Adaptation

I was right inside the pattern, merging, part of it as it changed and, duplicating itself yet again, here, now, transformed itself and started to become real.
— Tom McCarthy, Remainder

Repetition. Repetition, not identity. Nothing is repeated exactly, even words, because something has changed in the speaker and in the listener, because once said and then said again and again, the repetition itself alters the words.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Summer Without Men

Someone once said life is all conjunctions, just one damn thing after another. But so much of it’s not connected. You’re sliding along, hit a bump and come down in a life you don’t recognize. Every day you head out a dozen different directions, become a dozen different people; some of them make it back home that night, others don’t.
— James Sallis, Black Hornet

In a celebrated short story by the Argentinian man of letters Jorge Luis Borges, his protagonist Pierre Menard determines to recreate passages from Miguel de Cervantes’s literary masterpiece Don Quixote. Menard’s approach is one of immersion and appropriation. He intends not merely to copy from Cervantes’s book but to gain so deep an understanding of it that in writing his own version he produces a word-for-word duplicate. This while resolutely maintaining his perspective of a twentieth-century author, aware of the history and cultural changes of the years that separate his own literary efforts and those of Cervantes.

What Menard produces are passages that are exactly the same, in terms of vocabulary and register of language, as those in Cervantes’s own two-part novel. Yet they are wholly different too – precisely because of the disjunctures of time and place between the two authors. For the narrator in Borges’s story, the francophone Menard’s text is the greater, subtler achievement. He has had to imagine himself into another era, another location, another language entirely. His is an exercise that is simultaneously creation and re-creation. An adaptation that results in replication. It is also one that provides commentary on the historical, geographical and personal context in which it is written no matter that no overt reference is made to it.

For a translator, as Kate Briggs acknowledges in her book-length essay This Little Art, it is impossible to exactly reproduce source material. Translation is always an act of co-creation, of at least two levels of lexical selection and decision-making. It is impossible for the translator to get completely out of the way. They will have to filter the author’s original text through their own understanding and interpretation of it for the benefit of the new reader in a completely different language. They will have to ponder the meaning of paragraphs, phrases, single words, and render this in a way that makes sense to the reader while approximating the intentions of the author. You can read Menard’s story in the original Spanish, as written by Borges, and then in Andrew Hurley’s English translation. One story, two texts, one of which has two creators behind it.

Briggs questions whether it is legitimate to claim that you have read a book if you have not done so in the language in which it was first written. Can we ever claim to have read The Tin Drum or The Divine Comedy if we have only spent time with the English translations? When we do not have direct access to the linguistic nuances of Grass or the poetic devices deployed by Dante, is our appreciation of their work somehow poorer, watered down? Or do we, instead, take pleasure in the fact that a co-creator has opened up a literary universe otherwise closed to us? Accepting, of course, that they too are a presence in the book we read; the translator a shadow, a dæmon, that accompanies the author in this alternative version of the text.

Translation and adaptation do not have to relate only to the conversion from one language to another. They can take the form of what Briggs calls re-mediation, a shift from one artistic mode of presentation to a different one entirely. This can entail not just a change of medium, but of language too; a transformation across cultural boundaries. Radio, television and film provide numerous examples of adaptation within and between media.

  • Jon McGregor has reimagined the events leading up to the narrative of his highly-regarded novel Reservoir 13. In a series of short BBC radio plays, The Reservoir Tapes, characters from the local community featured in the book are interviewed by a journalist.
  • The popular Danish–Swedish television series Broen/Bron (The Bridge) has been adapted several times, relocated to the US–Mexican, British–French and Estonian–Russian borders. Each iteration, in their way, examines connections through similarity and the appreciation of difference.
  • Martin Scorsese’s Oscar-winning film The Departed explores concepts about identity and performance. It not only adapts the Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, but nods and winks to its two sequels too.
  • The Coen Brothers’ Miller’s Crossing traces a lineage. Dashiell Hammett’s novels Red Harvest and The Glass Key inspired Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo. This, in turn, provided a model for Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars. Each one of these works by Hammett, Kurosawa and Leone find echoes and mirrors in Miller’s Crossing in a hermetically sealed world that is a celebration of the film medium itself and of the tradition of the hardboiled novel. Art about artifice, artifice about art.
  • Roman Polanski’s Chinatown reworks the myth of Oedipus for a 1970s audience despairing of the violence, corruption and impotent leadership that informed society and politics at the time of its making.
  • Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo reimagines the Pygmalion myth through an adaptation of D’entre les morts, a novel by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac. It is a film about obsession, fragmented identity and creativity.

