A week or so ago when I was looking at things to include in a page of Site Essentials as a guide for visitors, I reread the Interview question from Alvin Greenberg along with my answer to it. Al, who’s published many fine books of poetry and fiction, has also written a moving memoir of his effort to learn about his mother who died when he was born, a fact he didn’t learn from his father and stepmother until he received a card when he was in college that revealed an unknown set of relatives. Al’s research for that book was partly genealogical in character since he was trying to discover information about a family and ancestors he didn’t know, research we talked about when I was doing my own genealogical work to fill in family gaps for Suite Harmonic.
In Al’s question, he wondered about my exploration of time in my fiction—something he has done as well—particularly the reverse chronologies I used in Time Stamp and Clare, Loving. In talking about those books, I’ve always said that once I’d settled on the structure and written the books with those frameworks embedded, they seemed essential to the finished work. In responding to Al, I talked about that in more detail, but my main point was that the books gain an extra layer of meaning when the reader meets both Clare in Clare, Loving and Maddie, the main character in the alternating chapters of Time Stamp, as adults with their earlier life revealed as their stories move backward in intervals of time.
While I was thinking about this again, I realized it’s probably not a coincidence that both Al and I have used genealogical research in some of our work. It was necessary for telling our family stories, of course—The Dog of Memory for him, Suite Harmonic for me. But I also remember his fascination with learning about his grandfather and tracing what had been invisible links to his own life. For me, in writing Suite Harmonic, I had a writer’s goal—I thought John Given’s story was amazing and I wanted to tell it—but I also found I had almost a longing to understand what the life of this great-grandfather of mine had really been like, what it might tell me of who I am. I suspect that is the quest of most people who do genealogical research, that they want to know more than just names to place on a chart. They want to learn something of who the people were and what their lives were like in order to feel more whole themselves.
For me these pieces–using a book’s chronology to reveal the basis of character in two books and doing genealogical research for another book–fit naturally together since both are about the same observation: we are partly a product of the stories we’ve lived and of the stories that preceded us in the lives of our parents and ancestors. From considering that idea, my thoughts moved to the way people—both real and fictional—live in a mix of past, present, and future, and how that affects story and how writers write. I suspect, for instance, that most popular fiction is lodged very firmly in the present and the aborbing, page-turning nature of stories in which something is always happening right now. If escapist fiction earns its name, much of what it escapes must be the heavy demands of both past and future that may play a role in more literary work. I don’t mean that characters lack back story or that a sense of the looming, often threatening future isn’t required to build the serious tension that is often part of popular fiction. It’s rather that the characters live very much in the minute to minute world of the present and are not wedged in the past or obsessed with a tranformational future.
The case is very different in much of the literary canon. I’m thinking particularly of two wonderful short stories, which are also two of my Favorites. The first is “Prelude” by Katherine Mansfield, a story in which each female character cannot really live in the present because of the pull of the future, each character dreaming her life will be more fulfilling when she can trade the limitations of her own station for the imagined opportunities of a character at the next stage of life. Kezia is fascinated with her glamorous Aunt Beryl. Beryl believes her sister must be satisfied because she is a married woman, while Linda, the married sister, feels trapped by the physical realities of her marriage and wishes for something else, which she thinks her mother, whom she finds beautiful in age, understands and represents. A suggestion of the past enters only with the mother herself, “old Mrs. Fairchild,” who is entirely smitten with the childhood of Kezia and her sisters, a time that, for her, is long in the past. It’s a nuanced and beautifully detailed story. I can’t begin to suggest its richness here, but its larger point seems to be that life will always be disappointing in the moment, yet will also always hold a dream, and that that is somehow enough.
The other story I’m thinking of is Joyce’s “The Dead” in which the events and aftermath of its Dublin holiday party undergird the story’s great theme: the grip of the dead and the past on the present. Gabriel, the story’s main character, is ill at ease throughout the party, his greatest distress coming from his encounter with Molly Ivors who is one of the enthusiasts for Irish nationalism and the Irish language, a language he does not consider to be his, but dead. He is, in fact, upset at what he considers an intellectual dalliance with an idea he feels will lock Ireland firmly in its past, undermining the indigenous humanity, humor, and hospitality its future depends on.
While the story pays homage to dead tenors and refers to monks who sleep in their coffins, the most important of the story’s dead is Michael Furey, a boy from Gabriel’s wife’s past. She is melancholy remembering how he died for her, a story that, when Gabriel learns it, makes him feel he has never loved with such a selfless passion and so has never really loved at all. The evening draws to a close with the snow that, famously, is “general all over Ireland,” and Gabriel hears it “falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.”
The past clings in Joyce’s Ireland and Gabriel’s life, inescapably oppressive. It is a darker role than I usually give it in my work or have found in writers like Al Greenberg. While the past can be full of ineffable sadnesses, its main function for me and many other writers is to play in the lives of characters as memory and shaper of self more than unyielding weight. It’s a companion piece to the lure of the future that exists in the work of a Katherine Mansfield and, really, most other writers. At its simplest, this linkage is fiction illuminating life, that place where our sense of the world is always a mixture of time.