The Egyptian chronology of death.
To me the most fascinating thing in a book is time and chronology. I am obsessed with recording the years and days of a story, its time span, its historical scope. In storytelling it is a plural and multipolar phenomenon. It goes from the classical bildungsroman starting with the main character’s childhood, and tells his life, quite simply, as a life-long personal diary – Jane Eyre, for instance. Some family sagas, too, have this kind of style : to me the most blatant example is the 12 books long Poldark series. This is good for patient and committed readers, but the character has to be charismatic and iconoclastic, likable. It is easy to get bored, but when the author masters his project, it results in a river of adventures and experiences that the reader fully enjoys.
There are other books, my favorites, written by an old narrator, writing and commenting on his own past life. All of my favourite books are written this way. Sinuhé the Egyptian is an old and exiled man, and has nothing else to do than writing on papyrus the account of his fabulous yet bitter life. Fitzchivalry Farseer hesitates between two tasks : writing the Six Duchies chronicles, or writing the life of a Farseer bastard. He ends up doing both – and a whole lot more. Both characters provide with a philosophical, sometimes poetic glance on their existence. It results in a very epic and prophetic tone, and allows the author to settle his work in realism and authenticity.
And there is the most complex and yet compelling type of chronology : the un-linear, un-ordered chronology. Scientific vocabulary call it prolepsis, and analepsis, and such beautiful sonorities enclose a literary gem. They are no mere adornment or fancy of an author that try to be original and to prove to his reader that he has a superior mind or sense of storytelling. They are actually committing the reader in the writing and creation process.
Time Travel, Steve Hester
One of the most famous prolepsis of all time is the first line of One Hundred Years of Solitude :
Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice. At that time Macondo was a village of twenty adobe houses, built on the bank of a river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. The world was so recent that many things lacked names, and in order to indicate them it was necessary to point.
The narrator goes back to the roots of the story, that is to say the village of Buendía’s family, and it allows him to introduce it. It also creates an epic tension in the story, because war and death always overshadow it. It could have been a counter in-media-res beginning, because it may have been the action of firing the bullet, triggering the literary process. But it would have been the death of one of the characters. A book beginning with death is rarely a good omen. It also warns the reader : this book is not going to be an easy one. You will have to remember names and eras, because they are multiple, and evolve. Once Aureliano is a child with his father, and then, he is a warrior. So please, follow. Just saying. Many years later….
Waterland by Graham Swift is also written as a broken puzzle, which creates a very addictive effect. You want to know what happened to cause such bitterness and violence. There are cobwebs you have to burn before reaching the center of the maze. But it is worth it, even though the final is particularly horrifying. Two 19th century novels inspired my love for chronology and structures in narratology : Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. They rely on different narrators, deferent times, letters, framed narratives… It creates such a depth that the story is thicker than the others, like, you can dive into it – my metaphors are very earthly and material… – that is generally reflected by geography. For example, Frankenstein is set between Ingolstadt and the North Pole, and Wuthering Heights between Thrushgross and…Wuthering Heights.
Thanks to the person who did this !
Symmetry and plurality is key in this type of narrative, and nothing is here meaninglessly. Everything is calculated, as perfect as a globe. That is probably one of the reasons why they became classics…
Unconventional chronology is even more unsettling when it comes to films. I recently watched Cloud Atlas (LOVED IT) which is an original and intricate piece of filmic art. It consists in six stories set in different eras, 2012 being the nearest to us. All the actors are recycled in each story- sometimes through cross-dressing or heavy make-up – but their actions at one time has consequences in the past and the future. They all have birthmarks, shaped like a comet. Places also echo each other-the islands. It is actually a movie about uncanny, familiarisation, wrapping everything up. As each story is interrupted by sequences from the other stories, it may discourage many viewers. To the contrary, you may be completely caught up in the vortex of stories and actions. They all are very dark, but represent a noble fight : the abolition of slavery or the revelation of a genocide. Everything seems to be a door to another time. In some way the film advocates for reincarnation, and in the idea that we have several lives, that our anterior lives influence us, that the person we meet one day, we met before, and will meet later. But you will always fall in love with them – like Halle Berry and Tom Hanks in 1970 and 2321.
Multifaceted Tim Hanks
Cloud Atlas is a two hours and fifty minutes-long hypnotizing movie : there are incredible visual and musical qualities and a great piece of storytelling. It is what prolepsis and analepsis look like when they are filmed, with postmodern influences.
Chronology in art is a field that is still offering a great potential. I really like the fact that this notion can go beyond textuality. Past, present and future are no longer simple grammatical notions. Time is not just historical and physical. It is a playground … Who’s the next chronology breaker ?