Three Authors Who Understand Time

In an effort to explain the theory of relativity to inquisitive interviewers, Albert Einstein once used this anecdote: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

The tale clearly falls short of illuminating the complexities of space-time continuum, gravitational waves and black holes, but most who hear it will nonetheless have an instinctive understanding of time’s elasticity. So why, a century after Einstein’s discovery, is time so often treated in the Newtonian sense, as though it chugs along in measured, chronological fashion? If our experiences, and indeed the laws of the universe, don’t adhere to this trajectory, why should our stories?

The writers I return to again and again are those who appear to have pondered greatly the question of time—How is the world revealed to us through time? What is our relationship to the past?—and found a language through which to tell stories of a tangled and amorphous world.

Oil painting of Godrevy Lighthouse, Cornwall, UK.

Godrevy Lighthouse, St. Ives Bay, Cornwall, UK where Woolf’s family rented a summer cottage during her childhood and the fictionalized setting of To The Lighthouse, Artist Unknown.

1) Virginia Woolf

Life is not a series of gig lamps arranged in a row. It is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.

As part of her move away from Victorian literary convention, or as she put it, “the appalling narrative business of the realist,” Virginia Woolf explored time as it is experienced by the psyche—in turns elastic and quicksilver, wavering always between past and present. Clarissa Dalloway opens the windows of her London home in Mrs. Dalloway and the past rises up with a force. “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.” A creaky hinge, the fountain at Bourton, Sally’s kiss; the past continually surfaces to disrupt the present moment.

The novel charts the course of a single day in post WWI London and although Big Ben strikes on the hour (a reminder perhaps of “official” time, that Newtonian clockwork universe ticking away) it has little bearing on the lives of its characters. A whole lifetime plays out in Clarissa’s mind as she wanders the streets of London, dipping in and out of her past, refashioning the city into a highly textured mental landscape, “making it up, building it round one, tumbling it, creating it every moment afresh.” Consciousness in Woolf’s writing causes the minutes and hours to stretch.

In To the Lighthouse, the “Time Passes” interlude exposes the Ramsay house in a state of decay, bereft of its inhabitants when there is “scarcely anything left of body or mind.” Objects lose their utility, the saucepan rusts, a forgotten shawl swings “idly, aimlessly” to and fro. What does time look like outside of consciousness? “Time Passes” is much shorter than the book’s preceding section, “The Window,” which portrays the complexity of lived consciousness of a single day. Here ten years pass almost instantaneously and in the span of a few short pages. Through this structural placement the novel suggests that without the distancing, distorting, and shaping of the human mind, time is nothing.


A man and woman lies in bed reading; his face shows scarring from burns.

Still from the 1996 film adaptation of The English Patient, a novel by Michael Ondaatje

2) Michael Ondaatje

I don’t believe stories are told from A to Z anymore; or, if they are, they become very ponderous. . . .that sense of discovery, of memory, and how we reveal ourselves to each other – none of that is chronological.

Michael Ondaatje is well known for his disjointed narrative style. The fragmented storylines of Coming Through Slaughter and The English Patient have given critics pause—the author gives us all the broken pieces, they argue, and then leaves it to us to infer the final form. But if madness is to see the world in broken pieces, as it is for Buddy Bolden in Coming Through Slaughter, then surely the aftermath of war is its own kind of splintering from the world and the fragmentation and temporal compression of The English Patient succeeds in sketching the wreckage of the war-torn psyche.

The four characters who inhabit an abandoned villa in post-WWII Italy have all suffered trauma through the war, and much like the stuttered or stunned utterances of those in shock, their stories come out in short, urgent spurts, as memory, or a strange, drug-induced lucidity. Fragmentation is a useful strategy for portraying trauma—the response to an event that, not fully grasped in the moment, returns later in the form of nightmares, flashbacks, or other repetitive phenomena. But the novel’s distinct sense of timelessness, a temporal compression in which the past and the present exist on equal terms, also becomes an important means for representing the aftereffects of war.

Ondaatje does not create a direct or discernible passing of time at the ruined villa, only a juxtaposition of places: the present and a past that continues to play out in memory. The English patient drifts in and out of the room. One moment Hanna is speaking to him, though “it appeared that he was not listening carefully to what she was saying. Just his distant thinking.” A moment later he is in the Saharan desert. “He reached the shallow well named Ain Dua. He removed all of his clothes and soaked them in the well, he put his head and then his thin body into the blue water.” The present surfaces only briefly as the wartime recollections are acute, more “real” than the here and now. And they persist, often overwhelming the present. To Kip, Hanna, Caravaggio, and to the English patient time’s passing has become irrelevant.

Black and white photograph of a hazy canal

Photograph from The Emigrants by W.G Sebald

3) W. G. Sebald

It seems to me then as if all the moments of our life occupy the same space, as if future events already existed and were only waiting for us to find our way to them at last, just as when we have accepted an invitation we duly arrive in a certain house at a given time.

G. Sebald’s The Emigrants stages a search for the past through fragments of memory, dreams and old photographs, but in doing so exposes the way history (specifically, the history of the holocaust) is buried, forgotten and overlooked. The work, which reads a bit like a novel-essay or a scrapbook biography, at first appears to be a ‘real’ historical account of people and events. The narrator pieces together, over the course of four separate sections, the lives of four emigrants—Dr. Henry Selwyn, Paul Bereyter, Ambrose Adelwarth and Max Ferber.

But the meticulous attention to names and dates and piecing together of historical lives is accompanied by a sense of vagueness and ambiguity. In part this is because as historical (dead) figures (as they all are for at least part of their stories) they are enigmatic and their stories depend on the unreliable third party accounts. Consciousness is inconsistent. Some details fade away from memory while others rise to the surface. The book mimics Dr. Sylwyn who abandons his medical practice to devote his entire attention “to thoughts which on the one hand grew vaguer day by day, and, on the other, grew more precise and unambiguous.”

There are moments in the narrative that border on the strange or fantastical and dreams that extend over the course of several pages, in some cases blending in with the account of historical characters as they walk about. “Or else I really did see them” the narrator says during his search for clues about the long deceased Cosmo and uncle Ambros:

They were silent, as the dead usually are when they appear in our dreams, and seemed somewhat downcast and dejected. Generally, in fact, they behaved as if their altered condition, so to speak, were a terrible family secret not to be revealed under any circumstances. If I approached them, they dissolved before my very eyes.

It might take the reader several re-readings to parse the dream from the “reality”—so subtle are the transitions, the blurring of worlds. The narrative creates the uncanny feeling that events whether past or present, dreamed or imagined occupy the same field and equally nebulous. History and the dead continue to haunt us even though they are beyond our grasp.

Fractured Fragments

“The fragment is unique in its ability to allow both a singular idea and its collated whole to speak on their own.”