Tag Archives: Jeanette Winterson

July’s Books

5 Aug

July has been a good month for reading. Beautiful weather makes me think ‘I must enjoy this! I must spend time outside!’. Computers and the like are for cold days. Books are for sunshine. Add to that the family holiday – ten days in Tenerife and hours of quiet, uninterrupted words – and the fact that the Aga has been off (so no diversions into the kitchen occupying hours of my weekends) and I’ve read really quite a lot. So here we go.

First – A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, by Mary Wollstonecraft. Not Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, author of Frankenstein, but her mum. Written in the 1790s, Vindication is one of the seminal English texts in modern feminism, though it was largely ignored and/or viciously criticised at the time.

It’s not an easy read nowadays as most of us (with the exception of some ancient academics) have lost the habit of reading and writing like we live in a Victorian crime novel. Yet if you can soldier through the prose and hang the arguments together you get an impressive pearl string of points. Wollstonecraft’s most oft-cited maxim is the one that goes along the lines of ‘I do not wish women to have power over men, but over themselves’. Which is a great line, no?

Wollstonecraft’s argument is imbued with religion, which can make it rather difficult to read if you’re not really into the whole ‘God’ thing. However, she (unusually) uses religion to justify her argument for equality, which is obviously quite a different use when compared to many hardline religious groups even today. She also struggles slightly to escape the biological and, in chastising the often destructive nature of ‘romantic’ love, creates a picture of a marriage that few would wish for themselves in the 21st century.

What I found particularly fascinating was Wollstonecraft’s attribution of much of the unequal treatment of women to economic and industrial factors. The changing perception of what a woman is good for and how much she ought, accordingly, to be educated go hand in hand and in turn create a vicious cycle. That’s why education for girls is so important – because it demonstrates the faith we have that they are worth it.

Anyway. Read Wollstonecraft if you can. Remember the context and try not to judge her by her verbosity, religious fervour and occasional inconsistencies. It really is fascinating.

Next on my list: To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Woolf. Written during the phase of Woolf’s career in which she seems to have found her voice and her style, TtL is a novel about children, about parents, about gender and about expectation (from my reading, anyway. Doubtless others have come away with different impressions). It’s also about art and construction. I enjoyed it for the characterisation of Mr and Mrs Ramsay and their relationship, and also for the flow of the prose and the natural descriptions. I enjoy reading the characters Woolf writes. They always sound familiar while still being mysterious and interesting. She catches human nuances really well.

Next I read The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories by Angela Carter – a compendium of short ‘fairytales’ designed, I assumed, to sit together. Written along similar lines and with very similar themes, each story was about femininity, property, innocence and violence. I raced through these – not because they were insubstantial; more because they were delicious. I couldn’t wait to read each one. I’m going to go back and read them all again because they really were great.

Continuing the Angela Carter theme, I next read Nights at the Circus. This was a slightly different kettle of fish as it was a full novel rather than a collection, although the themes were very similar and the characters and premise no less fantastical. It was funny, endearing, wild – and though-provoking, questioning, too. I later loaned it to my mum who had run out of things to read and I think she was a bit baffled by it, but a fantastical version of late Victorian London and its unusual inhabitants is right up my street. I loved it. If it’s up your street, I definitely recommend.

Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson, was the penultimate book I finished on holiday. I wrote about this at the time (and subsequently) when I wrote about gender and authorship. That aside – I thought it was a beautiful book. Winterson is so deft with her language – rarely, if ever, overblown. Whatever she is writing about, the tone is always right on the money between tripping and sincere; light enough to be humorous, dark enough to be deadly. I don’t know if I could pick a favourite JW of all the ones I’ve now read, but if you prefer reality to fantasy, this one’s a good bet.

I also read The Waves, another Virginia Woolf. I had heard that this is a difficult text to comprehend, let alone to get through. I’ll admit that I’m reasonably sure a lot of the significance of things was lost on me (although reading the critical introduction after I had finished the book was a little illuminating on that score). However – I actually really enjoyed it. The style is an almost relentless narrative relay, the baton passing between the six main characters across the course of their lives. I say ‘almost relentless’ because there are clear pauses between the otherwise-unbreaking patter of voices. These pauses take the form of an ongoing description of a sea landscape, described throughout the course of a single day, mirroring the characters’ much slower incandescence and subsequent decline. These bits have a lot in common with To the Lighthouse, especially in the ‘Time Passes’ segment. There’s nothing like a contrast with nature to emphasise the brevity of human life (I always think of Sophocles’ Ajax in these instances. But that’s just me).

