Novels that tell multiple stories across different historical periods have become a staple of contemporary literatureby Sam Sacks / August 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in September issue of Prospect Magazine
Time rarely goes straight in literature any longer. The smooth, uninterrupted passage from a beginning to an ending has fallen out of favour. Instead, books that juxtapose multiple stories from different periods in time—such as AS Byatt’s Possession, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and recently Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz—have grown into a genre of their own. Once a sci-fi plot conceit, time travel has become among the most popular structural devices in contemporary fiction. Today “time machine fiction” reigns supreme.
One signature element of these books recalls 19th-century novels, whose meanings (and satisfactions) grew from the organisation of parallel plots. Think of the constellation of indirectly connected characters in George Eliot’s Middlemarch, or the forking destinies in Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. Spinning multiple stories, which could converge and diverge at telling moments, was a way for novelists to build a world out of individuals.
But the classics of 19th-century fiction largely operate in a single time frame. Breaking such boundaries was the fancy of political works such as The Time Machine by HG Wells, which voyages to the year 802,701 to tell a cautionary tale about the dangers of social engineering, or Mark Twain’s satire A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. These were novels more concerned with illustrating ideas than with examining lives. Wells famously quarrelled with Henry James over just this distinction. James’s books, he thought, aimed to give a convincing rendering of the characters’ experiences. Wells, who claimed to be more of a journalist than a novelist, wanted his books to set out an argument. Today’s time machine fiction is the offspring of both writers—combining the Jamesian attention to character we associate with modern “literary fiction” with the high-concept, didactic approach of Wells.
Although there were antecedents, such as Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940, the modern “time machine novel” began to take shape in the final decades of the 20th century. Until then, the freedom to play with time marked one of the differences between low-brow “genre” fiction and high-brow “literary” fiction. Historical novels and sci-fi happily transported readers to any time they liked. Modernists like Marcel Proust and Virginia Woolf were more interested in the way their characters experienced the passage of time. (Although there are, of course, plenty of exceptions to this rule of thumb—not least Woolf’s Orlando.)
The change came with the rise of postmodernism in the 1970s, which gleefully appropriated the tricks of “low-brow” fiction. John Barth and Joseph Heller subverted the traditional, plot-heavy historical novel, filling it with absurd anachronisms. Richard Powers’s book Three Farmers on Their Way to a Dance brilliantly intertwined stories from divergent time periods to reveal complex, hidden patterns of history and biology. Well before the commercial breakthrough of Possession in 1990, AS Byatt was exploring the juxtaposition of past eras—The Virgin in the Garden takes place in the 1950s at the time of the coronation of Elizabeth II, but constantly alludes to the reign of Elizabeth I. Even historians got in on the act, most famously in Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties, which places two ostensibly unrelated events from 1759 and 1849 alongside each other and asks the reader to find connections between them.
Soon enough these inventions entered the mainstream, giving us the recipe for the time machine novel that is so prominent today: parallel stories that borrow from so-called literary fiction, historical fiction, mysteries and sci-fi. It’s a best-of-all-worlds kind of book, spicing its portions of traditional realism with the enchantments, tricks and twists of the popular page-turner.
Philip Hensher’s The Emperor Waltz, his ninth novel, is one of the most enjoyable examples of the kind. Hensher is particularly well-suited to his book’s roving ensemble form—he has the ability to stage-manage dozens of characters across many years, he’s fluent with dialogue, and he can jump into a scene at full stride, without needing to assemble too much background detail, something that would be lethal in a 600-page book with so many stops and starts.
Hensher weaves two primary storylines together in The Emperor Waltz. The first begins in Weimar in 1922 and follows the affairs of Christian, a young art student who has enrolled in the Bauhaus art school. The second jumps to 1979 London, where Duncan, using the inheritance he receives after the death of his hateful father, opens The Big Gay Bookshop on a quiet street in Marylebone. Forming the backdrop to Christian’s story in Weimar are the brilliant eccentrics who taught at the Bauhaus, including the shamanic painter Paul Klee and the colour theorist Johannes Itten. In London, Duncan’s bookstore becomes the epicentre of the nascent gay rights movement. Christian and the Bauhaus are opposed by the conservative population of Weimar, who react to the country’s recession with worsening anti-Semitism. Duncan’s antagonists are his stand-
offish neighbours, vandals who smash his shop window, and the police, who threaten him with spurious pornography charges in order to force him out of business.
Three stand-alone chapters intersperse these unfolding narratives. The third of these, set in Carthage in 203 AD, works as the book’s lynchpin. This is a retelling of the martyrdom of St Perpetua, a wealthy merchant’s daughter who, according to legend, refused to offer a sacrifice to the Roman emperor and was killed by wild beasts in a public arena alongside her fellow Christians. The lesson resonates throughout the rest of the novel: pariah groups of passionate believers may endure persecution and defeat yet still triumph in the long run. The victory of the cult of Christianity, abetted by the spread of the tale of Perpetua’s noble death, is mirrored in the hard-won gains of the gay rights movement. It is touching (and slyly subversive) to find Duncan, in a speech about the bookshop in the late 1980s, echoing the language of the early evangelists, whom the Gospels instruct to place their light on a candlestick rather than hide beneath a bushel: “Loads of people have come and bought books here in the last seven years, and all of them, they’ve spread through the world, they’ve gone out [into the world] like little candles.”
