As the clocks go forward, reminding us once more of time’s strange slipperiness, I find myself returning to Ted Hughes. The Poems, selected by Simon Armitage, consider time – the seasons, centuries and eras – through its impact on the natural world; what it does to rivers, horses, trees, birds, ferns, flowers, fish, the moon.
There’s something about his poem “A March Calf” in particular that grasps time’s violence, and also its grace – the moment when a calf realises it’s alive, not knowing how numbered are its days. That embattled bursting forth of a life, and of spring: “Soon he’ll plunge out, to scatter his seething joy, / To be present at the grass, / To be free on the surface of such a wideness, / To find himself himself …” Back when I was a philosophy student I read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and I’m choosing it now because there’s a jewel-like notion at its heart – that the mind creates and shapes the world, rather than passively receives it. This seemed truly revelatory to my 19-year-old self – in particular the section “Space and Time”, which lays out the idea that time isn’t a concept existing out there in the world, but a subjective property of the mind, a construct that forms a net through which all experience must come.
That brings me to Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. I read it around the same time I read Kant, and it seemed to me a lucid, bright playing out of that subjectivity of time he describes – the way it sticks here and slips there, the way the present is saturated in past and future, the way it contracts and expands. The two protagonists’ experience of a single day is an experience of moments that seem to occupy centuries, and decades that collapse with a single thought. All the while, Big Ben strikes the hour, a metronome that holds all this flux in balance.
It’s a painfully obvious choice, but A Brief History of Time has to be here, because it’s where I began to think of time as a strange concept, not just a thing on a clock face. Time as described by an increase of entropy, say – entropy must increase in a closed system (like the universe) and so time must seem to go “forwards”. I glimpsed concepts in this book that I can never really understand, but which preoccupy my writing – what is time, how do we experience it, how does it have an impact on us?
One of the many achievements of Penelope Lively’s Moon Tiger is a dramatising of the push-pull of time, its vast elasticity. The elasticity, too, of memory, of memories played and plundered over and over, from different points in time and different characters’ points of view. “Chronology irritates me,” says the novel’s protagonist, Claudia. “There is no chronology inside my head.” And so unravels the contents of that head in a startling, fractured personal history.
The moon tiger of the novel’s title is the name given to a mosquito coil which burns through the night – just as Claudia’s life also burns out, is purged, is consumed by the passing of time. What most resists the flames is her sorrow over something that never was. Isn’t this true? That the things we most often regret are not those we did, but those we didn’t do.
• The Shapeless Unease by Samantha Harvey is published by Jonathan Cape.
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