Unwilling to take my kindle to the beach for the rest of the holiday (the sand was getting *everywhere*) and caught in the straitjacket of my good intentions pre-holiday, all I had left to read in paperback was More’s Utopia or Karl Popper’s The Open Society and its Enemies. Foolishly, perhaps, I went for Popper. I read a significant amount of it before coming home, but I find it difficult to read except in hefty chunks, as I struggle to pin down the philosophy straight away and need to allow it to build up until I have a mental breakthrough of understanding.

I didn’t finish Popper because once I got home, I had a conversation with the wonderful E in which we agreed to send each other books (yes, we’re starting our own Feminist Library Lending Service, one day to be a full blown library/bookshop/café affair). Anyway, I sent her The Feminine Mystique and Tiffany Atkinson’s Catulla et al, and she sent me Toni Morrison’s Jazz and a short poem by Adrienne Rich. So I read those instead.

Jazz is set in the early years of the 20th century, mostly in New York but ranging around America in the telling of the main characters’ backstories. It’s soulful, thoughtful, with a narrator who places herself on the edge of the action to watch but who admits later on her fallibility and its basis in the human trait of making stories up about people to make them more interesting. Jazz is imbued throughout with the music that makes uptight characters suspicious and everyone else relaxed. It’s a book about colour and what it means, love and what that means and happiness, and what that means. In every case, the meaning is practical as well as emotional.

Jazz had some great lines and there was a particularly powerful segment about the way the black women of New York defend themselves or die. Though it wasn’t a book I would have thought to pick up off a library shelf or in a bookshop, I really, really enjoyed it. It was deep. It was funny. It was illuminating and it was dark. The characterisations were brilliant; the scenes were evocative. No character stayed the same and the end was pleasingly rounded off without being obvious from the beginning. Jazz left an impression.

Well. That’s it for July. August has started well so far after a large order of new books and the arrival of some university reading lists. Ariel Levy and Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling, in case you still hadn’t heard) are already on there. Til then, toodles!

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Gender and authorship

21 Jul

ALL: this is a revised, edited version of the blog post I wrote on holiday about gender and authorship. It’s a bit more coherent now. And it’s got some Virginia Woolf references in it. Don’t say I never give you anything. X

Hey kids. How’s it going? I’m writing this on my iPad while on the family holiday so you’ll have to forgive me if the typing goes a bit crazy at points; one cannae trust these machines to accurately convey all the words one would like them to.

Anyhoo. I am writing due to a conglomeration of events. The first is the fairly well-known (by now) revelation that the crime writer Robert Galbraith is actually celebrated Harry Potter author JK Rowling. The second is that I have not long finished Jeanette Winterson’s book Written on the Body. How are these related, I hear you cry? Well, allow me to explain.

A lot of the news articles written in the wake of the JK story were about the ‘tell-tale’ signs that Galbraith wasn’t actually a man. That the women were meticulously described; that the main (male) character noticed the pungent smell of some urinals; that a famous Galbraith also uses the initials JK. How did we not see it? How could we be blind? One can’t help but feel there is some clutching at straws going on here. Robert Galbraith’s book did receive excellent reviews and various people expressed incredulity that it was indeed his first novel.

No-one, however, questioned the gender verity of either protagonist or author when it was originally published. Why search for them now? Some people actively avoid reading literature by female authors (you may scoff, but this was a genuine comment on a Guardian article). If the cheeky buggers will use pseudonyms, we obviously have to identify the ‘female’ features that prove when something’s been written by a woman. Right? *shakes head sadly*. Imagine how great it would be (such people must think) if one could identify ‘female language features’ that always occurred in books written by women, no matter what gender their assumed identity had. There have been plenty of studies of speech which look for the same thing. Last I heard, they decided it was not so much a feature of gender as a feature of power, which has traditionally been divided along gender lines. This doesn’t seem to have got round to some of the literary critics and wannabes yet, though, who still cling on to this belief like the last half-barrel of rum from a shipwreck.

