Writers often look to the past for inspiration and this process has resulted in some of our most prized literature. There is a long standing literary tradition to write about the past, and document key historical moments as snap shots in time, to pass this knowledge on through the generations. Even in Medieval times, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s historiographical text Historia Reggum Brittaniae, was a prominent feature of popular culture.
Time was no longer a necessity for the progression of a plot, but had been deemed worthy as a subject matter.
Since the Medieval times, there have been a number of developments in the ways in which writers document time as literature has evolved. The turn of the twentieth century saw a relaxation of the relationship between time and narrative. Classics such as Virginia Woolfe’s Mrs Dalloway experiment with a free indirect style to denote a stream of consciousness in the present tense; whilst F.Scott Fitzgerald’s classic The Great Gatsby lamented the loss of a moment in time and explores the relationship between a man and his past. The twentieth century witnessed a new trend: time was no longer a necessity for the progression of a plot, but had been deemed worthy as a subject matter, as well as something which could be manipulated to formulate modernist illusions of narrative structure.
French author Alain Robbe-Grillet took the manipulation of time and narrative style one step further in his novel Jealousy. He plays masterfully with the complex matter of time in an innovatively non-linear way, framing this alongside the demise of the protagonist’s mental state as he descends so far into jealousy that even the reader cannot untangle the truth.
It is the only novel I know where you could start in the middle and read backwards, with the argument remaining the same.
The story takes place in a chalet situated on a plantation, where a man and his wife are staying and is told from the point of view of the husband who suspects his wife of adultery. The novel adopts a Jamesian approach, with very little action, but rather a preoccupation with the husband’s internal deciphering of the world around him. This peculiar style may at first seem tedious, but as the plot continues and the same minor events (such as seeing a caterpillar on the wall) are repeated, the reader can begin to appreciate the author’s remarkably modernist argument: truth is in the eye of the beholder and time is a malleable concept.
The constant telling and re-telling of seemingly insignificant details within the setting of sweltering heat makes the reader feel as if they are witnessing a particularly bizarre dream. Robbe-Grillet carries the reader through this labyrinth of inconsistent time, paranoia and the illusion of time being linear.
I cannot recommend Jealousy highly enough, it is the only novel I know where you could start in the middle and read backwards, with the argument remaining the same – there is certainly some genius in that alone.
Author: Kathryn Burke