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Do Flashbacks Work in Literature?

Max Ferguson/Bridgeman Images
Max Ferguson: Time (oil painting), 2006

Every few days, working on my new novel, my thoughts flash back to something Colm Tóibín said at the Hay-on-Wye literary festival nine months ago: that flashbacks are infuriating. Speaking at an event to celebrate the two hundredth anniversary of Jane Austen’s death, Tóibín said Austen was marvelous because she was able to convey character and plot in the most satisfying way without the “clumsiness” of the flashback. Today, on the other hand, we have to hear how a character’s parents and even grandparents met and married. Writers skip back and forth in time filling in the gaps in their shaky stories. It is dull and incompetent.

Is Tóibín right? I worry, as I prepare to put together a flashback myself. Is there no merit or sense in the device? Didn’t Joyce use it? And Faulkner? Or David Lodge, for that matter? Or John Updike? Or going back before Austen, Laurence Sterne? In which case, can there really be, as Tóibín appears to suggest, an association between the flashback and “our unhappy age”?

Certainly, use of the flashback is widespread and mainstream. Jonathan Franzen’s Purity opens with his eponymous heroine being invited to work at the WikiLeaks-style organization of the charismatic Andreas Woolf, based in a remote valley in Bolivia. Among many other narrative developments, there is then an extensive flashback to Woolf’s tormented youth in East Germany. This is told over a hundred and more pages and will eventually allow us to understand that the woman who shares Purity’s apartment is, in fact, an ex-lover of Woolf’s on a mission to find ingenuous recruits for his shady project—while Purity’s father, whose identity Purity has never learned, is both Woolf’s associate in a crime and his bitter rival. It is melodramatic, paranoid stuff, suggesting that the whole world spread over space and time is conniving to draw Purity into a fatal trap. A certain use of the flashback, that is, implies a certain vision of the world. You could never give your fiction a Jane Austen feel with this kind of technique, nor a Franzen feel without it.

One advantage of this sort of flashback is that it allows the writer, first, to declare where our central narrative interest is—with Purity right now, as she decides whether or not to work with Woolf—and, second, to build up the past that gives importance to that decision. The problem in Franzen’s novel is that the flashbacks are so very long and elaborate that we lose sight of the initial focus. The book is called Purity and the character Purity would appear to be its author’s declared center of interest, but the energy of the extensive backstory is all elsewhere. It’s confusing.

Peter Stamm’s elegant short novel On a Day Like This uses the device more efficiently. Andreas, a diligent high school teacher, heavy smoker and desultory Don Juan, is invited to the hospital to discuss the results of a lung X-ray, but bails out on the appointment at the last minute. His behavior, particularly with his various girlfriends, becomes erratic. Gradually, a series of short flashbacks suggest that fear of cancer and death has activated a profound regret from late adolescence, his failure to declare himself to the one woman he was ever really in love with. Based in northern France, Andreas buys an old Citroën Dyane and sets out with a new girlfriend on a trip to his childhood home in Switzerland to visit the other woman whose memory, at this time of crisis, calls to him. Since everything here, past and present, is focused on Andreas, there is none of Franzen’s dispersiveness and when our hero actually meets his old flame, now a married mother, and makes his much delayed declaration, the juxtaposition of flashback and present action reaches its incongruous but brilliant climax, something you feel just couldn’t have been achieved any other way. In his praise of Austen, Tóibín insists that she can tell us all we need to know about the Mr. and Mrs. Bennet of Pride and Prejudice from their conversation, manner, and behavior, without filling us in on their pasts. But that is perhaps because there is nothing remarkable there to know.

Flashbacks come in all shapes and sizes, from the fragments of reverie in Joyce’s short story “Evelyn” to the huge chunks of backstory in thrillers by Stieg Larsson or Stephen King, or the near delirium of the tormented narrators of William Faulkner and Thomas Bernhard. However, the crucial distinction is whether the content of the flashback is to be understood as present in the mind of one of our characters, or as narrated separately. In Franzen’s Purity extended flashbacks are narrated to establish the circumstances of Purity’s birth, which she knows nothing about, so that the reader understands her as the product of a conflicted relationship she is entirely unaware of.

In Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, on the other hand, Benjy compulsively relives traumatic moments in the past, precisely because he is unable to digest or come to terms with them. This is now a commonly used technique in both literary and popular fiction. The flashback merges with the interior monologue and we have the idea of a person whose psychological present is a constant reverberation of the past, a person for whom, as Faulkner observed, “The past is never dead. It is not even past.” Needless to say, this is a vision of human experience that owes much to Freud and the concept of trauma—two ideas that simply weren’t around when Jane Austen was writing.

