For any novelist, the relationship between the past and the present offers interesting choices. Although working this out often requires cunning and guile, sometimes the simplest strategy, such as a pause in the narrative for pure, unadulterated backstory, is the most effective. At the opening of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady, for example, we are in Gardencourt, a house overlooking the river Thames. If this were a play or a film, we could be briskly told how and where Isabel Archer was found in Albany by her aunt, Mrs. Touchett. But James in Chapter Three of the novel will slowly take us back to the time when Isabel is visited by her aunt. It is as if the previous two chapters had not yet occurred. And then in the next chapter James will take up again the story that began with Isabel’s arrival at Gardencourt as though his system were an aspect of the leisure and ease that many of his characters enjoy, or indeed suffer.
On the other hand, in Ulysses, James Joyce allows us to know about the past of Leopold Bloom through darting, glancing reference. A single thought or memory, soon softened by other things that come into Bloom’s glittering mind, lets us know, for example, that his son Rudy is dead and that his father committed suicide in the Queen’s Hotel in Ennis, in County Clare. We are too locked into Bloom’s life in the present to be able to go back to those events in all their drama and pain. Nonetheless, they have a life in the book; they offer density to the present time that is being slowly and lovingly dramatized. They are like a powerful undertone, or a drum roll, or a darker, stranger shade beneath the dominant color.
J.M. Coetzee’s novel Age of Iron (1990) is written in the fierce tone of the present, in the first person, by a woman dying of cancer. The novel, addressed to her absent daughter, is all voice, filled with what the protagonist sees and feels and notices. In Chapter One, in a few lines of dialogue, the past is briskly disposed of as Elizabeth Curren tells the homeless man who has come to haunt her final days: “My husband and I parted a long time ago…. He is dead now. I have a daughter in America. She left in 1976 and hasn’t come back. She is married to an American. They have two children of their own.”
As the book progresses, however, more details of her past emerge. She has been a teacher of Latin and Greek, and thus references to the classical past come naturally to her. And music, too, has mattered:
Letting go of myself, letting go of you, letting go of a house still alive with memories: a hard task,…
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