"The trajectory of life, the concept of universal death, conditions our thinking," writes Penelope Lively in her most recent memoir, Ammonites & Leaping Fish: A Life in Time. "We require things to end, to mirror our own situation. I have had much to do with endings, as a writer of fiction. The novel moves from start to finish, as does the short story; at the outset, the conclusion lurks -- where is this thing going? how will I wrap it up? how will I give it a satisfactory shape? You are looking to supply the deficiencies of reality, to provide order where life is a matter of contingent chaos, to suggest theme and meaning, to make a story that is shapely where life is linear.
" 'Tick-tock': Frank Kermode's famous model of what we call a plot, an organization that humanizes time by giving it form.'The need to give significance to simple chronology.' All such plotting presupposes and requires that an end will bestow upon the whole duration and meaning.'This is the satisfaction of a successful work of fiction -- the internal coherence that reality does not have. Live as lived is disordered, undirected and at the mercy of contingent events.
"We have a need for narrative, it seems. A life is indeed a tick-tock: birth and death with nothing but time in between. We go to fiction because we like a story, and we want our lives to have the largesse of story, the capacity, the onward thrust -- we not only want, but need, which is why memory is so crucial, and without it we are lost, adrift in a hideous eternal present....
"We cannot but see the trajectory from youth to old age as a kind of story -- my story, your story -- and the backward gaze of old age is much affected by the habits of fiction. We look for the sequential comforts of narrative -- this happened, then that; we don't care for the arbitrary. My story -- your story -- is a matter of choice battling with contingency: 'The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men...' We are well aware of that, but the retrospective view would still like a bit of fictional elegance. For some, psychoanalysis perhaps provides this -- explanations, understandings. Most of us settle for the disconcerting muddle of what we intended and what came along, and try to see it as some kind of whole.
"That said, it remains difficult to break free of the models supplied by fiction. ' The preference for progress is a basic assumption of the Bildungsroman and the upward mobility story, and an important component of much comedy, romance, fairy tale,' writes Helen Small in her magisterial investigation of old age as viewed in philosophy and literature, The Long Life. ' It is also an element in the logic of tragedy: one of the reasons tragedy (certain kinds, at least) is painful is that it affronts the human desire for progress.' We are conditioned by reading, by film, by drama, with, it occurs to me, long-running television soaps being the only salutary reminder of what real life actually does -- it goes on and on as a succession of events until the plug is pulled; we should note the significance of Coronation Street and EastEnders. We want some kind of identifiable progress, a structure, and the only one is the passage of time, the notching up of decades until the exit line is signalled."
In contrast to linear clock-time, through which we in the industrialized West have learned to view our lives and construct our stories, Jay Griffiths describes "mythic time" and "wild time" in her wide-ranging book Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time:
"Mythic stories talk time out of mind, charm and trick time, clogging or stretching it: fables make time fabulously paradoxical, a stubborn blot on the face of clock-time but true to the time of the psyche, where past, present and future are kaleidoscoped. Time can run anti-clockwise so the youngest child succeeds where the oldest fails, the dawn can be wiser than the dusk and birds can tell the future. Certain periods of time -- three days, a year and a day, seven years and a hundred years -- are enchanted. In these archetypal tales all over the world, 'sensible' time disappears into a wrinkle; a person dips into a fairy hill or disappears for a night with dwarves, but on their return finds that, Rip Van Winklish, a hundred ordinary years have passed.
"The Inuit tell tales which begin 'long ago, in the future,' which is a beautiful expression of mythic time playing trickster to linear, logical conceptions. But all fairy tales play with time, from 'Once upon a time' to 'lived happily ever after.' Once tells of a past eternal, but the eternity it refers to is also a charmed present, just at one remove from now. French folk tales can begin 'Il y a une fois,' meaning some time ago, while il y a actually means 'there is.' This is the eternal-present tense , an enchanted present-continuous, a time in the past that still exists. The present, 'now and ever after,' is the present continuing, life everlasting, and even though the individual action is narrated and complete -- 'that's all folks' -- yet life goes on, ever after, back in the now.
"Mythic stories face death, time's most ferociously fearful aspect, and charm the sting out of it for this reason: the individual tale ends, myths imply, so the individual life story must end in death, but the life of the species lives from ever-before to ever-after. The consolation of life's continuing is most explicit in this Aboriginal Dreamtime myth: 'And so death comes, but life always returns.' Their transcendence of death is achieved in part by the archetypal nature of the characters of myths and folk tales; the totemic Dreamtime figures, the Jack and Jill of folk tales, even the Everyman of Morality Plays. Further, the tales themselves become 'immortal,' living stories retold from generation to generation in an oral culture, from ceilidh to corroboree."
Jeanette Winterson notes that as Western clock-time and lives speed up, urged ever faster by the restless, relentless gods of productivity, profit, and technology, this speed seeps into our narrative arts; and she makes a plea for letting fiction, and life, unfold at a more natural pace.
"Nobody would would expect to play a piece of music at twice the speed of the score and be able to enjoy it," she writes. "Yet, in literature this is happening all the time. The reader chooses the pace without taking the trouble to first pick up the rhythm. To get used to a writer's rhythm, to move with a writer's own beat, needs a little more time. It means looking at the opening pages carefully. It can be helpful to read them out loud. Much of the delight everyone gets from radio adaptations of the classics is a straightforward delight in pace. The actors read much more slowly than the eye passes, especially the eye habituated to scanning the daily papers and skipping through the magazines. It is just not possible to read literature quickly. Neither poetry nor poetic fiction will respond to being rushed....It seems so obvious, this question of pace, and yet it is not. Reviewers, who can never waste more than an hour with a book, are the most to blame. Journalism encourages haste; haste in the writer, haste in the reader, and haste is the enemy of art. Art, in its making and in its enjoying, demands long tracts of time. Books, like cats, do not wear watches.
"Over and above all the individual rhythms of music, pictures and words, is the rhythm of art itself."
The art here today, with its gentle and timeless rhythm, is by the award-winning Britist artist and illustrator Anne Yvonne Gilbert. Raised in Northumberland (in north-east England), Gilbert studied at Newcastle College and the Liverpool College of Art, and has worked as an illustrator and graphic artist since the late 1970s. She has published many beautiful children's books; provided cover art for fantasy classics by Diana Wynne Jones, Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, and John Crowley, among others; and designed everything from album covers to postage stamps -- working primarily with colored pencils and inks. (She considers herself more of a "drawer" than a painter.) I recommend her lovely illustration blog if you'd like to know more about her creative process.
Text sources: Ammonites & Leaping Fish by Penelope Lively (Pengiun Books, 2014); Pip Pip by Jay Griffiths (HarperCollins, 1999), and Art Objects by Jeanette Winterson (Random House, 1995).