by Jessica Levine
Following is the second installment of Jessica Levine’s series on the treatment of time in fiction. Click here to read the first installment, in which she writes about Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, among other works.
Retrospective fiction, like any autobiography or memoir, implies a double focus: the “then” of past events and the “now” of a later moment, which is experienced as the present and provides the principal point of temporal reference. But unlike an autobiography, which may be written simply to document one’s life for future generations, a fictional retrospective may be set in motion by more dramatic motives, and the uncovering of past events may give rise to a second story in the “present.” Many contemporary screenwriters and novelists have expanded the later moment in time into a fully developed narrative strand.
Stories that adopt this double track have a special fascination for me, as I am currently writing a second novel that “commutes” between the protagonist’s youth (1979) and middle age (2004). My intention is to weave these two narrative threads together in such a way that recollections of past events give rise to insights and actions in the later period. The act of recollecting brings a new understanding of past actions that ultimately changes the course of the protagonist’s life years later.
Over the past few years my project has led me to seek inspiration in novels and films that have adopted this form of moving back and forth between two points in time. In studying these works, I’ve begun an evolving list of “rules” for writing stories that braid time. For example, I’ve found that the doubled structure is most likely to be successful when the later point in time has its own forward-moving story. Difficulties arise when this “present” is static instead of narrative. Thus, rule one for works with two time strands: each point in time must generate its own plot.
This may seem obvious until one considers works that don’t observe the rule.
Consider “Iron Lady,” the biopic in which Margaret Thatcher, played by Meryl Streep, reviews her life from the point of view of an onset of dementia. The prime minister’s old age thus constitutes the point in time from which the retrospective is given. While this frame adds pathos to her portrait, it is static in a way that makes me, as the viewer, want to hurry back to the other thread, namely the story of her rise in politics. The switches to old age become an annoyance, slowing down the story of her life.
A beautifully written novel that wrestles with the same structural problem is Susan Minot’s Evening (1998), which moves back and forth between 1994 and 1954 as Ann Grant lies on her death bed. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she recalls a youthful affair, which, eclipsing her three marriages, returns as the most life-affirming experience she has had. The story set in the past is lush and erotic, and the stream-of-consciousness writing reflects both the morphine-induced hallucinatory state in which she recollects it, as well as the intense passion she experienced decades before.
The sick-bed frame has a certain dead-end—pun intended—quality to it: the action must end with the character’s death. Every time the narration switched from Ann’s youth to her dying, I felt trapped, impatient. Fortunately Minot’s brilliant style saves the novel from being depressing. She uses the later point in time not only to explore end-of-life issues but also, thanks to the device of a morphine-influenced consciousness, to take stream-of-consciousness writing to its limits. Language in her hands becomes hallucinatory as it reverses the direction of time, proliferates inventive metaphors, and explodes with emotion—in short, turns a life into poetry.
The life retrospective form of Evening is common in fiction. While Minot takes the end of a life as a vantage point, contemporary fiction often locates the point of retrospective telling in middle age. This offers the possibility of embedding a story about youth into a story of mid-life crisis or change—a possibility suggested but not fully exploited in The Pregnant Widow by Martin Amis (2010). Amis’s novel is an entertaining romp which looks back on the sexual revolution of the 1970s from the year 2009. The narrative is temporally located mostly in the past with occasional flash-forwards to the 21st century. A desire to take stock of the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s is established early on as the motive for the protagonist’s recollections, but the last chapters become scattered as they give snippet accounts of the decades that followed. A sense of haphazard meandering and a lack of resolution mar the conclusion of this novel.
A more successful example of braiding past and present narrative threads is The Love of My Youth by Mary Gordon (2011), in which a middle-aged woman renews acquaintance with her 1960s high-school boyfriend. Adam and Miranda were deeply in love at 16, then their relationship began to decay in college. It ultimately fell apart when Adam betrayed Miranda by sleeping with someone else. When the other woman got pregnant, Adam felt obliged to marry her and ended his relationship with Miranda.