Many films, of course, are based directly on novels, biographies and plays, as well as paintings, operas, cartoons and video games. They take source material and re-mediate it, sometimes with the input of the authors themselves. It is a co-creative endeavour, transforming one perspective of a story into something else again. On top of the author’s original vision are layered the ideas and insights of screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, art directors, designers, choreographers, actors, stunt people, editors and musical directors. This is a process that applies to all films and television shows that are not documentary in nature. For these depend on screenplays, on the written word, regardless of whether they have been adapted from another medium or not.

Reading a novel, our own imaginations take on all those roles, painting pictures, hearing voices, filling up our mindscreens, mobilising our other senses. The reader is a creative partner with the writer. In the cinema, the viewer abdicates some of these roles while seated before the screen, but resumes them as the credits roll and their brains carry on processing what they have seen and heard. They still share in the act of creation. With the novel and film there is a willing suspension of disbelief and, concurrently, an eagerness to fulfil this co-creative function. The novelist, for example, can take things so far, but at some stage the reader needs to build on the words they have read, filling in the gaps, giving the characters faces, hearing the birds, smelling the flowers, tasting the food, making the story their own.

Intriguingly, with corporate and political writing, there appears to be a reinforcement of disbelief. An unwillingness to participate, to translate, to lend meaning to the manifesto promises or vision statements. The novel and film both engage, while the bureaucrat’s prose, invariably written by committee, disengages. It is filled with empty words signifying nothing. The manifestos lie there unadapted, unrealised; the business plans dormant for the duration, never translated into meaningful action. They are texts in search of co-creators, of enactors, rarely closing the circle. It is no surprise, therefore, that some of the most powerful works about politics and business do not emerge close to home but are, in fact, to be found in the various domains of fiction: the novel, film, theatre, radio and television.

The work of anthropologists and the study of myth and fable have revealed the universality and timelessness of our stories. Frazer, Propp, Campbell, Lévi-Strauss and Warner, among many others, have helped illustrate how these are filled with archetypes and rudimentary structures that we repeat endlessly, revising and revisiting generation after generation. Every story is a translation, an adaptation. Our stories are always communal even when they appear extraordinarily personal. But in their retelling we grant them a new context, provide fresh insights about the contemporary culture in which we produce and situate them. So, Shakespeare’s Hamlet is transplanted to twenty-first-century London in Ian McEwan’s Nutshell. The Tempest is both staged and lived in a modern prison in Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed. Viking gods and heroes are revived for a fresh audience in Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology. The Odyssey is spruced up in Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s epic poem.

The lure of the tales envisaged and told by the Ancient Greeks has remained strong, as witness Wilson’s mammoth undertaking, the late work of poets like Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, or Stephen Fry’s most recent publication, Mythos. The Greek tales help us understand who we are, help us come to terms with the repetition of the same mistakes, the same lessons unlearned. One tale of protest in the face of injustice, of the outsider on the inside, remains particularly pertinent. Chronologically, Antigone is the third instalment in Sophocles’s cycle of Theban tragedies. Its heroine confronts the empty rhetoric and hypocrisy of the political leadership, the abuse of power by a tyrant, and the nationalism and fear of the other that informs their ideas.

Antigone’s story has been revisited, translated, reconceptualised, on numerous occasions. In 1944, for example, the French playwright Jean Anouilh premiered his own version, which was as much a commentary on the Nazi occupation of Paris as it was a reimagining of Sophocles’s Thebes under the reign of Creon. More recently, partly in response to US foreign policy during the second Bush administration, Seamus Heaney published his version of the play in 2004 under the title The Burial at Thebes. It was followed, a few years later, by Ali Smith’s children’s book adaptation, The Story of Antigone, illustrated by Laura Paoletti. This sought to provide a new bird’s-eye, or drone-like, view of Antigone’s story as it unfolded. Finally, there is Kamila Shamsie’s remarkable modernisation in the novel Home Fire.

