The Double Leap

The last blogging day of the year means time to make some concluding remarks on The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I find I have nothing more to say about the book at this time, save: If it piques your interest at all, then read it (or listen to it). Read it because it’s clever, atmospheric and satisfying. Read it because the incredible resilience of its protagonists has endowed the story with a particular sweetness, that of age paired with enduring anticipation.

Like the books forming the turn-of-the-century arc that opens this project – Kim, Up from Slavery, and The Souls of Black Folk – Conan Doyle’s Hound is a product both of the time in which it was written and the past experience upon which its author drew. Conan Doyle wrote Hound in the summer or fall of 1900 but set the events of the story in 1889 (a date consistent with the death of Sherlock Holmes in 1891, as made plain by this handy calendar). The present then is like the cutlery the author uses to spoon up, slice through and spear the morsels of the past – whether recent or distant – or even the future.

Historical novels in particular, however, ultimately reflect our own struggle to view ourselves and our times clearly. We can only act in the present tense, yet experience both lived and examined can also feel more objectively real, even as the dominant narrative of the present inevitably shapes our views of the past, continuously overthrowing any notion of objectivity. Philosopher Paul Ricoeur has defined history as “a story about the past told to the present for present purposes” (as paraphrased in A Most Dangerous Method).

Perhaps it is the power of those “present purposes” to reorder the narrative of the past that provides novels with what novelist Graham Swift has called their own kind of “nowness,” a sense of immediacy. In an essay published earlier this year in The Guardian, he suggests that, for all but surface purposes, there is no such thing as a contemporary novel because the ‘now’ is forever transitory:

One of the principal things novels can do is depict and explore this very transitoriness. They’re there to take the long view, to show change and evolution, human behaviour worked on by time. But none of this means that novels, which can never be strictly of now, cannot have their own kind of “nowness” or have something which actually out-thrills the thrill of the merely contemporary. They can have immediacy.

Why read a novel written 150 years ago and set 50 years before then, why make that double historical leap, if there’s not something in Tolstoy’s writing that makes us livingly feel that “then” has become “now”, that as it is for us so it was for “them” – that provides an instant human connection which actually liberates us from being pathetic creatures of the contemporary? Why undertake the journey of any novel of any period unless to encounter that uncanny, arresting sensation: “I’ve been here too”?

That double leap, then, is an integral part of this project. The turn-of-the-century, after all, shows two faces: one glances backwards toward the 1890s and beyond, the Victorian Era; the other looks forward, mesmerized by the promise of the new. Let’s keep that in mind as we move forward into 1903 and 2012.


Tags: , ,