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How novels are like time machines

Recently, Lebanon lived through two time zones at once. For years, however, novels have slowed time down, speeded it up, and travelled across past, present, and future.

April 01, 2023 / 08:26 AM IST
Novels about different timelines, time travel and time's subjective motion continue to appear. (Image by Morgan Housel via Unsplash)

Novels about different timelines, time travel and time's subjective motion continue to appear. (Image by Morgan Housel via Unsplash)

What’s the time? If you had asked this question in Beirut recently, the answer would have told you more about the person replying than the actual time.

Lebanon was scheduled to turn its clocks forward under the Daylight Saving Time protocol last week, along with much of Europe. However, a disagreement between Muslims observing Ramadan and Maronite church authorities meant that, for a while at least, millions of people were unofficially living in two different time zones.

This led to short-term chaos in airports, businesses, and in general across the country. That apart, the last thing people coping with a debilitated economy need is even a hint of sectarian disagreement.

The same country has a rich, centuries-old tradition of clockmaking. It is also home to some famous clock towers, including one in Beirut's Nejmeh Square built during the French Mandate, and the Ottoman-era Sultan Abdul Hamid Clock in Tripoli.

Sultan Abdul Hamid Clock in Tripoli Sultan Abdul Hamid Clock. (Photo by Tayssir Kadamany via Pexels)

Novelist Amal El-Mohtar, who is of Lebanese origin, recently upended this chronological spirit in an SF novella, This is How You Lose the Time War, co-written with Max Gladstone. It is an anarchic, fractured tale dealing with agents from warring empires travelling back and forth in time across multiple universes.

Time travel has been a time-honoured subject for novelists since H.G. Wells wrote The Time Machine in 1895. (Although a few decades earlier, Charles Dickens also ranged over past, present, and future in A Christmas Carol.) Many science fiction writers have explored the notion of time in ingenious ways, often exceeding their counterparts in literary fiction.

There’s no shortage of invention, though. If F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Benjamin Button ages backwards, in Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow, the arrow in question flies in reverse. Meanwhile, those on the planet of Trafalmadore in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five take in the past, present, and future at a single glance.

Novels about different timelines continue to appear. Take the rather twee series by Toshikazu Kawaguchi set in a Tokyo coffee shop that is a launchpad for returning to earlier life events. More absorbing is the multiverse spin of Kiran Manral’s All Those Who Wander, in which characters realise that “what we experienced of time in our regular life was just one strand of a complex tapestry”.

It’s in Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams that concepts of time are perhaps most evocatively explored in a work of fiction. A remarkable feat for a book of less than 200 pages. In a Calvino-esque move, Lightman structures the work around a series of dreams by the German physicist during the time he was working at a patent office in the Swiss town of Bern.

Each vivid vision shows how the townspeople would behave if they experienced time differently. In one, time is a circle, bending back on itself, reminiscent of ancient Indian thought. In another dream, time flows like water, occasionally displaced by breeze or debris. In yet others, it flows backward, or has another dimension, or is split into two.

Modernist writers paid special attention to time’s subjective motion. William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury features four narrators, each with an individual sense of time’s passage. James Joyce’s Ulysses stretches the events of 24 hours into a capaciously inventive work, and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, similarly set during the course of a single day, is interspersed with the periodic chimes of Big Ben.

The short second section of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is striking in this regard. Titled ‘Time Passes’, it conveys and compresses the impact of the Great War in a series of fragmentary episodes. Here, time is an impassive, indifferent character acting on the others in the novel.

For other writers, time is the air their characters breathe and are intimately affected by. In Salman Rushdie’s The Moor’s Last Sigh, the protagonist ages twice as fast as everyone else; in Amitav Ghosh’s The Shadow Lines, past events separated in time fuse in the narrator’s memory to inform the present.

Eudora Welty felt that “the novelist lives on closer terms with time than he does with place”. In her essay, ‘Some Notes on Time in Fiction’, she goes on to show how. Plenty of myths and legends, she points out, are constructed out of time: the riddle of the Sphinx, Penelope’s web, and the frame story of the Thousand and One Nights, for example.

In Aristotelian fashion, Welty continues that time is “the bringer-on of action, the instrument of change”. Fiction does not hesitate “to accelerate time, slow it down, project it forward or run it backward, cause it to skip over itself or repeat itself”. Writers like Thomas Mann and Marcel Proust find ways “to make time give back all it has taken, through turning life by way of the memory into art”.

For Henri Bergson, lived time was dynamic, not static; for Gottfried Leibniz, time was the thread on which events are strung. For Carlo Rovelli, time has multiple distinct properties; and for Dean Buonomano, our brains are time machines that remember the past to predict the future. There are theories aplenty, and it’s only in novels that we can come close to fathoming the ways in which we spend it, buy it, kill it, waste it, and make it fly.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Apr 1, 2023 08:26 am