Rumer Godden, A Fugue in Time (1945)
Rumer Godden’s storytelling style often involves shifts in time and point of view, sometimes within the same paragraph or even the same sentence. In A Fugue in Time, she made time-shifting the whole basis of the narrative, telling interwoven stories of three different generations within the same London house. (The complete title was originally Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time).
We start with the “present” of the book (told in the past tense), when the elderly Rolls is reluctantly facing the end of his family home’s 99 year lease, when he will be forced to leave. The past inhabitants and events of the house appear (told in the present tense) in shifting waves that gradually build up a tragic legacy of misunderstanding. When two young relatives from different branches of the family come to the house, there is the potential to change that trajectory and move into a better future — which we also briefly glimpse from time to time.
If it sounds confusing, it is rather — but after I got used to the device, it was fairly easy to negotiate the different story threads. Having read Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse not so long ago, the book reminded me of how Woolf also mixed up time and memory and point of view into a sort of kaleidoscopic impression. However, Godden’s language is more conventional than Woolf’s, aside from the frequent shifts that break it up into shorter or longer chunks.
The character of Griselda, Rolls’s mother, who quietly and futilely rebels against the constraints of her traditional female role, also reminded me of Woolf. I wonder how conscious these references may have been.
Not exactly a ghost story, more complex than a straight historical novel, this was an interesting experiment that didn’t completely take off for me. I understand that later Godden tried to do the same thing with China Court, perhaps more successfully, and I’d like to give that one a try. Have you read either of these? What did you think?