‘Female language features’, if these chimaeras exist, will surely depend on the author’s voice. Virginia Woolf writes about finding one’s own voice in literature, and about how many female novelists have struggled to achieve critical acclaim in A Room of One’s Own. She notes this is partly due to the male-dominated literary sphere – both in writing and in criticism. Perhaps this is something you’d think we would have addressed by now, but no – while there are many more female critics than there used to be, the ‘serious’ novels are still almost unanimously reviewed by men. Heard of the recent furore over the TLS’ inability to find female authors? Yep, 21st century, home of progress. Not. Obviously, fewer writers and fewer critics who are women mean that there are fewer books and fewer reviews produced that are of high merit. That’s just statistics, amirite? Anyway, she also suggests there’s another reason for the scarcity of works of female genius, and that is the difficulty for women of freely and confidently writing in their own voice.

At first, perhaps, you will scoff. ‘Own voice? Surely everyone’s got their own voice. How hard can it be?’, etc. Well, yes and no. Woolf points out that even Charlotte Bronte – someone she explicitly points out as a great female writer – didn’t quite nail her own voice in Jane Eyre. There are times when her dissatisfaction with her straitened existence and the limitations imposed on her by the era’s social mores comes through over and above the narrator’s voice. Austen gets it – her sinuous irony and light touch are so delicately placed they are often misunderstood or overlooked altogether (witness basically any complaint ever that she only writes about money or about romantic love or – well, any one thing, really). One’s voice is a unified sentiment which can ride the waves of the story as well as direct them. It’s the manager and captain of the football team, responsible for tactics on and off the pitch and covering the game as well as the season. It’s a tough one to pull off. And it’s especially tough if – as very many women were, and nearly as many women still are – one is sufficiently under the oppression of society to be denied a voice in one’s day to day life, let alone in one’s written existence.

So many writers take a long time to find their voice, their style, their modus operandi. Hilary Mantel’s voice is very different to Caitlin Moran’s. Jack Kerouac’s voice is very different to Allen Ginsberg’s – contemporaries and friends and members of the same literary movement though they were. Betty Friedan’s voice is not the same as Germaine Greer’s. Etc. It’s a personal journey of development and growth. In a world where there are so many ‘voices’ shouting to be heard (online especially), the development of one’s own literary voice is what makes one person publishable instead of another. JK Rowling’s voice is not the voice of the narrator of Harry Potter, or the voice of the narrator of The Casual Vacancy or of The Cuckoo’s Calling. It’s the voice which allows her to write all three. It’s an undercurrent. It’s probably discernible only to her, or only if one knows exactly what one is looking for. It’s not a ‘woman’s voice’.

On to my next point. Written on the Body is a book about a love affair, written in the first person by a narrator who is never named and is also never explicitly gendered. The narrator describes their previous girlfriends and boyfriends. If there is ever a reference to their clothes, they are gender neutral. The narrrator’s profession is fairly ambiguous, although it becomes clearer as the book progresses that it involves translations, mostly in and out of Russian. So words and physical nature are (as you can guess from the title) fairly central to the book. The constructed neutrality of the narrator adds an interesting edge.

However. The author – Jeanette Winterson – makes no attempt to hide her authorship. I read the main character as a woman, but that’s all part of the beauty of reception. You bring your own understanding to the table and you take away something new. Fine. I looked up a review of the book when it came out – the Independent have clearly digitised their back catalogue of book reviews for just such a purpose – and I couldn’t really believe what I was reading.

The reviewer didn’t approve of the gender-ambiguous narrator. Not at all. He said it was contrived and required serious ducking and diving around words to keep up the illusion. I thought this was unfair – I hadn’t noticed it. I was aware of the ambivalence towards the explicit, but it hadn’t seemed as pronounced as that.