This 2017, multi-narrator retelling examines the story from the contemporary perspective of a group of British Muslims. The familiar story twists and turns against the background of rising nationalism, overseas conflict, homegrown terrorism, religious and political fundamentalism. The shadows of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Brexit and Trump loom large. This is no Menard exercise in reproduction and duplication, but one in which the author willingly serves as conduit to the world around her, allowing current affairs to shape and influence her narrative. The reader brings their own experience of that world with them to the book. They look into its dark mirror, responding to the shifting perspectives, forced to question their own values and their role in society.

It is a text twice translated. Shamsie’s own reimagining of Sophocles’s play is then internalised and adapted by the reader themselves. A story, like all great narratives, as old as human civilisation itself yet somehow sparklingly new too. In the past, our future is already written.

The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.
— Ali Smith, The Novel in the Age of Trump

The fragmentation of the arts and humanities in the twentieth century has often revealed itself as an obsession with novelty for its own sake, rather than originality that expands on what we already know and accept.
— Peter Watson, A Terrible Beauty

All books are made from other books and so, in their way, all books are translations in one way or another.
— Kate Briggs, This Little Art

Memory’s assembly

Since I first started reading, I know that I think in quotations and that I write with what others have written, and that I can have no other ambition than to reshuffle and rearrange.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Books, conversations, and perceptions enter us and become us.
— Siri Hustvedt, Living, Thinking, Looking

Her consciousness, at this point – she was forty-three years old – was so crammed full not just of her own memories, obligations, dreams, knowledge and the plethora of her day-to-day responsibilities, but also of other people’s – gleaned over years of listening, talking, empathising, worrying – that she was frightened most of all of the boundaries separating these numerous types of mental freight, the distinctions between them, crumbling away until she was no longer certain what had happened to her and what to other people she knew, or sometimes even what was or was not real.
— Rachel Cusk, Outline

All remembrance of things past is fiction.
— Ernest Hemingway, A Moveable Feast: The Restored Edition

A clear December morning. With a new road bike awaiting in the shed, it was all too easy to convince myself that the conditions were perfect for a morning ride. As I left the last houses of our small coastal town behind me, the white fields that lay ahead, heavy with frost, made me silently question why I was on the road at such an early hour. It would be some time before the sun effected any change on this wintry landscape. Meanwhile, the chill worked its way to my bones.

The only sound as I climbed up the slope into a neighbouring hamlet was my own laboured breathing. Its smoky plumes offset by the blueness of the sky and the ice particles twinkling on trees and rooftops. The road gradually shifted from incline to false flat, and all of a sudden I was sliding along it, separated from bicycle, both of us on our sides atop the asphalt.

Of course, as James Sallis contends, our memories are more poets than reporters. Much of what I have just related happened on a frozen morning in December 2008, but it is not a real memory. The details have been filled in, revisited, rewritten with the passage of time. That particular cycling route is one I have ridden often since then, gathering more information about landscape, road layout, housing.

Consciously, I recall being upright and then suddenly sprawled in the middle of the road. The fall itself is blacked-out, redacted. I then remember checking for damage to myself and machine, briefly talking to someone at the roadside, remounting and coming off the bike twice more as I gingerly made my way home. Whenever I think about this particular ride, I always experience regret. Regret for having headed out on a road bike in such icy conditions. Regret for endeavouring to complete a circuit when the safer thing to do would have been to turn around and head home the same way I had come.

What remains missing from my recollection of that day is the initial fall itself. That moment of hitting black ice, losing control of the bike, falling, becoming unclipped from the pedals. Yet my body retains a trace of it, my unconscious too, even if my conscious mind does not. This takes the form not just of road rash on my right knee but of physical sensations too.

It is normal, after a long bike ride, as I rest on the sofa or sit at my desk, that I feel my leg muscles twitching, almost as if they are still in action, turning pedals, climbing hills, struggling against the wind. On the days immediately following the crash, however, a combination of unconscious images and muscle memory pulled me from sleep on several occasions. With each recurrence, I awakened suddenly, sensing that I was falling again. My body and unconscious mind were bridging the gap in memory, filling it with vivid snippets, sensations and imagination.

