Saturday 13 September 2014

THE MARMITE TENSE: Pondering on the Present Historic – Elizabeth Fremantle

There are lots of people who don't like stories from the past retold in the present tense and they can be very vocal about this aversion, especially on Radio 4. But the present tense is the mode of drama, it is the mode of conversation, so why not too, the mode of story telling? Of course everyone is entitled to their opinion but as an historical novelist, I tend to seek the best possible way to recount a particular story depends on many factors, not least, and particularly with first person accounts, the fate of the narrating character. Often in historical fiction the reader is aware of the protagonist's outcome but even if the reader knows that, say, Anne Boleyn or Catherine Howard are going to end up on the block, the fact that the character does not have the benefit of hindsight creates an effect that is filled with dramatic irony and tension.
Hilary Mantel employs this to spectacular effect in Bring Up the Bodies, a novel that is tightly plotted, like a thriller, and written in a third person that is so close to protagonist Thomas Cromwell that it creates the illusion of the world seen through his eyes alone. We watch in horror as Cromwell unravels the Queen's world and even though we all know what will become of Anne Boleyn and the five men she is accused of adultery with, neither she nor they know and somehow we, as readers, are drawn into their world so completely we forget what we know about the outcome and are shocked when it comes. 

Another example, though one much more straightforward and written in the first person, is from Philippa Gregory in The Boleyn Inheritance.  The teenaged narrator Catherine Howard is about to be carted off to the Tower. She still believes she will be pardoned when her uncle Norfolk comes to tell her she is to die. 
'You should acknowledge your sins, and ask forgiveness,' he says promptly.

I am so relieved I could almost weep. Of course I will be forgiven if I say I am sorry.
We are entirely drawn into this poor child's world watching her articulate the belief that a simple apology will suffice, when we know that nothing can save her. It is a powerful device. This moment simply wouldn't have the impact or poignance if written with hindsight. And indeed, how does one write a first person past tense account of someone who is about to die, and get away with it? But then again, anything is possible in fiction if you can make it work. 
Other writers use the present historic to create layers of meaning in a text. Take Sarah Waters for example:

I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake horribly for almost an hour. 'Oh, God!' I say, hiding my face. 'I'm afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?' 'Wicked?' she answers, wringing her hands. and I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?

This quote from Fingersmith, illustrates the intensity and immediacy of the present. We inhabit the flesh of narrator Maud as it 'leaps' and 'shakes', and we are able to observe her watching Sue, who is not party to what the reader and narrator know. We are drawn right into the plot because we are on the inside of Maud's narration. Waters has used both present and past tenses to tell this story. Sue, the sly cockney girl relates her part in the past. This seems to be an inversion of our expectations; wouldn't a girl like Sue employ the more casual tense of the raconteur? But the past is the knowing tense, and Sue knows, or thinks she knows, exactly what is going on. Maud's narration is told in the moment, as if without hindsight. Again there is an oddness to it; Maud is a refined girl employed to read to her uncle and surely more suited to the formality of the tense of literature. 
This quote from 

Waters's subterfuge is clever here because, as it turns out, neither girl is what we first think and so the tense they narrate their stories in works as a key to our overall understanding. But the action is almost subliminal because, if the writing is good enough, the reader, lulled into the voice and world of the novel, loses awareness of the tricks perpetrated by the author.

Viennese author from the early twentieth century, Stephan Zweig, uses tense in a very particular way moving between present and past like a conjurer. In Beware of Pity he introduces his story in the voice of a kind of faux author; a writer who encounters a man, a so called, 'historically authentic hero,' Hofmiller, in a cafe. The story is then told as if from Hofmiller's mouth, going back in time twenty years, and shifting in an apparently casually conversational manner between past and present tense: 

So one afternoon – it must have been the middle of May 1914 – I was sitting in the cake shop with one of my occasional partners...We had long ago finished playing our usual three games, and were just idly talking about this or that... but the conversation was drowsy, and as slow as the smoke from a cigarette burning down. At this point the door suddenly opens, and a pretty girl in a fulll-skirted dress is swept in on a gust of fresh air...

