Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time by Rumer Godden ~ 1945. This edition: Macmillan, 1976. Hardcover. ISBN: 333-19366-0. 176 pages.
My rating: 6.5/10 for the overall story, 10/10 for the writing. The first rating really should be higher but I am comparing it to its successor, China Court (1958), which used the same idea expanded to five generations, with a much stronger story thread. This one felt a bit experimental, which the author herself notes. It took a few pages to get into the rhythm and figure out all the characters, but after that it was easy to follow, perhaps because I am already very familiar with this author’s use of concurrent and intertwining times in many of her novels. An unusual and ambitious book. Beautifully written.
This book is prime Rumer Godden; an example of why I keep returning to her works time after time; as I’ve mentioned before, even a “poor” Godden is worth the time it takes to read it; her “top end” books are little masterpieces.
Take Three Tenses: A Fugue in Time is, in my opinion, almost a little masterpiece, or perhaps more aptly, the not-quite-finished work of a master artist, still needing a few final touches, but interesting to examine in the context of the artist’s body of work, to get a glimpse into how their mind works. A very experimental piece of work, and decidedly the precursor of the much longer and stronger China Court, which isprobably my favourite Rumer Godden book to date, though I still need to search down a few of her more obscure titles. Though China Court uses the same technique and many similar characters, Take Three Tenses is an entirely different story, except possibly for the theme of the importance of the house itself as a character with a life of its own.
Originally published in 1945, and with the War itself driving much of the story, this novel was reissued in 1975 with this note by the author:
This novel was the first in which I used a theme that has always intrigued me, Dunne’s Experiment With Time, i.e., that time is not consecutive, divided into past, present and future, but that these are all co-existent if only we could see it: if you are in a boat on a river you can only see the stretch on which your boat is travelling – a picnic party on the bank perhaps: a kingfisher diving. What you traversed before, passing willows, a barge tied up, cows in a field, as far as you are concerned, is gone; what lies around the next corner – a lock working, a man fishing – is hidden but, were you up in an aeroplane, you could see all these at once – the willows, the barge, the cows, the picnic party, the diving kingfisher, the lock, the man fishing.
In a Fugue in Time I have taken the part of being up in the aeroplane, seeing three generations of a family at once, all living in a house in London, their stories interweaving, as do themes in a fugue. The difficulty was, of course, not to confuse the reader and it was not until the eighth or ninth try that I found the right way; that it was right seems shown by the fact that, with few exceptions, neither critics nor readers have noticed it, only what Chaucer calls “the thinne subtil kinittinges of thinges”. Some years later I used the same technique with five generations, not three, living in a country house, China Court.
September 1975 R.G.
And from the frontispiece:
…two, three or four simultaneous melodies which are constantly on the move, each going its own independent way. For this reason the underlying harmony is often hard to decipher, being veiled in a maze of passing notes and suspensions…. Often chords are incomplete: only two tones are sounded so that one’s imagination has to fill in the missing third tone.
A SENTENCE DESCRIBING BACH’S FUGUES WRITTEN BY LAWRENCE ABBOT
And for Rolls personally the poem he found:
Home is where one starts from. As we grow older
The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).
Love is most nearly itself
When here and now cease to matter.
Old men ought to be explorers
Here or there does not matter
We must be still and still moving
Into another intensity
For a further union, a deeper communion…
…In my end is my beginning.
T.S. Eliot (East Coker)
Man that is born of a woman has but a short time to live…He cometh up, and is cut down like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow, and never continueth in one stay.
Children and the fruit of the womb are a heritage and a gift …. Like as arrows in the hand of a giant even so are the young young children.
THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER
The story starts with the disclosure that a house that has been home to a family for almost a century is about to be pulled down as soon as the ninety-nine-year lease is up. The elderly lone occupant, apparently the last survivor of a once flourishing family, Sir Roland (Rolls) Dane, is shocked and appalled at the thought of having to give up his home.
The house, it seems, is more important than the characters. ‘In me you exist’,’ says the house.
For almost a hundred years, for ninety-nine years, it has enhanced, embraced and sheltered the family, but there is no doubt it can go on without them. “Well” the family might have retorted, “We can go on without you.” There should be no question of retorts nor of acrimony. The house and family are at their best and most gracious together.
The question of their parting had arisen. The lease was up. “And the owners are not prepared to renew,” said Mr. Willoughby, putting his despatch case on the table.
“But they can’t pull down my house!” cried Rolls; but he cried it silently because he was perfectly sensible of the fact that they could and that it was not his house. He was sensible, and at the same time he was outraged. Outraged he said in a voice that was muffled for all its calm, “I don’t want the family to go out of the house.”
