I share my name with an aerobatic bird that can transect a whole summer sky in seconds. A swift is so equipped for speed that it can scarcely cope with being stationary. I once came across one that had somehow crash-landed on a lawn and, with its tiny legs and long encumbering wings, couldn’t regain the air. I lifted it on the perch of my finger and it was gone in a flash.
But I’m a novelist, so I also know about slowness. Novels, in my experience, are slow in coming and once I’ve begun one I know I may have years of work ahead. All novelists must form personal pacts with the pace of their craft. There are a few who demand of themselves a “rate of production”, for whom it’s a matter of pride to complete, say, a book a year, but I think most, after writing two or three novels, take philosophical stock of the fact that in an average lifetime they’ll produce a finite and not so large number of novels and that the point of being a novelist is not to see how many you can write or how rapidly.
If you want quick results you can always write short stories. This isn’t such a straightforward option, since many stories, brief as they are, may require lengthy labour to get right. Nonetheless, it’s sometimes possible to write a short story, or its first draft, in a week, a day, even a few intense hours.
When I began my writing life I couldn’t envisage the long singular haul of a novel, let alone conceive of how novels were themselves conceived. The quick rewards of writing only short stories went with many a quick disappointment, but that’s how you learn. And a failed short story involves only transient heartbreak, unlike a novel that collapses at page 75.
This isn’t to suggest the short story is a lesser form fit only for apprentice work. It has provided some of the greatest literature, and is surely the primary, more deep-rooted medium. We’ve been telling each other stories (“A funny thing happened to me … ”) since language was invented. The novel is a new-fangled invention, the pursuit of specialists.
I might have been exclusively a short story writer. When, to my surprise, I found myself one day writing a novel, and then another and another and actually turning into a novelist, it was with a recurring pang, since the price of this new bond seemed to be a desertion of the short story – or its desertion of me. This went on for decades. My first, and I increasingly supposed only, volume of short stories was published in 1982. It wasn’t until a few years ago that – having written hardly any in the interval – I found myself dealing with a real flood of stories again. Why then I don’t know, but I was once more immersed in the short form and experiencing the glad rush it can bring, in itself and in the way one story can leap to another. The resulting book, England and Other Stories, appeared in 2014.
I’d have been happy to continue with more stories, but the flood seemed to stop with the book. Then one day I began something that I knew with complete sureness was a novel, though I also knew – was this somehow a consequence of the spate of short stories? – that it would be a very short one. It was called, and even its title came quickly and unhesitatingly, Mothering Sunday.
All of which brings me back to the idea of speed. Forget for a moment the finished product, its dimensions or the actual time it will have taken to write; the vital thing that causes it all, the imagination, is extraordinarily fickle in its readiness and velocity. It can lie dormant for months, even years, then unexpectedly do its work in no time at all. I would say that, having had no premonition of it, I “had” Mothering Sunday, all its essential components, its whole conception, in a matter of minutes. I still had plenty of work to do, but this was sustained by a thrilling momentum, propelled by the unwavering intuition that this thing, while having the capacity, density and reach of any proper novel, would nonetheless be short. It came out at just over 130 pages and though it took a year or so (and much of the work was in reducing it) it was my fastest novel to write.
The notion of speed in fiction is fraught with paradox. A novel that takes years to write may be read in a day, even hours. A passage the writer has toiled over for weeks may have its effect in a moment and barely be consciously noticed. The vibrations of thought and feeling a single sentence in its context may release in a reader can be too rapid for measurement. “It leapt off the page” we say of a good reading experience.
Yet we generally think of reading as an innately slow activity – hardly an activity at all. We do it statically, in a chair or a bed. We do it “in our own time”, and we can take time over it. We apparently control the tempo. But a novel can take us involuntarily out of normal time and allow us to inhabit a strange zone that’s not strictly temporal at all. It can be a tribute to a book to say that it seems to make time stop. The chief spur to reading may be that we want to know what happens next, but it would be an unsatisfying novel that merely hurried us forward. A good novel is like a welcome pause in the flow of existence. Novels can linger with us long after they’ve been read – even and perhaps particularly novels that compel us to read them, all other concerns forgotten, in a single sitting. Readers may sometimes count pages as they read, but I don’t think they look at their watches to see how time is escaping them. A successful novel removes us from the tyranny of our sense of time. It’s like a little life within life, obeying its own permissive laws of narrative physics.
And here is another paradox. Mothering Sunday focuses in close detail on a single day, yet it opens out to embrace a whole life of nearly 100 years. The novel that preceded it, Wish You Were Here, concentrates on a few crucial days, though much of it is more hour by hour and there are episodes that occur in the same time that it takes to read them. But on another level it, too, spans whole lives and takes in more than one generation.
The novel before that, Tomorrow, occupies the short space of a midsummer night, but is long on memory and pregnant (an operative word in its subject matter) with a sense of the future. The novel before reaches over lives and years, but otherwise all takes place on one cold brilliant day in November, and is called The Light of Day.
What is going on here, even in the titles – “day”, “here”, “tomorrow”? It’s something approaching the word “now”. The pattern, or instinct, is there in other novels of mine (Last Orders, The Sweet Shop Owner) and is far from peculiar to me. Even some very long novels – think of Ulysses – have dwelt, while reaching deep and far, on the passing of mere hours.
Could it be there’s something about a novel that wants to be a short story, that yearns for brevity – just as a short story can long to be big, to transcend its own confines and conjure whole lives? The answer to the conundrum is immediacy – the stuff that’s the life-blood of all fiction. To a reader gripped by a novel’s immediacy, its duration or chronology is minor. It matters little if it’s 100 or 300 pages long or if it’s set 100 or 300 years ago, so long as it gives the feeling that it’s happening now.
Without this element of immediacy a novel will fail and become a slog. I think there’s a way in which all novels aspire to a kind of perpetual present tense. This is why the ones we love are rereadable: they will always deliver their nowness. Perhaps all novelists, while they may want to do many things in their work and while they resolutely embark on the long, complex task of writing, want to do something quick, simple and impossible – to grab the very stuff of life and offer it in their fist to their readers and say, “There you are”.
Immediacy is beyond speed, it’s simply there. I gave Wish You Were Here its title partly to suggest my wish to put the reader “there”, to make it be happening to them. Just as fiction can achieve a sort of permanent present tense, so it can achieve an elision of point of view. A narrative may be written (with some exceptions) in the first or third person singular, but once it becomes the reader’s story too – once it’s “happening to them” – it acquires an implicit first person plural, it becomes, or adds to, the collective story of us all.
And immediacy, I feel, is closely bound up with intimacy. Looking back over my own recent fiction, I think it’s been driven by an increasing desire for intimacy – a blending of the external bodily world with that stuff that goes on, most privately and sometimes inexpressibly, inside us. I think my real gauge of swiftness is the swiftness with which I can get to this intimate fusion of the corporeal and the mental, whatever the narrative framework.
In medias res is Horace’s phrase: “in the midst of things”. It was Horace who also gave us carpe diem. To get swiftly to the matter is a different thing from swiftness per se, but it does imply brevity, urgency, intensity. The novel that while having other dimensions also concentrates on a single day, on hours, may best express the common truth and apprehension: we have only the day, the hour, the present tense, and we must seize it, know it, try to do in fact what we cannot do in life but what good fiction can do – grasp the fleeting, vanishing stuff of existence and make it always there.
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