Early in their relationship Miranda and Adam spent blissful time together in Rome, and they are coincidentally both visiting that city again forty years later when a common friend reintroduces them. They take ten walks together over the course of ten days, not only reviewing the past but processing it.
Structurally Gordon’s novel works very well because there is a plot informing both points in time. While the present plot has more pages to it, the past narrative provides the engine for the psychological work that needs to be done during the characters’ reunion. We learn the details of Adam and Miranda’s youthful love story—the magic of their courtship, the painful differences between their goals and beliefs that eventually emerged, and Adam’s eventual destruction of their relationship. We are given to understand that Miranda was deeply wounded by Adam’s betrayal, which changed the course of her life. As for Adam, his early mistake forced him into a marriage that proved disastrous.
There are two engines of suspense in the present layer of The Love of My Youth. The first is the necessity to come to terms with the past: Adam is seeking Miranda’s forgiveness, and Miranda must let go of the old hurt in order to do so. Secrets emerge, facilitating the process. Miranda learns that the woman Adam married eventually committed suicide, that their son went on to join the military and is implicated in the torture at Abu Ghraib. Miranda’s compassion for Adam’s pain enables her to forgive him. And the playing field is leveled when Miranda reveals her own secret, that she was unfaithful to Adam before he betrayed her.
The second engine of suspense concerns the question of whether Adam and Miranda might pick up where they left off and have an affair in middle age. That possibility lies quietly in the wings at all times. Ultimately they turn away from their attraction to each other. Each is happily married and the desire they feel, although very real, is not strong enough to overcome the obstacles. There is something admirably realistic about this accounting, which belies the sentimental title of the novel.
Not only do the two time periods in The Love of My Youth each have distinct plot lines, but they also offer moments that serve as triggers for the switches back and forth: revelations about the past impact the present. Sometimes the trigger is simply a change in mood. For example, the first full flashback occurs about a third of the way into the novel. During their reunion, Adam and Miranda have a conversation in which memories of their departure for college leads to thoughts about aging. Miranda wonders why exhilaration is so difficult to come by in middle age. Then Adam drops a comment that makes her wonder whether he has had a heart attack. A feeling of wistfulness, of longing back for the intensity and health of youth, prepares the way for the next chapter, which takes us back to their meeting in high school.
This leads me to rule two: switches from one time period to the other must be motivated. A.S. Byatt’s complex and brilliant novel, Possession, is another work that executes this braiding artfully. The story begins as two literary critics in 1980s Britain meet and join forces to do research on two Victorian poets. Roland is a scholar at Oxford researching the life of a (fictional) major poet named Randolph Henry Ash, and Maud studies a fictional minor poet, Christabel LaMotte, whom Ash may have loved. The novel, which has been described as a combination romance and detective story, tells two love stories that are over a century apart. In the twentieth century, Roland and Maud gradually fall in love as they work together. In the nineteenth, there is the love affair that the two scholars uncover between Christabel and the married Ash.
The two story lines are linked in multiple ways. On the level of plot, as Roland and Maud follow a trail of clues to prove that Ash had an extramarital affair, they not only challenge the received notion of Ash as a respectable Victorian, but also compete with other scholars and fight for their careers. Then there are thematic and psychological parallels between the two centuries. Maud is a critic whose feminist frame of reference has affected her ability to experience her life and sexuality with any directness or immediacy. She is celibate, having achieved independence at the cost of connection with another human being. A parallel is implied with Christabel, a great-aunt of Maud’s and a spinster, whose freedom from marriage and child rearing afforded her liberty unusual for a Victorian woman. Christabel also lived with another woman, Blanche, in a relationship with lesbian overtones. Maud’s quest for autonomy and her resistance to the male thus echo Christabel Lamotte’s proto-feminist quest for authorship and self-determination in mid-19th century England.
