It’s a truism that nothing dates more surely than that which tries to be bang-up-to-the-minute (one only has to think of eighties pop music and fashion!). In literature, the truism applies especially to satire and to works which adopt modish narrative devices of their day. Authors giving advice on how to write (or more often dispensing a series of spurious “rules” that tell you how to write like them) generally discuss “viewpoint” in the sense of choosing first- or third-person etc., narration. The question of the narrator’s viewpoint in time is less regularly aired.
A good example of the “bang-up-to-the-minute” novel is furnished by Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop – a satire on the press written in the 1930s – which my book group discussed recently. In this story, a farcical chain of events leads to a totally unqualified reporter being sent out by the Daily Beast, in place of his namesake who should have gone, to cover a non-existent war in an African state. Though press venality and cynicism are topics of current relevance for sure, the book’s style of humour and its underlying attitudes fix it firmly in its original time-frame. It’s obviously meant to be table-thumpingly hilarious but the comedy is all about funny names, puerile pratfalls and idiotic misunderstandings, and the archetypal characters it presents (such as self-deluding press baron “Lord Copper”) are not readily recognisable today. I may be a po-faced miserablist taking a comic romp too seriously, but Waugh’s routine use of the racist language and stereotypes of his time do give proceedings a queasy feel for today’s reader.
By contrast, another book my group has read recently manages to be timeless despite being written in the 1950s about events occurring before the First World War. The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley is a marvellous novel about a boy on the cusp of adolescence, who is exploited as their secret messenger by a couple having a forbidden relationship during a country-house summer. The agony of childhood fantasies colliding with adult realities is brilliantly rendered, as events go on to inflict lasting emotional harm on their vulnerable subject. This works so well because it is narrated as him looking back from his advanced adulthood, trying to make sense of what happened then and what it has done to his life.
Hartley was, of course, recalling a time within his own memory. He could recount how it was then, or at least how he saw it, whereas writers of historical fiction set out to recreate eras they never actually knew. Historical sources can only take one so far, and no-one alive can truly describe the sights, sounds and smells of, say, taking a rail journey in the 1860s with complete accuracy. But that degree of separation can encourage the creation of a timeless world of imagination, one which lasts when current fads and preoccupations are forgotten. Not that there’s anything wrong with writing about the present, but the backward-looking narrator can be a rewarding guide. “The past is a foreign country:” Hartley wrote, “they do things differently there.”