Neil Rathmell – writer

150+ essays on literary topics

Proust, Einstein and the modern European novel

In the hundred years or so since Marcel Proust wrote A la recherche du temps perdu, Time has become one of the dominant themes of European literature. Patrick Modiano, W.G.Sebald, Javier Marías, French, German, Spanish, all wrote novels about the unreliability of memory, about the way that real events change, even as they happen, into unreliable memories. Laurent Binet, French historian and novelist, wrote the literary equivalent of the Pompidou centre in Hhhh, which is neither novel nor history and has all its inner workings on the outside.

Was it Proust who started this or was it Einstein? It might have been the General Theory of Relativity, rather than A la recherche du temps perdu, that made Time the grand theme of the twentieth century. The equation between Time and Space was what excited novelists. It offered a new kind of narrative, one that worked both temporally and spatially. Then again, there was St Augustine who, in his Confessions, gave T.S.Eliot the inspiration for Burnt Norton and the idea that ‘all time is eternally present’. However it began, Time, in the twentieth century, was an idea whose time had come.

Until then, Time was simply a fact of life. The earth, for everyone except astronomers, was flat. Even today, it is difficult to go about your daily life on any assumption other than that the ground you are standing on can be relied on not to move. All your senses tell you that you are not spinning round in space. The extent to which the medieval world view, with its Wheel of Fortune and its Grim Reaper, persists in the modern world is perhaps too little noticed.

That anyway is how we see things in England. The more philosophically minded Europeans, Modiano, Sebald, Marías and the rest, are excited by the possibilities of Time in a way that we are not. We like things chronological, we like the earth to be still and England to be the centre of it. We like history à la Mantel, not à la Binet. Here in England, on quiet nights, you can still hear the Music of the Spheres.

“Time,” said Viola, in Twelfth Night, “thou must untangle this, not I. ‘Tis too hard a knot for me t’ untie!” The idea that Time, in the world of the modern European novel, could untangle anything would be absurd. Time, in its complicated relationship with Space, is what tangles things up in the first place. Victor, the protagonist of Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me by Javier Marías, sees a prostitute on the street and mistakes her for the wife he left six months ago. Even after he has picked her up, driven around with her, taken her back to his flat and slept with her, he is still not sure whether she is his ex-wife or not. Victor is a man who has no illusions about the earth being either flat or still. Time leaves behind an endless series of fleeting impressions, the truth of which can never be proved. Words we have read before flash past us over and over again throughout the novel, reminding us that we have been here before. But when? Instead of placing us comfortably, predictably, on a Wheel of Fortune, Marías drops us onto a merry-go-round already in motion and leaves us to work out who is doing the moving.

Marías takes the title of his novel from Richard III, specifically from Act V, scene 3, in which Richard is haunted by the ghosts of his victims. “Tomorrow in the battle think on me,” says the ghost of the murdered Clarence, “and fall thy edgeless sword. Despair and die!” Marías is a scholar who lectured in English literature at Oxford for several years. He knows his Shakespeare and he knows that ghosts don’t behave in modern Madrid as they did in old England. Richard’s ghosts come to him in an orderly procession, Victor goes in search of his. He waits in doorways for them, picks them up on the street, spies on them in their houses. And when he sees them, he is never quite sure who they are.

W.G.Sebald illustrated Austerlitz, a novel about a man trying to find out who he is and where he came from, with old black-and-white photographs. They are like the fragments of Richard III which Marías leaves lying around on the pages of his novel. They are clues to a mystery which is never quite solved, because what was once real can only be real once. Like Sebald, Modiano sends his characters on long, fruitless searches for people they once knew in places where they once lived, hoping to catch them, perhaps, at the precise time and place where Time and Space intersect. All Modiano’s novels are the same and that’s the point. Fiction as we know it, with its chronological narrative, its secrets to be revealed, its mysteries to be solved, is not life as we know it.

The grand theme of the first hundred years or so of English literature was the conflict between morality and the human passions. After the English Revolution, the themes were religion, hypocrisy and reason. From the start of the Industrial Revolution, English writers concentrated instead on their own feelings and the state of English society. They have continued to do so down to the present day. The influence of Proust or Einstein or even St Augustine has been felt much less here than in the rest of Europe. Why that should be so is hard to say but, now that we have control of our borders again, we will presumably be even better protected from their influence than we were before.

proust 01

Marcel Proust, 1871-1922

Coming up
Hamlet, a post-Reformation tragedy
31 August 2016

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This entry was posted on August 17, 2016 by in Literature and tagged , , , , .
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