have opened up as a fourth dimension worthy of literary treatment at the same time as Freud and Jung were exploring the subconscious. Our experience of time, ultimately, is rendered not by calendars or clocks, but by the way we internalize, process, and (sometimes randomly) recall past events on conscious and unconscious levels—reflecting something essential about the human experience: as the mindfulness movement has demonstrated, it is very difficult for us humans to reside in the now. Our minds, with their memories and fantasies, are perpetually going backward and forward in time. And the older we get, the more fascinating our personal and collective histories become, since we know better the ways in which time’s passage colors the lens of recollection.
In writing time, contemporary authors have almost too much choice. They can expand it to decades or contract it to a day or less, like an accordion. One can also compare temporal structure to the lens of a camera, as narrators can either “zoom in” to bring the reader right into the moment or “zoom out” to accentuate the passage of time: it can jump forward and backward, as Faulkner’s Benjy does.
Popular culture too has been playing with temporal direction for some time. On Romance University: R U Ready?, a site for romance writers, a guest blogger uses Einstein and Stephen Hawking to ground her discussion of non-linear narratives. In the popular television series, How I Met Your Mother, a retrospective frame holds the story’s “present” events about a group of 30-something friends. This frame is provided by a character named Ted who, from the perspective of a moment in the year 2020, tells his children the events in the past leading up to his meeting their mother. There are also flashbacks to Ted’s college years, when he met his friends. In short, not only in literary fiction, but in mass fiction and TV culture as well, there seems to be an appetite for complication as more and more readers and spectators are willing to take on non-linear narratives.
Although contemporary readers, like contemporary watchers of TV, are increasingly sophisticated, writers need to accommodate readers’ need for intelligibility. When the show is over, so to speak, readers and spectators—”story consumers”—will want to be able to say that event A was followed by B and then C, and so forth. They will want an understanding that satisfies the need to know “what happened.” And, although readers enjoy challenge, many are reading at the end of a long day, or their attention spans are compromised by beeping gadgets, work, and family. Writers need to be aware that there is a tipping point beyond which complexity will lose them their audience. In short, our chaotic experience of time ultimately needs to be poured into a container that organizes it for consumption.
One of the advantages of being an over-40 writer is that we have rich experiences living the passage of time and remembering (or not remembering) its events, experiences we can use to inform our treatment of temporal structure in writing long-form narrative. Over the next months, in this series of essays for Bloom, I will be looking at various ways of writing time. Next up I will be discussing a format that has been popular for a while, that of switching back and forth between two points in time, usually decades apart. Examples include Susan Minot‘s Evening, and the more recent Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter and The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon. These are novels in which there is a constant commuting back and forth between events of youth and middle or old age. I’ll explore the particular benefits and also the dangers of that temporal form.
See you at the next stop, time travelers.
Click here to read Jessica Levine’s previous essay for Bloom, “Messing Up the Drawing Room: Wharton, Olsen, and the Quest for Validation.”
Jessica Levine is the author of The Geometry of Love (She Writes Press, 2014) and Delicate Pursuit: Discretion in Henry James and Edith Wharton (Routledge, 2002). Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in many publications including The Southern Review, The Huffington Post, and North American Review. She normally lives in Berkeley, California, but is living in Paris for a year where she blogs about French culture at jessicalevine.com/paris/