No, what was ridiculous to me was that the principal beef the reviewer had with this was that translators of the book who were working with gendered languages wouldn’t know what to do about it. Erm, sorry, what? For a start, if you’re writing a novel so that translators can translate it, you’re writing it for the wrong reasons. Secondly, as a translator herself, I reckon JW knew what she was doing. Thirdly, translation theory! Reception! The translator will make what they will of it. In a way, the more ambiguous you are, the more opportunity you give to the translator to find their own voice in your work. That’s not really the done thing in Anglo-American literature (see Laurence Venuti on this) but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Ezra Pound didn’t speak a word of Chinese but his Cathay poems are revered. Yeats was no Gaelic scholar but his translations are not criticised as such. And it is ludicrous, utterly ludicrous, to judge an original on the basis of its future translation. I mean, really. Come on.

For what it’s worth, I reckon this review betrays a sense of unease in the difficulty of the reviewer to identify gendered language. I think the reviewer feels off-kilter because the ambiguity means he has to dance on the edge of a precipice of understanding, constantly questioning the gender and therefore also the sexuality of the narrator. The explicit(ly) romantic plot means this question is fairly difficult to avoid. It’s meant to be. That’s the point. When we ask ‘is this book about a woman who falls in love with another woman?’ we are supposed to catch ourselves doing so and wonder why it matters.

It seems as though the gender of the author and the gender of the narrator are intrinsically bound up in how we approach books. Yet it also seems to be the case (I was going to write ‘increasingly’ but then I remembered all the novelists who have published as men) that we’re not very good at definitively saying what a book written by a man looks like compared to a book written by a woman. And for some reason, although I can name at least five women who have published as men off the top of my head, I can’t think of a single example of the other way around. We think we know what women write about and how they write it, and yet, barring atrocious chick-lit suitable only for the beach and for giving away free with trashy magazines, women resolutely refuse to be pigeonholed. Men have always been grudgingly allowed to be daring, movement-founding, ground-breaking. Women don’t seem to have that unquestionable right to freedom of expression. That’s why women assume pseudonyms, or write out gender altogether. Because a woman’s voice is still hampered by the fact it’s come out of a human being with a vagina. No other reason.

Maybe instead of telling people not to judge a book by its cover, we should say not to judge a book by its author. We make much more interesting analyses when this point of non-contention is allowed to lie undisturbed.

June’s (belated) books

8 Jul

This month has been another fairly quiet one on the book front but I feel beholden to point out that I have read 2 non-fiction titles and they definitely take longer. So. Here we go.

First up – Screenplay, by Syd Field. This is basically a manual for writing a screenplay that has bankability, structure, character and plot. It also tells you how to get it to Hollywood, find agents, secure copyright etc. I think it’s fairly safe to say it’s aimed at an American audience. My parents bought it for me when they were in New York, possibly because they believe I’m the next *insert famous scriptwriter here* but mostly because they are pandering to my great desire to Write Stuff.

It was very illuminating, if extremely repetitious – people talk about three act structures and plot points but until you have had the diagram shoved under your nose a few times, you don’t necessarily think in that structure. It’s actually very easy to develop a story when you have such clear building blocks (writing it is, of course, another matter; I’m not that presumptuous!). And it’s quite fun to invent a character and then spend a few days mentally writing his or her life story, just for your own pleasure. If absolutely nothing else, I now have a list of films I really, really have to get on and see because they were referenced so many times as being great examples of X. So I feel culturally, future-ly empowered for reading it. Thanks, Syd.

Feeling a bit lacking on the ol’ novel front, I next picked up The Passion, by Jeanette Winterson. I’ve developed a bit of a love affair with her (inspired by the excellent E) so this isn’t the last mention you’ll see. After the last two books I read, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect; her style is quite mutable according to her subject and she likes to hop between narratives, genders, timeframes; the lot, really. Trying to describe when The Passion is set is a tricky one; it’s written from the perspective of one reflecting in a (recently) post-Napoleonic world, but the timeframes jump according to the character and the Venice sequence about halfway through seems quite timeless. This is possibly something especially interesting given that in Sexing the Cherry there really is a time leap between 17th century London and the present (whenever that is); in Venice, it’s just the behaviour which is atemporal; it soon becomes enmeshed within the time of the story’s plot and, indeed, history.

