Dealing with Time in an Autobiography

By Rebecca A. Demarest
2011, Vol. 3 No. 01 | pg. 1/2 |

When starting on an autobiography, the author must ask themselves how they will choose to deal with the aspect of time in their work. Will they choose to follow the events of their life lineally or in a stream of consciousness recall? This contemplation creates what Gunn calls the impulse: “The impulse arises out of the effort to confront the problem of temporality and can be assumed operative in any attempt to make sense of experience” (Gunn 12).

It is a push on the part of the author to make sense of the “temporality,” the chaos of time which is their life and recollections. The author is faced with a monumental decision in portraying his past because, as Barrett John Mandel argues, “his present creates his past ‘by inspiring meaningless data with interpretation, direction, suggestiveness – life. But as long as I live, my past is rooted in my present and springs to life with my present’” (Renza 271-272). Because of this connection between the past and present, “Temporal perspectives…seem to be telescoped together and to interpenetrate one another; they commune in that self-knowledge that regroups personal being above and beyond its own time limits” (Gusdorf 44).

Thus, the approach to time in the autobiographical novel must take this into account. In trying to recreate their life, the autobiographer must take a unique perspective on time, using it both to structure their work while at the same time permitting a freedom of movement through time to allow the reader to connect with their life and recognize the connections of past and present. While several autobiographers exemplify this theory, Kurt Vonnegut and Vladimir Nabokov approach time in their autobiographies completely consciously and fully utilize time both as a structure and at the same time a device to connect their reader with the timeline of their lives.

When it comes to dealing with time, “One can try to suppress the consciousness of pastness; or one can ‘confess’ it openly to oneself; or one can even extol it and emphasize the narcissism proposed by the autobiographical act” (Renza 279). Both Vonnegut and Vladimir have chosen to approach their stories using the second of the three approaches in dealing with pastness. Vonnegut utilizes sur in his confession of time, with occasional nods to humor. Towards the beginning of the novel, he states:

The time would not pass. Somebody was playing with the clocks, and not only with the electric clocks, but the wind-up kind, too. The second hand on my watch would twitch once, and a year would pass, and then it would twitch again. There was nothing I could do about it. As an Earthling, I had to believe whatever clockssaid – and calendars (Vonnegut 26).

This passage serves two purposes in his novel. For one, it is an active acknowledgement of time and its place in our human lives. He is stating that we live our lives by the clock and the calendar, our memories are based around these structures of time and how we see the passage of time. But, at the same time, he is undermining that paradigm in saying that time is not passing. There very clocks have broken down, and the “somebody” who is playing with them is actually Vonnegut in this novel.

He has given the reader both permission to throw out our old notions of time and he is also warning them that in his novel time is broken. The clocks do not work right so they will have to trust in him for an accurate framing of events. However, this is by no means the only help the reader is given in dealing with this new time frame. Vonnegut also provides the reader with an example of how to read his novel while explaining the form of his novel as seen through the eyes of the alien race, the Tralfamadorians:

‘There are no telegrams on Tralfamadore. But you’re right: each clump of symbols is a brief, urgent message – describing a situation, a scene. We Tralfamadorians read them all at once, not one after the other. There isn’t any particular relationship between all the messages, except that the author has chosen them carefully, so that, when seen all at once, they produce an image of life that is beautiful and surprising and deep. There is no beginning, no middle, no end, no suspense, no moral, no causes, no effects. What we love in our books are the depths of many marvelous moments seen all at one time’ (Vonnegut 112).

With this example firmly fixed in the reader’s mind, the apparent chaos of time in Vonnegut’s work becomes manageable. The reader is no longer expected to be able to follow a plot through time but instead is to relax and watch the picture form out of the confusion of images. Through the entire novel, the reader is watching Billy Pilgrim flash from point to point because, “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time. Billy has gone to sleep a senile widower and awakened on his wedding day…He has seen his birth and death many times, he says, and pays random visits to all the events in between” (Vonnegut 29).

