Monday, 19 April 2010


Augustus Leopold Egg, Past and Present, 1859

The UEA reading tonight was the novelist, Jim Crace, some of whose work I have read and admired. I say it was a reading but the reading was a very short part of it, just five pages from his new book, All That Follows, the rest, most of an hour, a kind of introduction, autobiography, history and technical discourse. It was all fascinating, including the early political activism, idealism and notions of heroic action, but it was the technical part that stays with me now.

The way he told it was that he wanted to write this new book, this very different book, to address his youthful self in order to see where he was now, but that, stylistically, the book required a major change from the earlier work. He tried this and that but whatever he did, he said, the beginning felt 'baggy'. Then he turned on the radio to hear Stephen Pinker use the word 'baggy' in referring to the past tense. And that struck a spark. He changed his own book from past to present and then it came alive. He went on to enthuse about the present tense and offered a fascinating illustration from an anecdote about Groucho Marx.

In this anecdote, Groucho is in his seventies and is invited to a party he'd rather not attend. So he goes early, drinks early, does a few neat put-downs then leaves. Just as he is leaving the hostess stops him gently and asks him: Hope you had a good time? To which he answers: Yes, thank you, but this wasn't it. Groucho's past tense is a much longer past tense than the hostess's. I think that was the point. The important point was the intensity, the closeness, the tension of the present tense. It seemed to be a good thing.

And, of course, the Groucho anecdote is itself in the present tense, as are most jokes (Man goes into a bar...). But, as Crace was speaking, I began to wonder under what conditions the tension, the closeness, the intensity operated? Immediately, the thought of Kafka came to mind. Metamorphosis, for example, in the present tense would be quite a different thing (Man wakes up to find...). The classic fairy tale, of course, begins in the past tense (Once upon a time in a land far far away...)

So the next conjecture is that the present tense works far better in realism than it does in fable or fantasy. It might in fact be the realistic trope par excellence. OK. Simples. See Walter Benjamin, 'The Storyteller'.

But then there is also something sad about the past tense. Crace himself brought up the sentence: I want to see that film as an example of energy and drive, as opposed to, I wanted to see that film, which, he said, was a story. Well, a story is no bad thing, but the deep, real, unremitting fact that actually gets to you, is that you have missed the film. The film is done, gone, over, in the past. Too late, the saddest words.

So the past tense is doomed. All the present tense of the characters is in the past. Nothing can change any of that now. And somehow, in that past, which is another country, they do do things differently. They ride around in pumpkins, they slay dragons and they turn into insects of all descriptions. It is sad but liberating. Perhaps that liberated sense of melancholy is where the poetic imagination truly lives. What's the Faulkner book? Ah yes, As I Lay Dying...


thijsw said...

I am not quite convinced, George. 'I wanted to see that film' might well be followed by 'and actually four years later I did'. Past tense = story.

Diane said...

I want you to meditate on "melancholy", please, George. (See your last paragraph.)

George S said...

thijs - Yes, I understand, the half-cup full argument (my father, having lived at a time of empty cups, sincerely willed all cups to be at least half-full) -

BUT still didn't get to see the film when you wanted to see it, nor did your late proposal of marriage come in time (she has married someone else), nor did you get to your dying friend's bedside. Should I go on? While we are in the present tense all options are open: once in the past they are closed. That is why, ironically, the past can tell us the most extraordinary surreal tales, because by being in the past the tales seem to carry the guarantee of having happened.

Diane, I'll do my best.

Mark Granier said...

Interesting what you say about fairy tales, and true I think. But in a sense all novels are fairy tales, and, as Nabokov said, 'great novels are great fairy tales'. Senses are tonal, like colours on a palette; hopefully, one develops an instinct for how to apply them. I set a good deal of poems in the present tense. But this can come across (certainly in badly-written novels or stories) as over-eager, like the voice of a stranger whose confidences are too familiar, whose hands are just itching to grab your lapels.

Sometimes, frustratingly, the more 'real' and 'present' you attempt to make it, the more phony and dead it sounds; the rips in the stage-scenery begin to show. Instead of attempting to 'grip' you too hard, the past tense can offer a sense of witness, a sometimes necessary distance. It can provide breathing space, make room for the reader, and it can accommodate within its frame a great deal of the present's breathy here-and-nowness.

I just leafed through one of my favourite short story collections by a contemporary writer, Tobias Wolff's The Night In Question. All (or most anyway) are set in the past tense, but that certainly isn't how I remember them.

George S said...

So there are these three pigs, right?...

It is fascinating, Mark. Yes, novels may be fairy tales in some respects, but in others we expect them to obey the physical (and, generally, moral) laws of life. If we are in Dublin today at 3pm, we cannot also be in Vladivostok, not even at 4pm or 5pm. Maybe realism is primarily observance of physical laws, and maybe, the notion of character, as we generally think of it, can only develop under commonly agreed physical conditions.

There must also be moments when we know we are slipping into reality, or slipping into fable (hence magic realism). Peter Pan knows he has a real world of banks and chests of drawers, it's just that he chooses to live elsewhere, in a world where your shadow can be detached from you. In that world too Peter is real, but it's a different kind of reality.

I am not suggesting two entirely discreet worlds all the time, just tendencies.

Stephen F said...

The continuous present tense wears a reader out, I think. You can have it both ways, though:

'So I walk into this room, right, and there's this Groucho guy there, grouching about...'

That's past and present at the same time, isn't it? (And has some sort of fancy name? The imperfect present or something...?)

George S said...

Isn't it more like, So I walked into this room, right and there's this Groucho guy...?

So start in the past then switch?

Now I am lost too - except that I suspect this too would be a form of present tense from the realism point of view.

Stephen F said...

"Realist Loses Poet in Cyberspace"

It's like being back in the Plant Room in old CS : )