I really enjoyed The Passion. I think it was possibly less reflection-inducing, less questioning, than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit or Sexing the Cherry; I can’t decide if that’s because it did those things but on a subtler level, or if it’s because it didn’t really do those things. Nevertheless, it was a supremely satisfying story, without being one of those ‘boy meets girl’ tropes. It was emotionally complete, though not necessarily with the expected emotion. Basically, JW FTW.

Right. The last book I completed in June was a biggie. I nearly wrote a blog post dedicated to it because it was so interesting. It was one of those books which you read and think ‘Oh em gee, I can’t believe how relevant this is. When was it written? THEN? *amazed face*. Maybe this doesn’t happen to you that often. Anyway. I read Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. This was written in the late 1950s and very early 1960s which is, when you think about it, kind of a while ago now. My parents weren’t even born when BF started writing. I mean, wowzers.

So. The premise of The Feminine Mystique is that there existed in this era in the households of white, middle-class America, a ‘problem which has no name’. Countless housewives up and down the country were being referred to therapists and/or self-medicating with alcohol, comfort food and consumerism. The cause? Intelligent women were being actively encouraged not to use their brains. Popular anthropological and psychological ideas were being (mis)applied to a world in which the observations of Freud no longer had any purchase within the cultural setup. Women were talked into believing that their naturally-ordained role was that of wife and mother. Does this sound familiar? Yeah, I know.

Despite a heavy reliance on certain studies (like the Kinsey study), some slightly questionable survey selection techniques and some highly outdated attitudes to homosexuality (as well as an outright avowal that she is dealing only with the problems of white, middle-class America), Friedan’s case is well made. She writes passionately and with great force. She presents coherent arguments, models and examples and argues her points more clearly than someone like Greer, who tends to get swept up in moralising and political ideology. Friedan not only identifies the problem, she points historically to the way it has been allowed (and encouraged) to evolve and the sociological factors that have permitted this.

The Feminine Mystique is a phenomenon that can still be observed today. It’s tied to the religious hangover of the female ‘role’ and perpetrated at an almost-subliminal level by consumerism. What Friedan advocates is emphatically not bra-burning, non-shaving, ‘scary’ feminism. She says women need to be allowed the freedom to tax themselves as far as they want, and to grow and exist as people, not as mother-robots. Some women will be perfectly content to stay at home and rely on their husbands. But many who think this about themselves have been tricked into doing so. They may find fulfilment for a little while through their children (although their children will suffer for this later), but they will come to be part of a trend of miserable, middle-aged women suffering serious empty-nest syndrome. Having been encouraged into education, these girls should continue to want to stay there – not be subject to opinions that suggest over-educated women are unattractive or unfeminine or less likely to be good mothers. They should be pushed to be as good as they can be – not told to stop before they scare men off.

This book sparked a revolution. Read it and you’ll see why.

On the list for July – I’m reading A Vindication of the Rights of Woman by Mary Wollstonecraft. I’ve also got a LOT of Angela Carter to read. Happily, I’m going on holiday soon, so I’ll have lots of time to get through it all!

The Darling Books of May

4 Jun

I know, I know. Where have all the blogs gone? Where’s the monthly book review? Why is there nothing to read?!

I hear you and I answer. Here is the blog. It has not gone anywhere, I’ve just been… distracted. I’ve been writing other things, for other people and other events. None of those have been finished or replied to or progressed yet, so you can’t see them, I’m afraid. And as for the monthly book list – here it is! Woop woop! So now you can chill out and read about what I’ve been reading. Yeah.

All right. First up – Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez). I was looking forward to this, as I mentioned to the wonderful E a little while ago that I had bought it and she raved enthusiastically about how wonderful it was. I generally trust E’s opinions on life in any case, but I’m particularly susceptible to her book-loving, so I permitted myself a small rubbing-of-hands-plus-gleeful-chuckle when I got down to opening the book itself.

It’s a great story. I wish I hadn’t read the blurb on the back of my copy, because the first chapter is so integral and yet so disconnected that a blurb which tells you about the story is a bit of a problem. Anyway, I devoured the book. I read it in my lunch breaks and on the bus home and in the evenings after work. I loved it. It was funny and poignant and moving. I had read a Marquez before – One Hundred Years of Solitude – and I was aware that, although I had really enjoyed that, I’d also got quite lost with the seemingly never-ending repeating names and lengthy time span. Happily, the story has a much more compact character base in LitToC, so there’s plenty of opportunity for the pale outlines you meet at the beginning to be fully coloured in as the story progresses. I heartily recommend it to anyone. Especially anyone who thinks that old people shouldn’t fall in love.