In one of the most ingenious uses of flashback, Beckett’s Krapp plays himself old audio tapes he recorded on various birthdays in the distant past to create a log of his life. Rarely celebrated for his realism, Beckett wonderfully captures the way so much past experience is lost and meaningless, Krapp not even recognizing events he spoke eagerly about years ago. This is comedy. But other remembered moments, in particular the end of a relationship on a summer afternoon boat trip, have Krapp pouring drinks with shaking hand and reaching for the comfort of his beloved bananas. This is pathos, if not quite tragedy.

But beyond comedy and pathos, what Krapp’s Last Tape gives us is the overwhelming clutter of the past in the present, the spools in their dusty boxes unravelling, poorly catalogued, mostly irrelevant, occasionally devastating. And this is the absurd. Perhaps one reason Tóibín is so viscerally negative about the flashback is the chaos it threatens to introduce into an otherwise composed artistic form; present and past all mixed up. His own novels, as I recall, while usually sad are always reassuringly crafted. But wasn’t the whole achievement of modern art to allow a little chaos into forms that had become restrictive?

The idea that an individual is in some special way burdened by the past inevitably leads to the more general reflection: What is a character if not the incarnated accumulation of past behavior and circumstances? The very idea of personhood demands a narrative and a meshing of present and past. When Sabina and Franz constantly misunderstand each other in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, it is because they come from such dramatically different circumstances that they have no idea what certain concepts—faithfulness, heroism—mean to the other. Their relationship breaks down over this. They have no access to flashbacks. And again, one can see here a connection between our “unhappy age,” as Tóibín has it, and flashbacks. Jane Austen’s characters are usually aware of each other’s backgrounds, they come from the same milieu. But that is rarely the case in our metropolitan lives today.

Stuck with my novel, I sit idly reflecting on all this, wondering how my character’s past, the presence of his past, the drama of his past’s impact upon the present, can be introduced into the story without falling into the kind of clumsiness that Tóibín is no doubt right to complain about.

Perhaps the solution is to question the very linearity of language itself. The sentence sets off, word by word, instant by instant, from A to B, capital to full stop, but its meaning emerges across time, the end often altering or clarifying the sense of the beginning, with some sentences seeming to challenge just how far the reader’s mind can spread itself in time and space. Here is a classic example of flashback working with extended syntax as Virginia Woolf’s Clarissa Dalloway ventures forth from her Chelsea home to buy flowers for her dinner party:

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, “Musing among the vegetables?”—was that it?—“I prefer men to cauliflowers”—was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace—Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished—how strange it was!—a few sayings like this about cabbages.

Again and again, in Mrs. Dalloway, the mind is returned to the past by something in the present, then expands and explores across time and space, the syntax stretching out and out, until we are returned to the present by some new incident impinging on the reverie. Here’s another little gem, as Clarissa stands on the curb waiting to cross the road:

For having lived in Westminster—how many years now? over twenty—one feels even in the midst of the traffic, or waking at night, Clarissa was positive, a particular hush, or solemnity; an indescribable pause; a suspense (but that might be her heart, affected, they said, by influenza) before Big Ben strikes. There! Out it boomed.

This is all very well, but I’m not Virginia Woolf and not interested in my hero’s indulging in reveries. I want the reader to understand that, despite all his effort to engage with the present, an incident in the past constantly forces itself on his mind. In fact, it is this pressure from the past that makes him so frenetically determined to engage in the present. And so unpredictable.

Perhaps one useful reflection is that all language comes to us from the past. We learned the words we use years ago, and though we put them together in different ways each time, their past activities cast an aura in the present. This gives us the power of association, of words that simply demand a flashback, forcing us back to some previous use.

Could I perhaps just drop a single name into the flow of a paragraph, completely out of place, causing a gross interruption of the sense and rhythm of the prose, interrupting its linearity with a word from that past? Would that make the reader feel the drama of my character’s being mentally elsewhere? Or maybe drop in a whole but brief sentence—“I should never have said such a thing to a child”—in the middle of a paragraph that talks in measured fashion about something quite different. “I should never have forced that truth on her.” That might do it. Or might there be some object in the room, or in my character’s pocket, that is attached to the past? Henry Green, who uses no flashbacks at all in his masterpiece Party Going, has a character named Julia who carries around with her three small charms—an egg, a wooden pistol, and a spinning top—and is so morbidly attached to them that we cannot help thinking they are related to some decisive moment in the past.

I don’t know. I can’t decide. But until I do, it’s quite clear that Colm Tóibín’s attack on flashbacks is just going to keep coming back to me.