In Possession, the modern story provides a fat, juicy “frame” for the Victorian one, a frame that elaborately and carefully prepares each switch to the past. The shift into the past story is done slowly and in stages. First there is a single mysterious letter suggesting a liaison between Ash and Christabel. Then a trove of letters between these two poets is discovered. Poems written by the two poets are compared for similarities in imagery that would connect them. Next, the diary of Ash’s wife is introduced, and so on. The Victorian era gradually comes to life as the two scholar protagonists scan these documents for evidence of an extramarital liaison. It is only half-way through the novel, when the accumulated evidence makes the reader want the great poet Ash to betray his lovely wife, that the omniscient narrator takes us directly into a scene between Ash and Christabel. We see them in a train car together traveling to a seaside resort where they will consummate their love and spend a week together.
Possession thus sets up causal chains that work backward and forward in time: every step the modern scholars take uncovers a piece of a past story. And each piece of that recovered story spurns them on to further investigation and heightens the tension between them. Thus it is that Roland and Maud find themselves literally following their Victorian counterparts’ footsteps, first by replicating a journey Ash took to the countryside in England and then Christabel’s journey to Brittany where she secretly gave birth to Ash’s child.
The temporal switches in The Love of My Youth and Possession do more than create narrative suspense. They create historical arcs that explore the big questions of life: that is the way things were and this is the way they are now, the writer proposes; let’s think about what those similarities and differences mean for us as a species. Mary Gordon explores loss, personal change, and healing. A.S. Byatt is fascinated by gender roles and the relationship between body and mind. The scope of these reflection are enormous, stimulating, and moving. This leads me to rule three: the rewards of braiding two time strands together must be worth the risk of losing the reader at switches (i.e., the whole must be greater than the sum of its parts).
In some ways the challenges of switching back and forth between two points in time resemble the issues raised by switching between any two very different plot lines, even temporally simultaneous ones. Think of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, which switches back and forth between the story of the adulterous Anna, whose shame and loss of social position ultimately lead her to suicide, and that of Levin, who struggles as husband and a land owner dealing with the last days of serfdom in Tsarist Russia. Tolstoy could easily have written two separate novels, one about an adulterous woman, the other about a landowner’s travails. If he had done so, Anna’s story would have been a best-seller and Levin’s story, with its reflections about agrarian reform and moralizing, would have been panned. But if Tolstoy had excised Levin’s story he would have missed the opportunity to create the social and human panorama that makes the work a masterpiece. For, if Anna’s story takes us into the paradoxical combination of privilege and entrapment experienced by aristocratic women, Levin’s opens up the world of a landowner contending with the legacy of serfdom in the context of a recently liberated peasantry. By working with two stories about two very different people—one female, aristocratic, and urban, and the other male, a landowner, and rural—Tolstoy was able to explore many sides of the human experience and of Russia’s social and historical heritage. Similarly, a double-stranded structure must not only make interconnections work, it must also present large “stakes.” When a novel commutes between two periods of time, it can, if successful, reward us with the arc of a life, the work of Time, and the sweep of history.
Recently I asked students in a workshop I’m running to read the opening section of my novel-in-progress, which begins with a character leading a normative life as wife and mother then moves back in time to her more exciting youth in Europe. My first drafts focused on Anna’s early life abroad, which seemed intrinsically more interesting than her middle age, and so I was surprised that my readers felt I had moved too quickly into her past. They wanted to know more about the character’s “present.” They asked the question: what in Anna’s present life leaves her open to be destabilized by a return of someone she knew decades before? Their critique helped me understand that if I bring the present clearly into focus before launching into the flashback, the drama will be heightened when the past returns to disrupt it.
A writer braiding time strands is necessarily making a study in contrasts. For this to work, the later point in time must call out to the earlier one, conjuring it as a necessary thing. The present strand might contain a personal story that is incomplete, or a character who needs to be healed, or a historical wrong that needs to be righted. When the past story obeys this imperative, the two strands of the novel become interdependent and the reader becomes a willing commuter in time whose act of reading performs the satisfying resolution of an unfinished story.
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/
Click here to read Jessica Levine’s previous essay for Bloom, “Messing Up the Drawing Room: Wharton, Olsen, and the Quest for Validation.”