Text Messages | The trickery of time

We tend to think of time as progressive. But when stretched or reversed, it can lead to powerful plots and rich writing.

Time travel remains among the most enduring fascinations, a prospect to play with and a source of limitless speculation. Certainly for Britons of the fifth century, backwards travelling was acknowledged as possible in at least one prominent case: Merlin, the Mage of Britain.

As the chief mage, the most eminent “magician” or learned person, Merlin was respected, reviled, loved and feared. Whether he existed in the form he has come down to us, as the teacher and protector of King Arthur, is of course moot. But there is a substantial body of archaeological evidence that points to a British war leader who for a brief time after the Romans left Britain brought the Britons together successfully to ward off invaders from mainland Europe. He is thought to have worked closely with the chief druid: enter Merlin.

Merlin, some thought, was travelling from the future to the past, growing younger by the minute. It is an enchanting idea, doubly appealing because it contradicts our own experience and understanding of time and life as lived forwards to the future and to inescapable ageing and death. Time we feel, think and know as progressive, not retrograde, and from that flows so much matter for use in fiction of all stripes: fantasy, speculative, science and so-called literary.

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As an organising principle, time has rarely been more powerfully and pointedly used than in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The novel plays out in London in a single day, its hours marked by the portentous chimes of Big Ben. Despite the brevity of its duration, the novel seems to elongate time and the way it conveys the passing of time and of Time is remarkable. The narrative proceeds from the June morning when Mrs Dalloway takes herself off to buy flowers for that evening’s dinner party at her home to the shocking intrusion into that social occasion of the news of a suicide. It is a perfectly judged novel, richly portraying human relationships and how they grow and change – and all the more admirable given the small envelope of time in which everything is contained. 

An organising presence

Not since Mrs Dalloway has reading brought me into touch so potently with time as a factor and organising presence. It was delightful, then, to come across a novel that travels backwards, recounting first the present and then going back to the source of that present. The Western Wind by Samantha Harvey (Jonathan Cape, 2018) is set in the four days receding from Ash Wednesday of 1491. It pulls off its time trickery with consummate craft and art, and far from confusing the reader it brings greater clarity as Shrove Tuesday (17 February) recedes into Shrove Monday, Shrove Sunday and Shrove Saturday.

What makes this all the more dazzling as a feat of thinking, plotting and writing is that The Western Wind is on one level a detective mystery. Has Thomas Newman, the richest man in the village of Oakham, a great benefactor to the place and its people, disappeared, drowned or been killed? The reader is taken through the events of the four days via the eyes and ears and thoughts of the village priest, John Reve. Who better to narrate things? Reve is charged with pastoral care of the village faithful, a friend of the missing Newman, and omniscient in the sense that the villagers come to him for confession.

But it is all too easy to forget that narrators are characters, too, and that they are never the voice of the author. So the reader has to weigh Reve as he judges what he hears and sees. Harvey pulls off a spellbinding display of technical brilliance and authorial control, nudging the reader closer to the truth as the action moves further back into the past. Time travel has rarely been more beguiling and not often has the effect of time been better summed up than this:

“There it was: a morning like any other, nothing special in it at all. Yet it eclipsed every morning, afternoon or evening that had gone before. A memory as trivial to the world as a stone to the shore – and yet was everything I had left of her before the great mill of time heaved itself up and over and spilt her out. Annie and I had watched two parents die, and long before that a brother, another brother and a sister before they could even walk. I’d bid farewell to my own flesh and blood, then farewell again and farewell again, until all that was left was Annie. When she had her twentieth birthday I’d begun to wonder if I’d be spared her loss, since a woman not married by then might have seemed (to callow men) to be jetsam washed up. But then John Endall appeared, tepid and pleasant as a lettuce, and there it was: time had dealt its curse – since all things are a matter of time.”

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