This is exactly what happens when people tell stories, they slip back and forth from the now to the then. But beneath this appearance of veracity lies a device that manipulates the tone of the piece. We are with the narrator in his provincial town, in his state of lassitude and boredom and something happens. The girl is characterised as a breath of fresh air, which is the function she performs in the story, bringing the excitement of possibility with her, we are jolted out of our torpor into the moment. Indeed the appearance of this girl heralds the true beginning of Hofmiller's story. Zweig is using this mode of story telling to enhance our experience of the atmosphere in which our narrator exists. It is a beautifully conceived trick, hidden behind the guise of an 'authentic' raconteur's voice.

Fiction is, by its very nature, a deceptive art and writers have only a limited number of tools at their disposal: mostly grammatical; so the use of tense is crucial to the crafting of a novel. To simply use the past tense because we are recounting past events is missing the point. after all, any narration is necessarily describing past events, even if they happened only a few moments ago. Novelists are creating an artificial world and how better to bring the distant past, its sounds, smells, textures, the inner worlds of its inhabitants, to life, than to speak of it as if it's happening now. It is sometimes said that the 'fashion' for the present tense is the result of the ubiquitous Creative Writing MA, with the suggestion that it is the preferred tense of such courses. This is nonsense of course, the use of the present tense is more a natural progression of Modernism, via authors like Zweig, in which writers strive to build ever more convincing worlds and climb further into the minds of their characters. So it could be seen as a contemporary style, and let's not forget that even historical fiction is contemporary fiction.

Find out about Elizabeth Fremantle's novels Queen's Gambit, about Katherine Parr, and Sisters of Treason, about the younger sisters of Lady Jane Grey, on


Leslie Wilson said...

Excellent, well-argued post. You mention Stefan Zweig: in fact a German reader would be bemused, I suspect, by the British distrust of present tense narrative; it has been part of German writing for a long time and is, indeed, ubiquitous in Grimm's Fairy Tales. I am currently writing a novel in which I use the past tense throughout, but that is meant to be a discovered memoir.

Marie-Louise Jensen said...

There seems to be a lot of snobbery around the use of the present tense. I wrote my first historical novel in the present tense because I felt it fitted the story. I enjoy reading present tense just as much as past - it's far more important that a story is well written and well researched than that it's in a set tense.
I like your point about a present tense narration being suitable for a character who dies!

Imogen said...

I think use of the present tense can bring a passage alive. It's part of creating a certain voice or tone for a book - like most things in writing how it works depends on the context and to rule out its use would be to tie one hand behind your back before you start.

Unknown said...

Excellent piece - thank you. I think the present tense can be used to brilliant effect in historical novels. It does, however, irritate me a little when historians use it on TV and on the radio. I want facts from historians rather than to be told 'a story.'

Ann Turnbull said...

With some books I find that I simply don't notice the tense unless I stop and think about it. Presumably this means the choice of tense is working - for this reader, at least. But I agree with Tanya about historians. I have recently been walking around a castle, reading quotes from a well-known historian, all relating to the lives of famous people in the past, and all in the present tense. It was so irritating, it was driving me round the bend!

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

I never notice the tense when I'm reading once I have got into a novel, but I do find it takes me a little longer to settle into a story when it's told first person present tense. This may be because there is a tendency for more literary fiction to be written with those parameters, so it takes more thinking about from the get to. Or it may be me reacting to what I am used to. Once into the novel I don't notice and indeed, if you asked me afterwards what tense it was in, I wouldn't always be able to tell you.

Mary Hoffman said...

I can never remember the tense or the person the book was written in! All I notice is how good (or not) it is. But people do seem to get terrible bees in their bonnets about it.

Julia Ergane said...

Personally, I cannot understand this particular nicety. If a writer is "in the past" with the characters, the writing should be in the present tense unless something from the past is being recalled. (I have taught English composition and this is what I would do.) Otherwise I believe it does not make sense.