I was totally in the zone with my reading one lunchtime when I ran out of book. I had finished the Marquez but I had nothing else with me except my iPad. Happily, I have a kindle app and on that particular day, I even had the wireless connection required to access my books. So there I was, browsing through Aphra Behn, George Eliot, William Thackeray, etc, wondering what to read next. I decided to read Game of Thrones. Sometimes you just need to kick back and read something crazy, y’know?

I couldn’t remember where I’d left off, only that I’d read an awful lot of it back in January (remember that post? Read it here: https://natashasfragments.wordpress.com/2013/02/05/januarys-books-a-rundown/ ). I decided just to crack on. I figured that I’d work out pretty quickly whether I had messed up.

Alas for my presumption! 60% of the way into book 5 I realised to my horror that I had omitted to read book 4. I had been pleasantly enjoying quite a heavy bias of the story towards Tyrion, Daenerys and Jon Snow, all of whose stories followed on from where I had left off at the end of book 3, part 2. I hadn’t really twigged that there was a large chunk of story about Sansa, Arya, Theon, Margaery, Cersei, Jaime, Brienne, etc, etc, etc that I was missing. Don’t believe me? Then you’ve never read a book by George R. R Martin.

That said, I did enormously enjoy the book, as ever. Yes, I was missing a fair bit of backstory but I didn’t really notice this until a fair way along. Wikipedia provided me with enough snippets to fill in the major plot holes I was missing and I continued onwards, since I hate not finishing books and I couldn’t face leaving one book halfway through to tackle another that was set partly concurrently, partly earlier (no, seriously). I am going to have to go back and read book 4, if only for the Arya storyline (she’s so goddam kickass), but a whole book without Tyrion is a pretty hefty ask. He is, after all, the best character.

Book 5 is the latest one to come out, so the ending is actually quite a cliffhanger. There are the usual graphic descriptions of bodily functions (less sex in this one, I think, though a lot more wee) and brutal fighting, with some good turns from Asha Greyjoy and Daenerys especially, waving the flag for the girls. There was also an exceedingly clear framing of the unfair societal restrictions on women – a whole paragraph of internal monologue by one of the female characters mentally decrying her status and power. I don’t know if this is something Martin had in mind all along but he’s certainly bringing it to the fore in the later stuff and also, very much so, in the television series. It’s great. Anyway. Some absolutely classic lines from Tyrion, as ever, and some fascinating plot developments re Young Griff (I’ll say no more, except, in an annoying River Song voice, ‘spoilers!’). But there you have it. Game of Thrones.

Hoping to atone a little for my foray into the world of the ridiculous, I decided the time was ripe for some Jeanette Winterson. I bought some of the books a little while ago on the recommendation, once again, of the fabulous E, and I had been sitting on a little stash of them, Smaug-esque, ready to consume at any moment. Then my sister wandered in to pinch a different book off me one afternoon and said ‘Oh, Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit! I’ve read that – it’s really good’. So I had to read it, even if only to catch up with the sis. And it was good. It was very good. Funny and interesting and a tiny bit heartbreakingly sad. And when I’d finished it, I read Sexing the Cherry, which was also funny and interesting and not so sad but very structurally engaging. Now that I think about it, it had a lot in common with Cloud Atlas – but if Cloud Atlas is a series of vanilla sponge layers with interesting fillings, Sexing the Cherry is a chiffon cake, with fewer segments but an infinitely more complex and interesting texture. Edible analogies aside, though, both Jeanette Winterson books were delicious reads, perfect for reminding me why I enjoy books and words and stuff. Yeah.

And on that note, I leave you with news that I’m currently reading a book about how to write a screenplay, and then I have two books in French lined up. And another Jeanette Winterson, in case I somehow manage all of that.

Time for some writing

29 May

Recently, I’ve found myself thinking rather hard about time.

