November 18th, 2010 / 4:40 pm
Craft Notes

Geography Thursday #14

A few years back, I attended this workshop Susan Steinberg taught, and she said something that rocked me: The only two things that are fundamental to narrative are place and conflict. Maybe I took her offhand comment too seriously, but I’ve really come to believe it. All good stories do indeed have place and conflict. They are cornerstones of narrative.

And so here I am, back at Geography Thursday, and rather than talk about place and space—two of the three big cornerstones of Human Geography, the third being scale—I will talk about neither, while discussing both.

I was recently reading this excellent little book by Helene Cixous (I’ll write a full review soon) called Zero’s Neighbour: Sam Beckett. And in it, she creates this triangulated narrative between herself, Beckett, and Proust. So naturally, after reading Cixous, I re-examined Beckett’s Proust. There, I found this gem (the ending of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past):

But were I granted time to accomplish my work, I would not fail to stamp it with the seal of that Time, now so forcibly present to my mind, and in it I would describe men, even at the risk of giving them the appearance of monstrous beings, as occupying in Time a much greater place than that so sparingly conceded to them in Space, a place indeed extended beyond measure, because, like giants plunged in the years, they touch at once those periods of their lives – separated by so many days – so far apart in Time.

That was Beckett’s translation. Just for kicks, here are three more translations. They pretty much say the “same thing,” but the nuances are too great for me to pass by.

But at least, if strength were granted me for long enough to accomplish my work, I should not fail even if the result were to make them resemble monsters, to describe men first and foremost as occupying a place, a very considerable place compared with the restricted on which is allotted to them in space, a place on the contrary immoderately prolonged – for simultaneously, like giants plunged not the years, they touch epochs that are immensely far apart, separated by the slow accretion of many, many days – in the dimension of Time. (Mayor)

If, at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of Time, the idea of which imposed itself upon me with so much force today, and would therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Tim infinitely more important than the one reserved for them in space, a place, on the contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through – between which so many days have ranged themselves – they stand like giants immersed in Time. (Hudson)

If, at least, there were granted to me time enough to complete my work I would not fail to stamp it with the seal of that Time the understanding of which was this day so forcibly impressing itself upon me, and I would therein describe men – even should that give them the semblance of monstrous creatures – as occupying in Time a place far more considerable than the so restricted one allotted them in space, a place, on the contrary, extending boundless since, giant-like, reaching far back into the years, they touch simultaneously epochs of their lives – with countless intervening days between – so widely separated from one another in Time. (Blossom)

Proust has me thinking about time, the importance of time, how time is—in many ways—as relevant as place, and yet, it’s something I so often forget about while writing. I mean, sure, things happen in time, but time itself is not given the same weight as setting or location, its specificity is ignored, unless it’s a historical novel or something.

In workshops, we learn “tricks” to help us deal with time: between lines of dialogue, add description to show the passage of time (see: “Hills like White Elephants”), but the creation of character through time is rarely expressed in an adequate manner, whereas the influence of place on a character is seen all the time. Of course, there are exceptions. Proust, obviously, and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway (also obvious).

What other narratives can you think of that put as much weight in time as they do in place? Do you think time is as important to place? I don’t know. I’ve had a long week, and Thursday is my Friday, so Friday, here I come.

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  1. Tim Horvath

      Time is so much more elusive than place, so much more mysterious; what is the vocabulary for talking about it, I wonder? A bit like talking about music, perhaps, which is itself so rooted in time.

      Perhaps an obvious example of a work that puts a lot more emphasis on time than place is Time’s Arrow. Some of Calvino’s Cosmicomics do the same. Uh, let’s see. “24”? Borges’s “Tlon, Uqbar Orbis Tertius”? I think it’s a cool idea to consider that time might be subject to examination in any piece, however, just as setting is, only more slippery, difficult to pin down in its specificity. Didn’t Ricoeur write a bunch of books on time and narrative?

      I was actually thinking of Amis’s work as I read Kyle Minor’s piece in the new Gulf Coast, which I dug…I think he does some really interesting things with time and causality in that piece, find ways to pose questions about the scale of time and how we attribute meaning itself differently given whatever aperture of time we are using at any moment.

      Okay, random thoughts…been a long week here, too.

  2. Sean

      14 is my favorite number. I embed the number in everything I write.

      So thank you.

  3. Tim Horvath

      One more thing–was led to think of this Canadian hypertext edition of The Sound and the Fury, another one in which of course time predominates. There are various cool time maps here, under “Visual Displays”, such as a 2D and 3D representation of time in the novel, and some others broken down by character p.o.v:

  4. Anon

      Out of Woolf’s oeuvre, Orlando seems to thematize time as well, though as a narrative through time, as opposed to the Dalloway narrative in which time collapses and is drawn into momentary instances.

  5. lily hoang

      faulkner hypertext is crazy.

  6. jackie wang

      holy crap!! cixous on beckett? i am reading that TOMORROW (longtime beckett obsessee)

  7. esha.

      a tale of two cities! :) i loved this.. your insight on the subject is very um.. motivating since i will read proust next (if i get hold of the book).

  8. deadgod

      Every narrative that makes explicit its sequence of events is exploiting ‘time’, into which those spatially parceled pages are fictively parceled by virtue of before-and-after. As well, texts put ‘time’ to the fore when they imitate/mock duration technically by repetition (of key words/phrases, images, and so on).

      Probably most people would echo Augustine’s puzzlement about how even to talk directly about ‘time’: “What, then, is time? If no one asks me, I know; if I want to explain it to a questioner, I don’t know.”

      A title that uses temporal words might be a clue to the writer’s interest in making the passing – or whatever it does or is – of time in the story essential to reading that story. In Light Years, by James Salter, I was caused to feel keenly the growing together, then growing apart together, of the married protagonists.