You have to tread carefully if you want to write fiction in the present tense. It immediately marks you as experimental and revolutionary, it has the risk of making your prose seem self-conscious and contrived. It can be pulled off, of course—Dickens used it himself for his last, unfinished novel, probably in order to sustain the sense of mystery—but it’s a trick that must be used with caution.
Philip Pullman, the famous and prize-winning author of His Dark Materials (among others), came out with scathing remarks on the present tense a couple of years ago, referring to the 2010 Booker Prize and the extensive use of the present tense in shortlisted books. Pullman called the technique “a fad” and “an affectation” that “does nothing but annoy.” His opinion hinged on the fact that, with the availability of so many verb tenses in a language, limiting yourself to only one of them was bound to limit the quality of your prose.
Let’s keep that in mind as, now, we discuss historical fiction written in the present tense. A doubled-edged sword, without a doubt: on the one hand, the present tense can be useful to place reader and narrator right at the heard of whatever’s going on, without the weight of consequence, the added prism of historiography, passing time, and so forth; on the other hand, history is in the past, and to treat it as if it were the present can make it sound hollow and artificial, as things like anachronisms appear even more obvious.
Despite the dangers, at least three important, prize-winning, recently published books by talented writers dared to meld historical fiction with the present tense, with varying shades of success—but success, nonetheless.
One is, of course, Hilary Mantel, who made a major breakthrough in international recognition with her Man Booker and NBCC winning novel Wolf Hall, in which she recounts part of the history of Henry VIII and his multiple marriages, through the lens of a reinterpreted Thomas Cromwell. The entire thing is written in the third person, present, from the very first line, as loud and surprising as a gunshot: “So now get up.” Much has been made of Mantel’s distinctive voice in this book, which carries on in the as-good-if-not-better sequel Bring Up the Bodies. Vividness is an understatement in her case: Mantel doesn’t care about feeding you history and great events and famous figures. What she writes about is the juicy stuff behind the pale faces that hang in the National Portrait Gallery: the oddballs, the humour, the gossip, the foibles. The friendships and rivalries, the stories she tells—which are essentially human—have nothing to do with the historical period in which they take place; they could occur at any place or time. History is merely a backdrop, hinted at with perfect markers, but never foregrounded. Her choice of verb tense is the perfect foundation for this agenda. It merely helps to make the reader feel like he or she is right there, at the heart of the action. It supports the narration’s closeness to her main character, Cromwell. You’ve seen this story in dozens of films, but now it’s happening differently, all over again, so forget the fact that you know the ending and enjoy the ride as it unfolds. That is the strength of this peculiar, excellent book.
In the same year, in Canada, an author called Annabel Lyon published a small book with a noticeable cover called The Golden Mean, set in Macedonia in the 5th century BCE, about the relationship between Aristotle and the young Alexander the Great. The book garnered is fair share of attention: it was the only book that year nominated for the golden triad of English-Canadian literary prizes (the Governor General’s Award for Fiction, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, and the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize). Although I found the novel was a little bit too self-aware, too travaillé, it is certainly a remarkable piece of writing in that it features a double narrative prowess: it is narrated by Aristotle and in the present tense. Surprisingly, the whole thing actually holds together quite well—although the pitfalls are many. Lyon’s Aristotle is clinical, weary, prone to fits of depression, and excessively intuitive. The book’s main flaw, therefore, is probably that he’s simply too smart: he reads the other characters like open books, provides the reader with too much information gleaned from too few details, but then makes silly mistakes or doesn’t see massive things coming his way merely to make him seem more human (Mantel evades the same problem in Wolf Hall because her novel is in the third person, so some of the intuitiveness comes from the narrator, not her character). But if literature should be judged like diving—by taking difficulty into the equation—then Lyon deserves her laurels because The Golden Mean is certainly ambitious. The first sentence remains particularly memorable: “The rain falls in black cords, lashing my animals, my men, and my wife, Pythias, who last night lay with her legs spread while I took notes on the mouth of her sex, who weeps silent tears of exhaustion now, on this tenth day of the journey.” Cue blushing bookstore browsers. But see what I mean? It’s interesting, it’s catchy, it’s edgy, it’s not bad at all, but it’s also a little bit like literary dust thrown at the reader’s eyes. Lyon is shouting “see what I can do!” while deeper flaws are being ignored.
My third selection is a very special novel, which was the highlight of my summer reading two years ago: David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet. I promise to write an entire post on Mitchell very soon, but in the meantime I must say a few things about this one. First of all, because it’s written in a perfect present tense in that, where the tics in Mantel’s prose (such as her slightly aberrant use of pronouns) and the aseptic polish of Lyon’s writing remind the reader constantly of the what the writer is trying to do, Mitchell explores his universe with such linguistic ease that his present tense feels both natural as air and entirely new. The prose is at once smooth and varied. What helps, partially, is that his novel, set in the world of 18th century dutch trading in Japan (in the three novels looked at here, this is also the most difficult historical place to dwell in because it requires extensive understanding of not one but two cultures that are entirely removed from the 21st century anglo-saxon reality), is very much about language: translating it, interpreting it, and absorbing it. This theme bleeds into the novel’s narrative fabric. Add to that a virtuous protagonist, a cast of colourful characters, an arch-villain, and a powerful love/adventure story that abounds with twists and turns, and you’ve got one hell of a good novel. Mitchell’s choice of the present tense is a pillar in the structure: you don’t necessarily notice that it’s there, but take it away and you’ll risk the whole thing falling on your head. Simply, a must read.
In a piece entitled “Diary,” which Mantel wrote in 2010 about drug-induced hallucinations she suffered from when she was hospitalized that year, she writes that “pain is a present tense business.” I think she would agree that history, too, is a present tense business.