The story of my crash, then, is a mixture of fact and fiction. Whatever I perceived as reality was laid down in my memory, the brain serving as computer. But those dream effects have blended with it over time, the computer serving as a mixing table. The story has become more finely crafted with each telling, diverging ever more from what was experienced in the moment.

But is that not always the case? Our memories accumulate not only what our eyes see, but signals from other sensations and emotions as well. These fragments become associated with images, books, phrases or locations – time capsules, if you will – the accessing of which can serve to unlock the stored but ever-fluid memories. The sharing of the stories changes our memories too as friends and family add their own perspectives, their own accounts, in Rashomon-like retellings of the same event. The boundaries between my memories and their stories blur.

I am reminded of an observation in The Neo-Generalist: ‘we are all an assembly of what we have read, the people we have met, the places we have visited, the conversations we have had, the work we have done, the shared experiences and recollected histories of the communities in which we live.’ Our pasts travel with us, constantly reinserted into the present, experienced again, in new ways, adapted as we too undergo change.

What I read, hear, see, imagine, dream, discuss becomes me. Where I go is who I am. But that identity is always changing, affected by the journey itself. Our memories are contrails gradually dissolving, and what we carry with us are comfortable fictions.

Time’s whispers are suspect, memory forever as much poet as reporter, and perhaps this is only the way that, retrospectively, imaginatively, I make sense for now.
— James Sallis, Moth

Accumulated experience always alters perception of the past.
— Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World

Remembering is an act of creative reconstruction rather than simple replaying. Every time a memory is recalled it is re-formed, and in the process it becomes mingled with the stories of others and shaped by our own anxieties, desires and imaginings.
— Ian Leslie, Born Liars

Memory, as it happens, is a fairly unreliable search engine. It’s fuzzy and utopian, honoring an imagined past over a real one.
— Jessica Helfand, Design: The Invention of Desire

Memory, which dives into our sunken libraries and rescues from the long-lost pages only a few seemingly random paragraphs, chooses better than we know.
— Alberto Manguel, Curiosity

Out of time

Our society has reoriented itself to the present moment. Everything is live, real time, and always-on. It’s not a mere speeding up, however much our lifestyles and technologies have accelerated the rate at which we attempt to do things. It’s more of a diminishment of anything that isn’t happening right now—and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.
— Douglas Rushkoff, Present Shock

We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded and flashbacked yet still kept on rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.
— Ali Smith, Artful

Five minutes later roots and fruits were abolished; the flower of the present tidily blossomed.
— Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

The 2016 film Arrival is a narrative of decipherment. Humans are intent on understanding the purpose of the recently landed aliens, which have appeared at twelve different locations on Earth. To understand, one requires language and communication. But one has to be mindful of the pitfalls of how language is interpreted. One person’s signifier does not always marry up with another’s signified.

In another recent film, Paterson, a Japanese visitor to the protagonist’s home town likens poetry in translation to standing under a shower wearing a rain mac. Nuance and beauty are lost. Misunderstanding is all too easy, which is one of the points on which humanity’s response to the aliens hinges in Arrival. Where some read weapon, others intend gift.

Arrival‘s lead character, Louise Banks, starts communicating with the aliens via single written and vocalised words. They respond with the occasional guttural noise, but primarily with ideograms. The first breakthrough for Louise and her colleagues comes with the realisation that these ideograms are complex combinations of words and phrases, which form full sentences and paragraphs.

The key discovery, however, comes when Louise alone encounters one of the aliens, nicknamed Costello. Where the linearity and structure of much human language is bound to time, Louise learns that the aliens’ language is non-linear. They are without the constraints of time as we perceive it. Her own fluency in their language unshackles Louise from the limitations of human time. With their language, she gains the ability to time travel, seeing into her own future and that of humankind. Past, present and future are simultaneously available to her. She is out of time.

In a starkly different approach to time, the citizens of Aldous Huxley’s futuristic 1931 novel Brave New World are slaves to the clock. Their happiness depends on it, rigidly following a routine of work and pleasure, both physical and chemically induced. These are rarely chosen, usually prescribed. Humans are produced in batches, and effectively have battery lives. They are created to fill designated functions, their own chemicals harvested once their use-by-dates have passed and their bodies have been incinerated.

