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...