Novels that tell multiple stories across different historical periods have become a staple of contemporary literatureby Sam Sacks / August 21, 2014 / Leave a comment
The Emperor Waltz by Philip Hensher (4th Estate, £18.99)
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…