The only remaining family was Rolls himself, but Mr. Willoughby could hardly point that out. He wondered what there was slightly unusual about the sentence Rolls had just said, and presently, pondering, h thought it would have been more usual if Rolls had said, “I don’t want the house to go out of the family.” Families possessed houses: not houses the family…
So Rolls reluctantly accepts his fate, and, with his manservant Proutie (himself a life-long devotee of No. 99 Wiltshire Place), slowly starts to prepare for the unthinkable change.
And here the author sets the stage and starts to introduce the many characters whose lives and times make up the story’s “fugue”. We don’t yet know who they are or how they fit in, but their names are teasingly mentioned: Selina, Lark, Verity, Griselda…
In the house the past is present.
It is the only house in the Place that has a plane tree in the garden; for many years a Jewish family lives next door, and every year on the Feast of Tabernacles they would ask for the branches of the tree and built a little Succah on their balcony. All the houses have balconies, long ones across the French doors of the drawing-rooms at the back, and all the balconies have scrolled iron steps that lead down into the garden. The gardens are narrow and long, various in their stages of cultivation and neglect, heavily sooted as well. The gardens have an unmistakable London smell from the closed-in walls, and the earth that is heavy and old, long undisturbed; the smell has soot in it too, and buried leaves, and the ashes of bonfires, and the smell of cat; any child, sent out to play, comes in with the smell; it is part of the memory of Selina and Rolls and the other children and Lark…
The roots of the plane tree are under the house. Rolls likes to fancy sometimes, lately, that the plane tree is himself. ‘Its roots are in the house and so are mine,’ he said. …He flattered himself. The plane tree is more than Rolls, as is another tree of which Rolls is truly a part: it is a tree drawn on parchment, framed and hung over the chest in the hall by the grandfather clock. Selina draws it, marking the Danes in their places as they are born and die, making a demarcation line in red ink for the time they come to live in the house in the autumn of eighteen forty-one.
“We existed before you, you see,” the family might have said to the house; and the house, in its tickings, its rustlings, its creaking as its beams grow hot, grow cold: as its ashes fall in its grates, as its doorbells ring, as the trains in passing underneath it vibrate in its walls, as footsteps run up and down the stairs; as dusters are shaken, carpets beaten, beds turned down and dishes washed; as windows are opened or shut, blinds drawn up, pulled down; as the tap runs and is silent; as the lavatory is flushed; as the piano is played and books are taken down from the shelf, and brushed picked up and then laid down again on the dressing-table, and flowers are arranged in a vase; as the medicine bottle is shaken; as, with infinite delicate care, the spillikins are lifted in the children’s game; as the mice run under the wainscot the house might steadfastly reply, “I know! I know! All the same, in me you exist.”
And against the melodious pattern of the house and its many inhabitants there comes a stronger strain, as the story of the current time appears and plays itself out, with continual references to what lies before and behind. The doorbell rings, and Proutie announces the appearance of an unsuspected great-niece, Grisel Dane, come to England in this early year of the war as a member of a volunteer corps of woman ambulance drivers. Grisel is unhappy in her billet, and has remembered that she has a London relative. Savagely resentful of this disturbance, Rolls refuses to see her, but Grisel is fully as determined a person as her great-uncle, and she moves in to one of the empty bedrooms, determined at first merely to gain some physical comfort in, but soon becoming immersed in her ancestral family’s history for the few months remaining before the move.
Another important family connection also appears, and the inevitable love story plays itself out to the backdrop of the increasing violence of the war. We sense that an inevitable doom of some sort is coming, but we are not sure quite who or what will be lost.
Rumer Godden creates some well-drawn characters among the Danes and their associates. I found Griselda, mother of Rolls and his eight siblings, the most appealing of them all, with her yearnings for a larger world than that which she is trapped in, and her eventual attainment of a rich inner life which compensates in a small way for her over-possessive husband, her long succession of loved and cared-for yet not particularily welcome children, and the continual frustrations of her life as a Victorian upper class woman with strong societal strictures of behaviour to follow.
The strength of this book is in its style rather than its plot or characters; while they are well enough handled, they are secondary to the overall pattern. I almost think that this is intentional on the author’s part, but I was disappointed in her handling of the conclusion; it felt a little too pat; everything came predictably full circle. I fully understand the satisfaction that the author might feel in neatly winding things up, but sometimes a strong, even discordant climax is more memorable to even the most melodious composition than an easily anticipated, repetitive ending phrase.
Highly recommended for Rumer Godden fans, especially if you liked China Court. One of the lesser-known works of this author; I had something of a challenge finding a reasonably priced copy; they’re out there but in nothing like the abundance of many of her other titles.
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