Language – in the form of mantras, anodyne phrases, belief systems as sound bites – is imposed on the humans of Brave New World at different stages of their infancy and youth. This is achieved via hypnopaedia, a form of teaching through voice recordings heard during sleep. The citizens are conditioned to accept caste, brainwashed ideologically, and placed in thrall to the Fordian factory clock of Brave New World‘s global society. Only those on ‘uncivilised’ reservations or exiled to island communities in far-flung localities like Iceland and the Falklands are able to escape the clock’s tyranny.

Out of Time

All of which cultural musing stirs up reflections on my own temporal conditioning and experience. From late 1999 to the end of 2014, I lived the life of a commuter. A daily four-hour, door-to-door round trip from home to office and back again. The same faces on the train, the same seat occupied. The same coffee routine. Days filled with meetings and largely pointless correspondence. An eating, vegetating and sleeping routine that was far from healthy until the weekend’s release.

To be honest, I never got used to it. From the period 1993 to 1999, I had been home-based, first as a research student then as a freelancer. Office and commuting life was a shock to my body clock, to my introversion, to my effectiveness. I disliked the way time was regimented and controlled. It disturbed my desire for reflection and creative quality, which I preferred to the produce-on-demand, quantitative busyness that I encountered in each of the public, private and non-profit organisations I worked for during the next fifteen years.

Financial considerations aside, the option to return to freelancing in late 2014 was an attractive one, not least because it enabled me to dedicate myself to activities I am passionate about: writing and editing, both producing myself and helping others to realise their literary ambitions. But there has been another side effect that is relevant to my ongoing exploration of time and memory under the #timeplease tag.

Freelancing has taken me out of time, at least time as I had come to know it as a commuter. The experience is somewhat different too as a forty-something to that of my twenty-something self in the 1990s. The day, of course, remains topped-and-tailed by family routine: wake-up alarms, meals, dad-taxi services. But otherwise, as a writer and editor, I find that my work can be done at any time. Sometimes there are early morning flurries, at other times inspiration takes hold late at night or during a midday walk on the beach.

In many respects, I am always working. But I do not mean that in an onerous way. Reading a book is work; it is research regardless of the subject matter or genre. Riding my bike or standing under the shower or mowing the lawn are all part of ‘office time’; periods for reflection, sifting, testing out phrases, composing. My interaction with clients is asynchronous, only occasionally regulated by in-person meetings or video calls. These are with people dispersed around the globe, in Canada, Australia, Denmark, France, Romania, the US, the UK. Change the place, and the clock changes too.

Family life provides a loose sense of structure, as do project deadlines. But otherwise the commuter’s distinction between weekdays and weekends, morning work and evening work, all dissolve. Which raises questions about my post-commuting relationship to time. Is time as I experience it throughout a 24-hour period always linear? Or is it determined by my engagement with other people? At certain points bound to the clock, at others unbound from it?

Do I reconnect with linear time only when I have a meeting, a call, a train to catch, or as the scattered members of my family begin to return home? When I write, lost in flow, scanning both the fictions and facts of memory, blending fantasy and reality, what aspects of time am I navigating? Finally, to what extent is all of our perception of time entwined with both language and our communication with others?

My sense is that, as with Louise in Arrival, our experience and perception of time is multifaceted. It can be linear or cyclical or boundaryless. Our physical and mental conceptions of it can diverge. Yet through language, spoken and scribed, we can in some way anchor ourselves to it. We are both in and out of time.

Our conscious brains invent the concept of time over and over again, inferring it from memory and extrapolating from change. And time is indispensable to our awareness of self. Just as an author does, we construct our own narrative, assemble the scenes in a plausible order, make inferences about cause and effect.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

So emotion, fear, age, isolation, body temperature and rejection can all affect our perception of the speed of time, as does concentration, or ‘attention’.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Likewise the spinning wheel turns, cyclical time revolving to draw out the linear time of a thread.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Time capsule

All songs involve time, because music depends on time. Time’s a song against the clock.
— Ali Smith, Artful

The mind tends to find congruencies and links where none previously existed—not just in music, but in everything.
— David Byrne, How Music Works

We can also appreciate why pop music is time-bound and an occasion for nostalgia … Hearing a pop tune can take you back to a summer, or an evening, or an emotional state … Pop music, even the best and most enduring, dates itself, not just in the sense that you can read off its date, but in the sense that pop music directly engages sounds, looks, attitudes that are specific to a time and place.
— Alva Noë, Strange Tools

In the 1980s of my mid-to-late teens, there was a surge of interest in the music of my infancy spanning the late 1960s and early 1970s. This extended well beyond the Motown revival fuelled by Levi’s advertisements. My friends and I were discovering the music of The Doors and The Velvet Underground, albums like Hunky Dory and Sgt. Pepper’s, songs like ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and ‘Walk on the Wild Side’.

