In a wide-ranging lunchtime talk, novelist and travel writer Joanna Kavenna discussed the concepts that preoccupy nearly every writer of biography, memoir and indeed fiction. Through her thinking around the philosophical precepts of time, memory and the self, she considered the questions of how the writer relays the self in time, how the self changes and what constitutes the self. And building on these, then, she asked, how does a writer convey time in writing?
Kavenna explored the range of individual experiences of time. First she reminded us that we have objective ‘clock time’ versus the subjective individual time. We are inducted into ‘clock time’ at birth – we do not start out this way, but we gradually come to accept the conventions that are imposed upon us.
The way we experience time as adults, Kavenna outlined, citing William James and Henri Bergson, is in an eternal present – a perpetual experiential now.
To illustrate the point more lyrically, Kavenna turned to Philip Larkin (who is quoted in all her talks). She read from his poem, ‘Days’:
What are days for?
Days are where we live.
They come, they wake us
Time and time over.
They are to be happy in:
Where can we live but days?
Ah, solving that question
Brings the priest and the doctor
In their long coats
Running over the fields.
(Larkin, “Days” from Collected Poems (2001))
From Larkin Kavenna turned to the genre of the bildungsroman as the classic example of the novel of the formative self which impresses a formative self (i.e. is read by young readers). The self of childhood and youth is rapidly in flux, only later coming to form a more determined being. Kavenna identified types within this genre: where the self is defined in opposition to a force, defining what you don’t want to be, and reconciling many versions of the self. Looking even farther back to early childhood, Kavenna pointed to the mystery of ourselves and the times we cannot remember—the ‘embers of consciousness.’
But in all this strangeness, according to Kavenna, there is an incredible freedom for writers and individuals – each self is distinctive – there’s no such thing as the self. There are myriad selves with experiences resonating across time. Concluding with an apt quotation from Virginia Woolf on the elasticity of time, Kavenna reminded us again of the authorial control we have over the way we understand and represent time:
‘Time, unfortunately, though it makes animals and vegetables bloom and fade with amazing punctuality, has no such simple effect on the mind of man. The mind of man moreover works with equal strangeness upon the body of time.’ (Virginia Woolf, Orlando)