Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Historical Novel as Time Machine

In an extended review of Philip Hensher's The Emperor Waltz published in a recent issue of Prospect Magazine, Sam Sacks writes of "the rise of time machine fiction." "The smooth, uninterrupted passage from a beginning to an ending," he suggests, "has fallen out of favour. Instead, books that juxtapose multiple stories from different periods in time ... have grown into a genre of their own." He cites A.S. Byatt's Possession, David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and, most recently, The Emperor Waltz, as examples of this genre.

In contrast to H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, none of the characters in these novels actually travels in time. It is the reader who is presented with the illusion of doing so. Sacks sees this "time machine fiction," however, as the "offspring" of a creative tension between Wells and his contemporary, Henry James, "combining the Jamesian attention to character we associate with modern 'literary fiction' with the high-concept didactic approach of Wells," and he traces a line of descent from James and Wells through Richard Powers's Three Farmers on their way to a Dance; to Possession, Cloud Atlas and The Emperor Waltz.

Richard Powers's Three Farmers on their way to a Dance takes, as its starting point, a photograph of three young men taken in 1913 or 1914 by the German photographer August Sander. It explores modern themes in the history of photography and technology as well as presenting the fictionalised lives of the three men as their lives unfold after the photograph was taken.

It was certainly Cloud Atlas, together with Katie Ward's Girl Reading, that inspired me to write my own "time machine novel," Omphalos, which will be published later this year. The form seemed to me to suit my purpose in exploring, through fiction, the history of a specific place that I have previously explored through non-fiction.

Having hit upon this idea, I sought further inspiration from a re-reading of several novels that seemed to me to be doing something similar, but these were not the ones on Sacks's line of succession.

The first was Virginia Woolf's Orlando, which he does mention in passing. For me, this is, perhaps, the first, and probably also the greatest of these novels, taking the reader on a breath-taking waltz across four centuries of European and Asiatic history.

I turned then to Italo Calvino's If on a Winter's Night, a Traveller... and Invisible Cities. David Mitchell has acknowledged Calvino as the primary influence on Cloud Atlas, and it is from Calvino that both Mitchell and I derive the structural form of Cloud Atlas and Omphalos, the idea of a story within a story within a story, like a series of nested Matryoshka dolls.

Russian Matryoshka dolls. Photo: BrokenSphere/Wikimedia Commons, licensed under GNU.

In my case, the specific stories, and the periods in which they are set (the present day, the 1940s, the 1790s, the 1510s, the 1160s, the 5th Millennium BC) are suggested by the specific place that inspired Omphalos, even though two thirds of the action of the novel takes place elsewhere (Normandy, Brittany, Venice, Crete, Jerusalem, Galicia, Gascony). I could have added a story set in the 1920s, and another set in the 1880s, but I judged that the novel was long enough without them, and I didn't feel that they would necessarily add much to the underlying themes of transgression and reconciliation, and of people finding themselves on the wrong side of history.

La Hougue Bie, Jersey. Photo: Man Vyi (image is in the Public Domain).

I read Kate Atkinson's Life after Life (like Orlando, it is an unusual variation on the theme of a "time machine novel") whilst I was editing Omphalos, and quickly realised that she and I had drawn on some of the same historical sources. I wanted to make sure that I did not use the same vignettes, and edited some of my paragraphs accordingly.

In his review of The Emperor Waltz, Sam Sacks identifies a number of "traps" into which the writer of "time fiction novels" can easily fall. First there is " ... the danger of devolving into a kind of interpretive game, a lit-crit mystery whose meanings must be decrypted rather than naturally perceived. Authors unbounded by time are susceptible to the allures of omniscience, which can turn their characters into puppets and snuff out the lifelike vitality of the realist tradition."

Certainly there will be elements of mystery in Omphalos, as there are in most good novels, but these elements are secondary to the main arc of the stories. I have tried to avoid the allure of omniscience by telling each story in a different format: a series of letters in one case; diary entries in another; a 16th Century travelogue; an imagined oral narration. These are testaments which do not, in fact, exist, but which could have done. In each case I researched the genre, examining real wartime letters at the Imperial War Museum; real 18th Century diaries and 16th Century travelogues at the British Library.

The diary of Henriette Dessaules, McCord Museum (Image is in the Public Domain).

Second, there is the risk of "mysticism," with overreliance on "connecting devices." "Connection itself becomes their overarching theme as they assert a bond between the past and the present (and sometimes the frighteningly unknown future) based on the constants of human nature, national heritage, or family ties."

In Omphalos, the main "connecting device" will be a physical place, but there are also objects from one period which crop up in another, and suggested (but not explicitly stated) family ties across the generations, but these, again, are secondary, and, although the characters in each story face problems that arise from "the constants of human nature," their cultural backgrounds lead them to face these problems in very different ways. There is an implied question, here, about the resources we have (or lack) to confront these problems ourselves, but this is a question for the reader. Like George R.R. Martin, "I'm not the sort of writer who gives answers. I prefer to raise questions."

Finally, there is the risk of didacticism, tilting a work "far more towards H.G. Wells than Henry James." In the case of Omphalos, I hope that the fact of having already told part of the story in a non-fictional context has innoculated me against any temptation towards didacticism in the novel itself.

The non-fiction is about the stories we know; the novel is about the stories we do not, and cannot know, and is entirely narrated through the subjectivities of the characters (there will be nine protagonists, all but one of them fictional).

"Today," Sacks asserts, "'time machine fiction' reigns supreme." Certainly it is now an established sub-genre (other examples are Sarah Waters' The Night Watch, and Sebastian Faulks' A Possible Life) and, of the thirteen books currently long-listed for the Man Booker Prize 2014, one clearly belongs within it (Ali Smith's How to be Both), whilst three others have some elements of similarity to it (Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World; Howard Jacobson's J; Niall William's History of the Rain).

There is also room on the list, however, for a more conventional work of historical fiction (Richard Flanagan's The Narrow Road to the Deep North) and for Paul Kingsnorth's The Wake, which, like Jim Crace's Harvest last year, distinguishes itself mainly through its highly imaginative use of language. "Time machine fiction" is not the only show in town by any means, but it is emerging as one of the distinguishing literary tropes of the early 21st Century.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.


  1. An interesting post, thank you. I shall look forward to reading Omphalos.

  2. I'm really intrigued by this book. Especially the story about Galicia. Looking forward to reading allt he stories, though. I like the concept of linking them through time.