Hensher constantly plays on the reader’s knowledge of the fate of these communities. One independent section is an autobiographical (or faux-autobiographical) vignette about the author’s convalescence in a hospital ward. At one point he is visited by his husband—both a reminder of the legality of gay marriage and a quiet contrast to Duncan’s world of the 1980s, when gay men were not allowed to visit their partners as they died of Aids. (In the Bauhaus chapters, on the other hand, we find that some movements are, as Itten laments, briefly lit “and then extinguished, passing on into darkness.”)
These sorts of connections are at the centre of nearly all time machine fiction. These novels usually draw attention to telling commonalities across historical eras, or between the past and the present. That gives an engaging puzzle quality to the books—we read seeking out the dropped clues that will shed light on the purpose of the parallel.
Hensher seems to allude to the writer’s challenge of forging those connections in subtle and organic ways in a scene from Paul Klee’s classroom. Klee has given his students the enigmatic instruction to draw a line, and then to draw a second line that has nothing in common with the first. Christian’s solution is to make two cross marks indicating the end points of a line, but to leave the line itself undrawn. Looking at the work, Klee “envisaged a line that went directly between the two points marked by little crosses. It was a line that existed only in his mind, and not on the paper. And yet the artist had drawn that line and made him think of it.”
The invisible lines provide both the most interesting and awkward features of The Emperor Waltz. In older novels with parallel structures (the complex, snaking stories of Bleak House by Charles Dickens, for instance) characters can cross each other’s paths, or be linked by mutual acquaintances. Since a book like The Emperor Waltz precludes these sorts of overlaps, the connections must be made by uncanny echoes and variations on theme. This is why Hensher names his book after a musical composition (just as David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas was named after a fictional symphony).
For all his subtlety, Hensher is not above winking at the camera when he wants to call attention to a certain point. Some of the echoes between the sections, for instance, feel contrived. It’s not enough to allude to Johan Strauss’s “Kaiser Waltzer” in the title—in almost every section Hensher has someone remark on hearing it, from an orchestra, the radio or an iPad. The persistence sends readers on an annoying hunt through YouTube and Wikipedia to try to discern the significance of this particular composition.
The weakness underlines the biggest trap of time machine fiction: with its emphasis on patterns and symbols, it’s always in danger of devolving into a kind of interpretative game, a lit-crit mystery whose meanings must be decrypted rather than naturally perceived. Authors unbounded by time are susceptible to the allures of omniscience, which can turn their characters into puppets and snuff out the lifelike vitality of the realist tradition.
Philipp Meyer’s The Son, published last year, exemplifies the strengths of time machine fiction and the dangers inherent in this kind of writing. The novel tracks three generations of a Texas dynasty, but instead of following the long sweep of time, Meyer breaks each storyline into pieces and arranges them so that their trajectories insistently recapitulate each other. This fundamentally changes the reader’s experience—you don’t get lost inside the passage of time, but rather stand outside of time and observe how the past repeats itself through the generations. The force of the book is in watching him demonstrate his thesis that Texas is built on the graveyards of the civilisations it destroys (first of Native Americans, then of Mexicans, then of cowboys). The effect is both powerful and ultimately contrived. Meyer’s omniscience leads him to arrange the story in too programmatic, too convenient a way.
Knowing too much seems a strange problem for an author to face, since the work of the novel is to impose meaningful order on the welter of experience. Yet it burdens even a bravura imaginative performance like Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. The novel that draws morals from trips to the past risks being sententious. But a book that also travels into the future to send a warning to the present is in danger of appearing oracular and patronising. These are traits Mitchell can’t entirely escape, in part because the tricks he employs to join his six disparate sections trade in rather squishy notions of karma and reincarnation.
But perhaps this kind of mysticism is bound to appear in books that rely so deeply on connecting devices. Connection itself becomes their overarching theme as they assert a bond between the past and the present (and sometimes the frighteningly unknown future) based on the constants of human nature, national heritage, or family ties. It is at its heart a deeply reassuring message in a world that grows continuously bigger and more difficult to encompass. In an aside in the autobiographical hospital section of The Emperor Waltz, Hensher, surrounded by the ill and abandoned, ponders the need for compassion and community, as he considers the reason that we leave tips for waiters:
“[T]he bond is what counts. For an hour, we are in the company of strangers, and we do not want them to continue as strangers. A gesture of kindness: an unnecessary donation; a financial statement of gratitude, even if we can’t say much more than ‘thank you’ in words: these come naturally, still. Perhaps we want to form some kind of society, to reach out, to make it plain that something human has passed between us.”
This tilts far more towards HG Wells than Henry James, but it may be what we want to hear: a little consolation that the world and its history are not quite so enormous as they appear.