I don’t mean linear time. I try not to be worried by time’s passing. Last week was the past; next week is the future. In three years I’ll have more freckles and different glasses, probably, but aside from vague generalisations and glib aphorisms, I can’t really predict what time will do to me.

I do occasionally stop and wonder how I got to be nearly twenty three; apparently irremediably single, still living at home, lacking a strong sense of direction, few meaningful accolades to my name. I had a conversation with my dad recently during which I bemoaned my complete lack of progression along what some might call the path of adulthood. It went like this:

Me: I can’t believe I’m nearly 23. I haven’t done anything with my life!

My dad: Well, let’s see now. When I was your age – I’d met your mum. Oh, and I had a house, and a mortgage. The house only cost about six grand, but I still needed one. And I think – had I started that company? Yes – I think I’d started that one, and then the other one. Oh, and I had a car.

Me: Waaaaaugh!

So, as I said, I try not to think about linear time. My beef here is with the concept of time generally and how weird it is. This is partly inspired by the book I’m reading at the moment (Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson, if you’re interested) and by my own understanding of time according to Greeks and Romans. Specifically I’m talking about (sort-of) Golden Age Latin literature (especially Catullus, Propertius, Horace and Ovid) and Herodotus. Oh, and Doctor Who. Obviously.

This timey-wimey stuff, then, is kind of crazy. Say you describe Time as a sphere. You can divide it with a straight line between two points and get a plane surface. This is linear time – time between points. Isolate any spot along that line and you have a second, a minute, an hour, a day – you get the picture. Taken in isolation, what does that mean? It isn’t the passage of time anymore. It’s just a moment. All lines are made up of moments like this. What is it that turns a dot into a trajectory? Where’s the motion that propels us from one moment to the next? What if there is no motion, only friction? What if the only energy that drives us forward is the sparks we create as Time brushes against us?

Say, like Winterson does, that Time is only something we experience. We don’t move through time, it moves through us, aging us and breaking us. We crumble from the pressure that Time exerts on our perishable frames, like rocks eroded away by a constant stream of water. Think of Shakespeare – rosy lips and cheeks/within Time’s bending sickle’s compass come [Sonnet 116].  Love’s not Time’s fool, because Love and Time are two abstracts that run through us and destroy us, not the other way round.

Say, like Herodotus, in his intro to his Histories: I will tell you about cities that were once great but are now nothing, and about cities that rose from nothing to become great. I will speak equally about both, he adds, because I know that human happiness never stays in the same place (1.5). Time affects all the trappings of humanity as well as humanity itself – our physical existence and the extensions of it into houses, temples, cities and even art and poetry. Horace says ‘exegi monumentum aere perennius’ – I have built a monument in everlasting bronze – but if his works had been lost like so many others, what then? Time crushes everything eventually. Except, for Time, there is no ‘eventually’. Time just *is*.

Say you describe Time as the air, and the linear trajectory of a person’s life (or a city’s life, or a poem’s life, or a mouse’s life) is a sunbeam. When that sunbeam shines through a window, it picks up all the motes of dust and pollen and everything-else-ness that are in all of the air – but of course, we can only see the illuminated section. And we say that the sunbeam has a starting point and an ending point, and that the bit in between is a line or a trajectory that can be measured and fitted into a scale. We can only see Time through the guiding light of the sunbeam, so that’s how we explain Time to ourselves and to others, even though we know the sunbeam isn’t everything.

Say, then, that we only experience one moment at any point along our ‘timeline’. Say that Time goes through us; we do not go through time, and that the same goes for all perishable things, from bacteria to buffalo to Beowulf. Finally, say that we choose to understand Time as linear because that is what we see when we look back, and we are curiously reluctant as a species to believe in disjointed events. Say all these things. What do they, in turn, say?

I think they say that Time either is – everywhen, if phrases like that float your boat – or is not. Time must be all or nothing. Timelines are just mappable flightpaths or well-worn ruts in the mud. If we can get away from the idea that Time is a line, a series of events, a whole host of interesting possibilities open up before us. There are so many ‘now’s to be lived. There are no closed doors. There are no ends. There is only an infinite number of moments, dancing in the light cast by our attention. Whichever way we turn, we will see them.

Time can be troubling conceptually, but it’s also beautiful.