By Carole Reedy
Books have a unique way of stopping time in a particular moment and saying: Let’s not forget this.
— Dave Eggers, prolific writer and editor
Science fiction writers aren’t the only storytellers who work with the themes of time and space. Novelists, too, are beholden to time to create the masterpieces of literature we so deeply enjoy. In fact, writers of all genres magically engage readers through their philosophical treatment of the phenomenon of time. The authors here hail from one of three centuries and from five different cultures: French, British, American, German, and Polish. Their works, at the time they were written, were all revolutionary in style and structure, opening the door for future generations to understand and explore the context in which we live, evolve, feel, and observe.
We can never say enough about the mysterious ascendancy of time.
Topping the list of writers with a penchant for time and memory is the quirky, charming bon vivant Marcel Proust. Best known for recollecting his past after tasting a delectable madeleine, his seven-volume novel (more than a million words) still fascinates readers throughout the world and challenges and mystifies academics.
À La Recherche Du Temps Perdu (1913-27), Proust’s masterpiece, translates to English literally as In Search of Lost Time. However, the popular and dominant translation of Scottish Charles Kenneth Scott Moncrieff titles it Remembrance of Things Past, a subtle but significant difference.
Proust’s memories are involuntary, sparked by a smell or taste. They do not come bidden by a conscious search. Moncrieff’s title is inspired by and taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30, “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought, I summon up remembrance of things past.”
Proust’s tome has mesmerized readers for more than a century. And even though it is set in early 20th-century France, the behaviors, emotions, and habits of the characters remain recognizable today. Proust’s mastery of language and nuance is unmatched. The prose is among the most beautiful ever written.
From an early age Proust suffered from asthma, which remained with him into adulthood. He spent the last three years of his life in bed, writing all night and sleeping all day. He died at age 51 in 1922 from pneumonia.
The highly acclaimed British writer Virginia Woolf has been the focus of literary roundtables, college theses, and book club discussions for nearly a century. She was the forerunner of the stream-of-consciousness genre in which her characters observe their everyday surroundings in search of an understanding of life. The style is evident for creating an almost dreamy, trancelike state that welcomes the reader into new worlds.
Recently the Met Opera from New York presented a new production called The Hours. The drama is based on the 1998 novel of the same title by Michael Cunningham, which itself is based on Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) as well as Woolf’s life. Both books are among my favorites. The novel The Hours is a literary masterpiece in its juxtaposition of time and place.
Mrs. Dalloway is one of Woolf’s most enchanting works, and I believe it to be a perfect novel. The action is reduced to the course of one day in Mrs. Dalloway’s life, but it tells the story of a lifetime of experiences and emotions. The enigma of time.
Another of Woolf’s popular novels is To the Lighthouse (1927). Here the reader accompanies the Ramsey family to Scotland, a place they vacation regularly in the summer. But once again, with the twists of time, the story of a woman is told through the eyes of others as well as her own. The Scottish landscape functions as a significant character in this novel, which scrutinizes a woman’s life and relationships.
Sadly, as is the case with many persons of genius, Wolff suffered from bipolar disorder and depression. At age 59, she walked into the River Ouse in Northern England with a pocketful of rocks and drowned.
This 40-year-old American novelist has recently captured the attention of readers of all ages. Ruthless and bold in her craft, she painstakingly takes us on her characters’ searches for resolution and peace. The emotional development, upheaval, and final settlement of her main characters is only hesitantly revealed through the author’s singular unfolding.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation appeared on many best-seller lists in 2022. The sleep-induced self-cure of the protagonist develops slowly, making for a fascinating journey. Since I was completely satisfied with the novel, I then searched for this young innovative writer’s previous work.
Death in Her Hands (2020) caught my attention as it was tagged as a mystery, a genre among my personal favorites. Yet here is a completely different take. The action is disclosed to the reader exclusively from the point of view of the main character. All is auspiciously resolved in the end despite, perhaps, the reader’s doubt!
Fortunately, Moshfegh is young and undoubtedly is churning many ideas that will make their way into new novels for her demanding fans.
Thomas Mann suggested to his readers that once they finished his novel The Magic Mountain (1924), they read it again. Those who have done so claim it is the most magnificent novel ever written, and many more agree.
Although he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929, principally for Buddenbrooks (1901), a novel based on his own family, it is The Magic Mountain that brought Mann continued fame over the years. It continues to be named one of the best novels of all time.
Apart from the themes of life and death, Mann returns often to the subjective nature of time and our own perspective. In The Magic Mountain, the main character, Hans Castrop, comes to visit his cousin in a sanatorium, falls ill, and spends seven years there himself. The two engage in philosophical arguments about time: does “interest and novelty dispel or shorten the content of time, while monotony and emptiness hinder its passage”? The relationship of time and space is a continuing debate.
Mann lived a long interesting life, in both Germany (his home), Switzerland, and the US. Wartime conditions in Europe, especially in Germany, were the impetus for his relocations.
To know more about this highly regarded writer, I recommend a 2021 novel written by famed Irish author Colm Tóibin called The Magician, which is based on the life of Thomas Mann.
Take the opportunity to watch interviews with this surprisingly bubbly personality. Despite the serious nature of her subjects and writing, Tokarczuk has a contagious sense of humor. The obvious mutually respectful relationship with her English translator, Jennifer Croft, manifests itself in the superb results of this successful team.
Tokarczuk, a clinical psychologist, is a serious writer, evident in the recognition of her work by the Nobel committee in 2018, when she was awarded that coveted prize for “a narrative imagination that with encyclopedic passion represents the crossing of boundaries as a form of life.”
Her book Flights (2007) is a favorite. She won and shared with her translator the Man Booker International Prize for it in 2018. Judges for the National Book Award, for which the novel was short-listed, offer this description: “Brilliantly imagined characters and stories, interwoven with haunting, playful, and revelatory meditations, Flights explores what it means to be a traveler, a wanderer, a body in motion not only through space but through time.”
Tokarczuk’s epic novel, The Books of Jacob (2014) transports the reader over seven borders and five languages, starting in 1752 with the 18th century Polish-Jewish religious leader Jacob Frank, then evolving to the persecution of the Jews in the 20th century. It is her revelations of the past that prophesize and thus advance the pursuit of solutions to present-day problems.
At 61, this politically and socially aware author is active in rights of equality and respect for minorities.
Coincidentally, just before submitting this article I began reading Out Stealing Horses (2003) by Per Petterson. On page 6, I ran across this poignant note: “Time is important to me now, I tell myself. Not that it should pass quickly or slowly, but be only time, be something I live inside and fill with physical things and activities that I can divide it up by, so that it grows distinct to me and does not vanish when I am not looking.”