Time Travel and the Novel

In a sense, we are all time travelers, though it’s generally a one-way trip, and goes way too fast (unless you are stuck in a boring meeting or in traffic or waiting for a subway that doesn’t come, in which case the opposite applies).

One of the most poignant aspects of the novel is its ability, more than the short story, the movie, the opera, is to show change over time. It is an ability perhaps rivaled only by the TV series and miniseries, the novel’s flickery spiritual cousins. I found myself thinking about War and Peace this morning as I washed the breakfast dishes (why? I do not know): how young they all were at the beginning: Pierre with his social awkwardness, Prince Andrei full of ennui and filtering French phrases through his teeth, Natasha and her passionate yearning for meaning. And all the things that happened to them — war and peace, love and death — and how they are changed forever by these things, and most of all by the simple (!) passage through time.  I have always found this passage near the end extremely moving for some reason:

Natasha had married in the early spring of 1813, and in 1820 already had three daughters besides a son for whom she had longed and whom she was now nursing. She had grown stouter and broader, so that it was difficult to recognize in this robust, motherly woman the slim, lively Natasha of former days. Her features were more defined and had a calm, soft, and serene expression. In her face there was none of the ever-glowing animation that had formerly burned there and constituted its charm. Now her face and body were of all that one saw, and her soul was not visible at all.

Yes, I remember thinking when I read this first as a teenager. That’s exactly how it happens, when you get older! I don’t know where I got this conviction, but Tolstoy had me sure he was right. Now, well past the motherly end-of-book Natasha’s age, I am more conscious of his godlike perspective in this novel, the way he moves his characters around like chess pieces and his ability to look, like a merciful god,  into the hearts of each of one and see what is there, judging it kindly, if at all.

And also of the power of time in narrative.

A novel about time travel back to meet Jane Austen is about wish fulfillment, to be certain, but is also — in the way that everything is itself and also, mysteriously, something else — about the possibilities and the abuses of technology; about what we are put on Earth for; about the meaning of time itself. No, that’s not it. I am not explaining it well at all.

The appeal of time travel is that we can triumph over time; we can reverse its direction, we can go back and fix things. That is also the appeal of the novel. When you finish with War and Peace, you can, if you desire, go back to the start and read it again, when they are all young and unformed once more, untouched, like the figures on Keats’s Grecian urn.


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