This is all music I still listen to on occasion, but to do so is not only to experience pleasure in the moment but also a double form of time travel. On the one hand, I am transported back to a period I can recall in only the most fragmentary of ways, the snippets of toddlerdom, which in the living I failed to entwine with music. On the other, to hear a particular song can carry with it a rich assembly of schoolboy era information about time, place and people: the context in which I first heard the song, the people who I enjoyed it with, films seen, gigs attended, appreciative discussions.

Re-hearing later music is more fixed in the personal timeline that takes shape in my mind. A song may draw to it an accumulation of subsequent memories, orbiting around it like electrons circling a nucleus. But there tends to be a primal association too. To hear Blondie’s ‘Heart of Glass’ or Elvis Costello’s ‘Oliver’s Army’ is to return to my pre-teen self pulling those first vinyl purchases from their sleeves. To hear New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’ is to find myself circumnavigating a sports hall wearing roller boots, whereas U2’s ‘Bad’ is a passport back to Live Aid and a post-examination summer.

blue-monday

It was novelist Michael Chabon who prompted these reflections. At a Guardian Live event earlier this month, Chabon spoke of the importance of both popular music and the senses to him, on a personal level and in the fictional worlds he creates. This is overt in the record-store setting of his 2012 novel Telegraph Avenue, but equally relevant to books like The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and Moonglow, his latest publication. Chabon described his favourite songs as a form of time capsule, the music and lyrics contributing but a part of the overall experience.

In Time Travel, James Gleick dedicates a chapter to the popular practice of burying time capsules. The interment of vessels containing contemporary items, artefacts and knowledge are intended for future discovery. It is considered a method for transmitting culture and historical traces into the future, a form of time travel that enables great expanses of time to be bridged.

This is Chabon’s contention for the song and other art forms. We bury packages in the recesses of our minds, comprised not only of impressions caused by sound, images and words but emotions and environment too. Hearing a song again, rediscovering a long-forgotten photograph, returning decades later to a favourite novel, all can have the effect of digging up those time capsules. They open up a treasure chest of memories. A starburst of sensations and recall.

The memories themselves are impressionistic, of course, a fusion of fact and fiction. They are samples rewritten, remixed to fit the story of our ever-evolving selves, our edited and polished personal narratives.

This can happen too with new encounters with cultural artefacts. For example, when I first read David Mitchell’s novel Black Swan Green, I was immediately transported back to the period of my early teens. I was born in the same year as Mitchell, and his description of a thirteen-year-old’s life in 1982-83 felt close to the bone. Not because of the main narrative, but because of the background detail concerning Thatcher’s Britain, the Falklands War and, above all, the soundtrack.

Mitchell’s fiction is filled with temporal motifs and characters who time travel, hopping from one novel to another, from one era to another. In terms of generic hybridisation and formal play, Black Swan Green appears the least experimental of Mitchell’s novels. Yet, for this reader at least, it still has the ability to open up pathways to other time zones entirely. The novelist as DJ, let loose in the archive of the reader’s memories.

When it works, what you get is not a collection of references, quotes, allusions, and cribs but a whole, seamless thing, both familiar and new: a record of the consciousness that was busy falling in love with those moments in the first place.
— Michael Chabon, Maps and Legends

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel

Memory, even in the rest of us, is a shifting, fading, partial thing, a net that doesn’t catch all the fish by any means and sometimes catches butterflies that don’t exist.
— Rebecca Solnit, The Faraway Nearby

Addendum: David Mitchell is himself a participant in a literary time capsule project. He has buried an unpublished manuscript in Oslo’s Nordmarka Forest. It will not be retrieved until 2114.

