“The sequence of any fiction is, by its nature, the path of time evaporating.” – The Art of Time in Fiction: As Long As It Takes, by Joan Silber

March 27, 2010 at 2:38 pm (Book review, books)

In this extended essay, Joan Silber undertakes to explain the way in which “…a story is entirely determined by what portion of time it chooses to narrate.” This can be a moment, a day, a season, a lifetime. She illustrates her thesis with a fascinating mix of works, ranging from the established classics to unknown (until now) gems.

Silber divides her subject as follows: Classic Time, Long Time, Switchback Time, Slowed Time, and Fabulous Time.

To begin: “In novels that serve as examples of classic time, the span is short enough to be easily seen as a unity and is often delineated by a natural border….”

The Great Gatsby is the exemplar here. It’s action takes place over the course of a single fateful  summer. Silber enlarges on the way in which the time span influences the plot, and vice versa. “The brilliance of Fitzgerald’s scenes has  to do with their concentration–they are distilled into flashes and are  far from blow-by-blow report in real time.”

F Scott Fitzgerald

She concludes that “Gatsby wins its classic status… by its neatly drafted economy, its concentrated scenes and sneaky methods of summary.”

The Art of Time in Fiction is the sort of book that makes you want to read whatever text the author is citing. Having revisited Gatsby fairly recently, I was especially intrigued by Silber’s comments on the novel.

In the chapter entitled “Long Time, “Silber uses “The Darling,” a story by Anton Chekhov, to illustrate the way in which short fiction can narrate an entire life story. Or at least, it can when its elements are deployed by a master storyteller like Chekhov. I read Silber’s analysis of “The Darling,” then read the story itself and revisit her remarks. what a rewarding experience! I love her observation: “Writers are always trying to contain an unruly mass, to get time trimmed to fit within borders.”

Anton Chekhov

Some of the other works mentioned in this section are The Old Wives’ Tale by Arnold Bennett, A Woman’s Life by Guy de Maupassant, To Live by Yu Hua, Mrs. Bridge by Evan Connell, and To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf.  She’ll make you want to read them all. (I’ve actually made several unsuccessful attempts to read To the Lighthouse; time to try again, perhaps…)

Silber prefers to use the term switchback time rather than flashback, because  the latter “…has slightly tacky connotations; it has been abused too often, used glibly to supply a too-simple cause and effect for motivation.”  The first examples in this section are several stories by Alice Munro. I had read them some time ago but was  delighted to have a reason to revisit these gem like creations. Silber comments:

“It strikes me that switchback time…is also a natural method of oral storytelling at its best. People are always interrupting themselves, often to excellent purpose.

In other words, the stuff inside the parenthesis is sometimes more meaningful than the material surrounding it.

Another work here cited by Silber is by Francis Steegmuller. (It was a pleasure to run into this fine writer once again. I encountered him last year in Greene on Capri, a reminiscence written by his wife, novelist and memoirist Shirley Hazzard.) Steegmuller’s piece “Ciao Fabrizio” originally appeared in the New Yorker in 1964. Alas, it is not online full text, and I had a bit of an adventure tracking it down. I finally found it in Stories and True Stories, a collection of Steegmuller’s work which I was able to obtain from interlibrary loan.

“Ciao Fabrizio” describes an event that took place in Naples, Italy, in the 1960s. It was witnessed – and completely misunderstood – by the author. I was determined to find this story because of its setting in a city with which I now feel an intense connection. But this is a tale that has universal meaning: “What might be a merely charming story about those crazy Neapolitans is instead an illustration of the lasting footprint of death and the beauty of human responses to it.”

We proceed to what Silber calls slowed time. This characterizes fiction in which the past is simply not alluded – the present moment is all.  A good example of this approach to storyteling is “The Thirst” by Egyptian writer Nawal al-Saadawi.

Nawal al-Sadaawi

Nawal al-Sadaawi

Silber then goes on to talk about In Search of Lost Time because “No discussion of time in fiction can fail to include Proust….” Finally she quotes in full a very short, concentrated story written by Kathy Boudin. “Water Rites” was composed as part of a prison writing workshop in which participants were exhorted to “‘see how slowed  down you can get it.'”

“Fabulous time” is nonrealistic – “all those stories with action beyond the possible,from magic realism all the way back to the folktale.” Silber admits that as a “hardheaded” realist, this is the kind of fiction she is not ordinarily drawn to. I’m right with her there. Her principle exemplar in this section is Love in the Time of Cholera,” yet another classic that I’ve never been able to get through. (Yes, I know, I need to try again.)

Silber concludes this slender volume with “Time as Subject:” ‘All the emotions that attach to the passage of time–regret, impatience, anticipation, mourning, the longing for what’s passed, the desire for recurrence, the dread of recurrence–are the fuel of plots.”

Silber avers that “Winter Dreams,” a story by Fitzgerald “…carries forth an ancient theme of fiction, the dilemma of transience.”  Finally we encounter Henry James, who is for many us a veritable god of fiction:

‘Any number of James’s stories show us protagonists seeing that the chance to live fully has slipped away–they’ve waited for the wrong possibility, misunderstood what’s been offered, chosen a deceptive promise, sacrificed themselves to no point.

“Henry James,” she adds ruefully, “is the great artist of the missed boat.”  This aching sadness is bodied forth with particular power in the story “The Beast in the Jungle.”  Silber concludes this concluding chapter by discussing two works that I revere: “A Good Man Is Hard To Find” by Flannery O”Connor and The Death of Ivan Ilych by Tolstoy. This last I have read three or four times and don’t know if, as I am now sixty-five years of age, I will read again.

Silber states that “…Ilych’s illusions and suffering fall away from him very late. But not too late.” It seems to me that this just-in-time enlightenment is what is most ardently desired for us all.

Henry James, by Jacques Emile Blanche

Flannery O'Connor

Tolstoy, by Ilya Repin


I came away from  reading The Art of Time in Fiction with enormous admiration for Joan Silber’s erudition. The depth and breadth of her reading are truly astonishing. (A list of works discussed follows the book’s concluding chapter.) Her writing is superb, something I have known and come to expect since first reading Ideas of Heaven.

Joan Silber


This book is but one entry in a new series from Graywolf Press. The publisher states the following:

‘Each book examines a singular, but often assumed or neglected, issue facing the contemporary writer of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry. The Art of series is meant to restore the art of criticism while illuminating the art of writing.

What a laudable initiative this is!


A final thought: Surely it is the need to escape from the toils of time, to stand outside time itself, is a major impetus toward religion. (It s for me, anyway.)

1 Comment

  1. Cynthia Reed (@Cynthia__Reed) said,

    An excellent review, and I totally agree. I am working through ‘The Art of Time’ in an eight-week workshop and it is a divine and inspiring resource. Your experience of it confirms that! Thank you. Cynthia

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