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Posts tagged ‘time’

Reading as (True) Travel: Part 3


The limits of the possible can only be defined by going beyond them into the impossible.” Arthur C. Clarke

Having looked at a few of the classics of ‘travel’ or adventure literature in Part 2, I thought it would be worth considering the outer limits of the genre in this post. After all, it seems logical that after the full extent of physical or spatial travel has been exhausted, humanity and therefore literature should turn towards other less obvious modes of travel. Where to go in fiction when the world is no longer a mystery in reality? This seems a preposterous question to ask in the 21st century, but would probably have been less so in the 19th century, when the possibilities of spatial travel must have excited the imagination in a way that is difficult to comprehend nowadays. In fact, a brief glance at Jules Verne’s bibliography betrays the progressive fetishisation of adventure: we have a simple enough start with Five Weeks in a Balloon and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras, before we move swiftly to the more ambitious Journey to the Centre of the Earth, From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Mr Verne is quite obviously pushing the boundaries both of physical travel and of our appetite for exploration literature generally, probably to breaking point and beyond.

Even in the 19th century, there must have been a threshold for the public’s endurance of adventure fiction. Once a hero or heroine has gone up and down and sideways as much as is humanly possible, where to next? The answer I think can be found in the clear progression from R.L. Stevenson’s romantic adventure novels of the 1880s (Treasure Island, Kidnapped) to H.G. Wells’ science fiction of the 1890s (The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds). The first of H.G. Wells’ novels listed above represents a particularly interesting spin on the conventional spatio-temporal dimensions of the adventure novel. Indeed, the protagonist of The Time Machine, the Time Traveller, explicitly remains in the same location (a laboratory in Richmond, Surrey) whilst simultaneously embarking on a journey of discovery to the England of the distant future. This is thought provoking for a number of reasons. Firstly, in departing from the confines of spatial exploration, Wells subtly floats the notion that adventure is not merely the preserve of pirates and treasure hunters. In other words, whilst the Time Traveller remains locked in a laboratory, the adventure he undertakes is nevertheless very real.

This seems to be getting at the idea that the scientists of the 19th century were just as ambitious in their quest for discovery as the explorers of the geographic world. Within the context of the adventure story, the idea that a man or woman could emerge from a confined space and claim to have encountered something previously unseen and unheard of must have been nothing short of revolutionary, bordering on the mystical. And yet, that is of course what scientists have always done. In a way, this makes their exploration all the more authentic and noble: scientific explorers cannot always count on the admiration of a timid public when they emerge from their adventures; more often they are greeted with a general lack of understanding and dismissive mockery. This introduces another fascinating element to the classic adventure tale: the idea of the returning traveller shunned for having the temerity to look behind the veil of accepted reality. The Time Traveller cannot be fully understood or believed, which is presumably one of the reasons he chooses to embark on another quest the day after his dinner party, this time never to return. Once again we encounter a hero in the Ulyssian mould, a man driven by a lust for knowledge and adventure, but also perhaps alienated from his peers in mainstream society. It is not hard to imagine, after all, that Ulysses, having returned home to Ithaca after ten years of travel, would have struggled to convince Penelope that he had been kidnapped by a Cyclops.

The frustration of not being fully understood is the universal curse of the keen reader. When a reader emerges from the solitary world of book-reading, there will almost inevitably be a gulf between that reader’s appreciation of reality and everyone else’s. However much a book is dissected, explained and shared with others, the reading of it is inevitably a deeply personal experience. This is, of course, both terrifying and exhilarating: no one can do the reading for you, just as no one can visit Southeast Asia for you, which is why summaries and SparkNotes unfailingly miss the point. And when the heavy-lifting is done, when War and Peace lies conquered on your bedside table, no one is there to congratulate you or admire your newly-found intellectual acumen (or newly-found sense of existential despair). Any sense of triumph is purely your own, like a lone Himalayan climber who, having successfully reached a summit during the day, is forced to dig a one-man shelter in the side of the mountain at night.

The Editors

The Magic Mountain 1: Endings

The Magic Mountain - Thomas Mann“You do not stop dreaming because you get old, you get old because you stop dreaming.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I have never been proficient in endings. Unfinished travel diaries, unfinished life projects, the last raspberry in the punnet, the relationship over but not yet ended, the job waiting to be quit, the novel started and browning like an apple core on the side; I am guilty of all and more.

In fact, I do not relish the end but nor do I relish beginnings. I prefer instead to be trapped in the space between places, neither still at A nor yet at B is the state in my mind of the highest enjoyment: happy memories married to yet unspent potential and the thrill of a little uncertainty.

Perhaps then it is fitting that among the shelves of my favourite books is at least one that I have never finished. The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann has presented itself to me as an enormous obstacle, the summit of which I have never reached. On three occasions I have set out from the base camp of my Vintage translation – the safe ground of a strong introduction – for the heights and ravines of the text itself.

“We say of time that it passes. Very good, let it pass. But to be able to measure it – wait a minute: to be susceptible of being measured, time must flow evenly, but who ever said it did that? … Our units of measurement are purely arbitrary, sheer conventions.”

My relationship with this book is like this quotation from it. By the conventional unit of measurement of any novel (itself), my reading has been a failure. I have not read the entire unit. But I have relished the many individual units of the book that I have read. I have now bought the book twice, started it three times, given it to charity once and never been less than one third from the end. I always start from the beginning (perhaps that is my mistake) and read until life gets in the way which it all too often does. So for me, this book represents a lifetime project, a secret tryst known only to me (and now you) and the book itself.

Regardless of whether I read to its end or not, The Magic Mountain is a book that I have picked up once and will never fully relinquish, a book that I will continue to read for as long as I have sight and strength enough to do so and even after that, a book whose spine will remain unbent and unchanged by the books that come in between, the books that I read tonight and tomorrow, the books that I eat up hungrily in a single sitting or luxuriate over for an entire weekend. The Magic Mountain and I have a lifetime to eek out – it concealing one third of its story from me, me always relishing the two thirds of pages turned, the one third still ahead, unrevealed – suspended as I wish always to be not at place A nor yet arrived at place B.

So I have begun reading The Magic Mountain once again. Perhaps I will come to feel about this book much as I do about other things (life, love, friendship – things like that), better always to leave one third in the future, unread. This series will track my reading of the book and though I cannot tell you yet where it will end, I can promise you, at least, there will be more.

The Editors