Time, please

But at my back I always hear
Time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near
— Andrew Marvell, To His Coy Mistress

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
— T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Is it time that translates our lives into sequence, into meaning?
— Ali Smith, Artful

Multifaceted as my academic and work experiences have been, a constant throughout has been a fascination with concepts relating to time and memory. This was ignited, in particular, when studying the modernists. The early artists, authors, composers and filmmakers of the twentieth-century wove the scientific discoveries of their age into their own work. Theoretical studies of time, space and the mind were filtered and found expression in abstract art and formally challenging poetry and novels.

An appreciation of time and form was essential to my own study of film noir, which preoccupied me in the mid-1990s. Noir is a genre of editing. Time is fragmented and mixed up, the sequence of events varied and, on occasion, reimagined. Voiceover narrations and flashbacks proliferate. Dream sequences, blackouts, and alcohol- or drug-induced hallucinations are not uncommon. Amnesia is a recurrent theme.

Time, in fact, was a dominant motif in much of the ‘literary’ and genre fiction and film that I found most appealing. Those that were inclined, in neo-generalist style, to transcend and blur neat categorical boundaries often served up the most intriguing works. Towards the end of the 1990s, I wrote an article on the fiction of James Sallis, titled ‘Memories of Things Past and Yet to Come’, barely scratching the surface regarding an ongoing interest in temporal themes and my appreciation of his assorted literary output.

I have long harboured an ambition to return to both. In the interim, I discovered new voices whose work demands closer examination in relation to the topic: notably, David Mitchell and Ali Smith in literature, and Richard Linklater in film. I began to pay more attention to time in relation to sport too, not just in a quantitative sense (How fast was the distance covered? How long until the final whistle?), but in the way sport is televised and experienced: slowed-down, repeated, recalled through anecdote, mythologised.

Then there are the technologically-fuelled societal and workplace approaches to time. The primacy of now, of present shock. The ‘post-’ meme, suggestive that something has stopped, that a new age has begun. The hollow ‘future of work’ concept, which always leaves me wondering When does the future actually begin? On whose clock? Who decides and why? Which frequently leads me to abandon the business gurus and TV talking heads in exasperation, turning again to the poets, musicians and filmmakers. Art is about human understanding, about grappling with big themes. It has depth. It is difficult. It requires your involvement, not simple, passive receptivity.

time

So I find myself, at the start of a new year, contemplating an intermittent series of posts on literature and film, exploring time and memory. It is not a new idea, but one that holds me in its thrall, one I cannot let go. Recently, Eddie Harran asked me to make a short contribution to his #humantime project. This is what I wrote:

Time stretches into the distance, measured linearly by the athlete’s progress along the track; reflected too by the metamorphosis and decline of our own bodies from cradle to grave.

Time circles around the clock, advancing and repeating with the seasons, the ripening of crops, tidal surges and changes of the moon.

Time experienced in flow or memory can be unquantifiable, linked to the senses, elided or expanded, sped up or slowed down.

Time fragmented is the thing of art and poetry, captured on canvas, celluloid and page. It is constantly revisited in an eternal present. To quote, to recall, is to collapse the artificial markers between past, present and future.

These are ideas I wish to mine further throughout the year, the literary and cinematic analysis amplified by reference to sport, music, art, television and anecdote. The cultural emphasis does not negate the relevance to the domains of politics, society or the workplace. It is just that our art makers tend to be a few steps ahead, trendsetters and zeitgeist surfers, telling us today what the business gurus will discover years hence. Paying attention to the artists just feels like a more pleasurable, fulfilling experience and use of time.

I confess that I am often lost in all the dimensions of time, that the past sometimes feels nearer than the present and I often fear the future has already happened.
— Deborah Levy, Hot Milk

But what is the past? Could it be, the firmness of the past is just illusion? Could the past be a kaleidoscope, a pattern of images that shift with each disturbance of a sudden breeze, a laugh, a thought? And if the shift is everywhere, how would we know?
— Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams

We meld memories from the past to imagine the future. This memory remix allows us extensive imagination, but it causes us to base our ideas of the future on the past without any evidence that it will be the same.
— Claudia Hammond, Time Warped

Memory both is and is not our past. It is not recorded, as we sometimes imagine; it is made, and continually remade.
— James Gleick, Time Travel