And the reader is completely conscious of the travel between times which allows Vonnegut to create his own Tralfamadorian novel. At one point, Billy even watches a movie run backwards (Vonnegut 93) and gives a whole new meaning to the bombing and warfare which he sees therein. Once more, Vonnegut is giving his readers permission to manipulate time as they see fit, to run through the images in his novel as they wish and find new meanings as time shifts and slips.

Vladimir Nabokov is also conscious of time in his autobiography, though his concepts are not as openly surreal as Vonnegut. At one point he openly admits to trying to separate himself from time:

That this darkness is caused merely by the walls of time separating me and my bruised fists from the free world of timelessness is a belief I gladly share with the most gaudily painted savage. I have journeyed back in thought – with thought hopelessly tapering off as I went – to remote regions where I groped for some secret outlet only to discover that the prison of time is spherical and without exits (Nabokov 20).

Not only is he admitting to himself that time is difficult to deal with, but he is also informing his reader that he has tried to break through time. This lets the reader take a moment to deal with the fact that time may not run lineally in his recitation, but rather Nabokov is taking the reader on a journey through time and memory in which the actual timelessness is a factor in understanding.

Indeed, his writing is full of nods to this concept – although he adheres to a more conventional storytelling form than Vonnegut – with lines such as, “Indeed, from my present ridge of remote, isolated, almost uninhabited time, I see my diminutive self as celebrating, on that August day 1903, the birth of sentient life” (Nabokov 22). The reader is frequently reminded that Nabokov is now outside of the time he is writing about and as such views it with all the experience between. At times he even theorizes on the concept of time itself, stating, “the first creatures on earth to become aware of time were also the first creatures to smile” (Nabokov 22).

After “openly confessing” to their readers that they are playing with time in their narratives, both authors proceed to use time as a tool for structuring their works. As Renza states, “Writing exposes as arbitrary or merely contiguous the relation between the act of signification and the signified past, thus making possible the isolation of pastness vis-à-vis the verbal medium that permits the autobiographical project to be conceived in the first place” (Renza 275).

In other words, the way in which they write makes it possible to separate themselves from the past and write their autobiographies. In restructuring time, these authors have succeeded in separating time from both themselves and the reader which helps the reader to better understand the nature of their lives. Of course, “autobiography properly speaking assumes the task of reconstructing the unity of a life across time” (Gusdorf 37) and so time is a major feature of the texts. When Vonnegut first attempts to map out the novel, he illustrates his attempt as follows:

I used my daughter’s crayons, a different color for each main character. One end of the wallpaper was the beginning of the story, and the other end was the end, and then there was all that middle which was the middle. And the blue line met the red line and then the yellow line, and the yellow line stopped because the character represented by the yellow line was dead. And so on. The destruction of Dresden was represented by a vertical band of orange cross-hatching, and all thelines that were still alive passed through it, came out the other side (Vonnegut 7).

He recognizes the fact that there is a story he wishes to tell and attempts to lay this out chronologically which he later realizes will not work. It is at this point that he adopts the fractured perspective of the Tralfamadorian novel and attempts to help the reader observe the overall picture.

This framework, while sporadic and fractured, still provides an overview of the life in a succinct manner. This overview is what allows the reader to see all of Billy Pilgrim’s life in context with the rest of the novel and:

As an aerial view sometimes reveals to an archeologist the direction of a road or a fortification or the map of a city invisible to someone on the ground, so the reconstruction in spirit of my destiny bares the major lines that I have failed to notice, the demands of the deepest values I hold that, without my being clearlyaware of it, have determined my most decisive choices (Gusdorf 38).

Once the reader has backed far enough out of the narrative to gloss over the temporal discontinuity, they can then see the overarching plan and emphasis of the life Vonnegut is illustrating.

Nabokov’s use of time differs somewhat from Vonnegut, though still lends itself towards the structure of the piece. Nabokov uses a more direct, less surreal approach to his narrative. Instead of fracturing time completely, he stays within a certain phase of his life while occasionally departing from the time-stream to draw the reader’s attention to various events of note. He jumps from event to event with lines such as “But let me see. I had an even earlier association with that war” (Nabokov 26).

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