Mendilow: Time and the Novel
Chapter 14, "Conclusion" of A. A. Mendilow's Time and the Novel (London: Nevill, 1952).
This is not a study of Time. It is a study of literature, or more truly of certain aspects of one particular form of literature. The theological, the metaphysical, the mathematical, the psychological theories of Time are irrelevant to its purpose, except in so far as they may throw some light on the problems of technique in fiction.
It is not held that the worth of any novel can be measured wholly in terms of the success with which the time-element is treated in it. There are other values, and it may be more important ones, that go to the making of a great novel. But the consideration of these other values does not fall within the scope of this work.
All that is claimed, and the claim is a big one, is that the time-element in fiction is of major importance, that in a large measure it determines the author's choice and treatment of his subject, the way he articulates and arranges the elements of his narrative, and the way he uses language to express his sense of the process and meaning of living.
The time has long passed when technique could be taken simply to mean the ways in which a given body of experience may be organised and manipulated to the best advantage. It is also the way in which unformulated experience sorts itself out and realises itself. The content of the novel could not become itself without technique, and it becomes what it is because it has been caught in a particular way; the artistic worth of a novel resides largely in its being caught in the only way inevitable to it. Another technique would make it something else, another, a different body of experience. Every good work of fiction must, as Coleridge said of the good poem, 'contain in itself the reason why it is so, and not otherwise'. (1) This principle of uniqueness implies that every work of art is created and should be judged by its own rules; it must grow its peculiar form as a snail its shell, not like a hermit crab that adapts itself to the abandoned shell of another creature. This principle is in effect an extension of another of Coleridge's critical dicta, that
whatever lines can be translated into other words of the same language, without diminution of their significance, either in sense or association, or in any worthy feeling, are so far vicious in their diction. (2)
In this wider sense, technique is everything; it involves and subsumes whatever goes to constituting the novel. There are thus as many techniques as there are living novels Indeed, one should not talk of the technique of the novel, but of techniques of novels. A compromise with expediency forces itself however on every critic, and he cannot evade the necessity of abstracting generalisations from the material he criticizes. Whatever generalistations have been made here, therefore, are given as broad approximations and with a frustrating sense of their limitations and inadequacies. In particular, to deal one after another with the various aspects of fiction which coexist simultaneously is to draw lines in water; in this respect, the critic is subject to those limitations of language as a medium which form the chief problem of the novelist. Alike they are forced to draw out every chord into an arpeggio.
Of necessity therefore three aspects of the novel have been artificially isolated for separate consideration—namely the theme, the form and the medium. These are really the same thing looked at from different angles; none has meaning apart from the others. The purpose of this book is to show how each of these is conditioned by certain ineluctible time-factors; how, in other words, the whole technique of fiction is involved with time.
Whereas painting, sculpture or architecture are space-arts, literature like music is a time-art, and as such its form and medium are subject to the three general principles of time: consecutiveness, transience and irreversibility. Novels or symphonies or dramas must have beginnings, middles and ends; their units, whether of events or words, of melodies or notes, must occur in some particular sequence; they cannot be read or played backwards or in any but the forward order.
Literature differs however from music, even from programme music, in being a representational time-art; as such, its themes are concerned with the process of living, with events hwich, whether they are physical or mental, proceed in time; with characters set in time and possessed of a varying sense of time. In one important respect, however, literature differs from sucho other representational time-arts as the ballet, the puppet-show, the silent film, even in some degree from the talking film and the acted play. These others can appeal directly to the senses without any intervening mediation. Literature on the other hand is dependent entirely on a symbolic medium that stands between the perceiver and the symbolised percepta; (3) it depends on language, and language is subject to semantic, grammatical and syntactical conventions, for verbal expression is determined by such temproal problems as the discontinuity of wods, the single sequence of worlds, the accepted orders and relations of words, and so forth.
There is another aspect of the time-values of fiction to be considered. In every work of art; there are three factors to be taken into account: the creator, the creation, and the re-creator. In fiction, author, character and reader alike are set each in his own time-series, and within these each experiences a constantly changing private sense of duration. The relationship among these sereis may be implicit or explicit, but it always exists, and it plays a part in promoting or impeding the readiness of the reader to identify himself with the leading character or characters. This identification invoves an imaginative transfer by the reader from the fictional past in which the novel is written to a fictive present. As he reads, things seem to be happening, not to have happened; they go on in his presence and in his present. His sense of his own actual Now is obliterated in the fictive Now of the novel in proportion as he is 'carried away' by his reading. To induce such effects, the novelist must develop the feeling of suspense by varying the tempo and by selecting and arranging the events he narrates; he must aim at producing a convincing illusion of reality, and this in turn hinges on the tension between the private and public aspects of communication. To create such an illusion, he posits the prior and tacit acceptance of numerous conventions, most of them based on temporal values; he relies on various time-devices—the time-shift, the stream of consciousness technique, the dramatic use of the 'discriminated occasion'—to overcome the denotatory and connotatory limitaions of a symbolic representational medium, that is, of language.
The importance of the time element in fiction was early recognised by novelists. They exploited its potentialities to arrange pleasing patterns, to build up suspense and to promote fictional illusion and vraisemblance. They furthermore expounded in critical observations the theories derived from or underlying their practice.
The time element also imposes severe restritions on fiction, and a quickening and deepening of the time-sense has led to many experiments in extra-medial time-effects; this in turn has encouraged the practice of new semantic theories which, many writers hold, will allow the expression not merely or even necessarily of a fuller realism but of a truer conception of reality.
It is difficult to provide a generally acceptable definition of the novel proper. Its boundaries shade too easily into those of the adjacent territories of romance, biography, autobiography, satire, allegory, and other forms of literature. A full if cumbersome description might be:
The novel is a fictitious narrative in prose which seeks to illustrate and illuminate human experience and behaviour within the limitations imposed by the medium of language and by the necessities of form, by approximating as closely as possible to what we apprehend as reality.
The test of its immediate success is its power to evoke the feeling of presentness (in a double sense) in and at that reality; this assumes that the reader will cooperate with the author to the extent of accepting the conventions on which the illusory reality of fiction is based, by yielding to 'the willing suspension of disbelief'.
Its more lasting value may be estimated, firstly by the degree to which the discriminating reader feels the whole work as as symbol of something wider and deeper than the actual theme, something that sets up in him reverberations that invest the particular human problem treated with universal significance; secondly, if the discriminating reader can recognise in the relations of the parts to one another and to the whole some underlying, formal principle, corresponding so closely to the cvonception of the theme as to appear inevitable. The theme, the form and the medium of the novel should be but three aspects of something that is one and indivisible—that intangible that we may call the author's vision.
It is claimed that the time-element in fiction is closely related to these three facets, to the conventions of fiction and to the conception of reality. To understand the time-factors—the temporal qualities inherent in fiction—and the time-values—the temporal qualities which the author applies to fiction—is a great step towards appreciating the meaning and significance of the novel. Ultimately, 'time will tell'.