As a child, I remember watching The Time Machine, George Pal’s 1960 film adaptation of the HG Wells classic. I was transfixed at the sight of the young Rod Taylor sitting in his stationary chariot as the date-dials in front of him spun forward and the huge disk behind his head whirled. The time-lapse photography now seems horribly clunky, of course, but at the time held me enthralled.
I suppose all young children are fascinated by the idea that you can sit in a box, completely still, while the world around you changes: Calvin and Hobbes in their cardboard box, Doctor Who in his Tardis. I would love to believe that a spinning disk on a homemade sleigh in your front room would fast-forward you into the future, or that a wooden police box could deliver you to Pompeii on Volcano day. As for Calvin’s cardboard box that can double as a time machine to the Mesozoic Era and transmogrify you into a dinosaur while you’re there, well, what’s not to like?
But there are plenty of time machines sitting right here on the bookshelf.
There are historical novels — the ‘costume dramas’ of the literary world, where crinoline rustles and there is no central heating. Or sci-fi fantasies of the (usually dystopian) future, thought-experiments in how things might be. Or reading the ‘classics’, just for the thrill of hearing how the language used to be spoken in the everyday of yesteryear. And then, there’s Ulverton. The recently reissued Vintage Classics paperback sits on my table as innocent as a dark blue police box on the corner of an unassuming English street, as inert as an empty cardboard box. But this is a book that is not only bigger on the inside, it’s deeper.
Ulverton is in a class of its own, and Adam Thorpe — who until recently I’d never heard of — shouldn’t just be more famous, but revered as One of the Literary Giants of our Time.
In plain Wikipedese, the work “recounts 300 years of history in the fictional village of Ulverton, stylistically representing the literary eras of the day.” Thorpe says that he set out to write “a novel that moved through time but remained fixed in space.” It is not a ‘historical novel’ that takes place in one period, neither is it a ‘family saga’ that follows the fortunes of one group of people through the generations. I’m not even sure if it’s a novel at all: It does away with any such literary conventions as plot, character development, story arc and so on.
It is as though Thorpe got into his own time machine, armed with a tape recorder, and transcribed the oral histories he gathered at each stop, starting in 1650 and then at regular intervals of between 20 to 30 years or so until 1988, the last chapter in the book.
The grammar, punctuation (or in one chapter, entire lack of), style, tone, timbre and spelling of each chapter is totally and utterly distinct. Highly educated or unlettered, male, female, shepherd or squire: Each character is caught in the immediacy of their present moment, and preserved like ants in amber.
Here’s a man talking of Abraham Webb, the master carpenter, in 1803.
“He ud allus have a sweet smell about him, for he were reared in sawdust. You should’ve seed his hands, hard as a nave an as well nigh chopped, for they’d never been more’n a night away from irons, and allus dark as a gipsy’s from oak-juice, he’d felled so many.”
Writing Ulverton, Thorpe wanted to show that “what we take as pattern, as linkage, as significant connection is really just haphazard, the operation of chance, … and that one of the wonders of being human is our ability to impose or draw our meaning or even beauty from the essentially diffident mess of existence.”
It achieves that beautifully. And then it, and life, go one step further. On the day the book was first published in 1992, something happened to make Thorpe wonder whether something more than mere chance was at play. He tells the story — of a single ticket sold to an event that was cancelled and the death of the friend without whom the book may not have been written — in the afterword to the new edition. It is uncanny.
Uncanny. A term beloved by Freud, that hints of a fourth entity, above and beyond his triumvirate of ego, id and superego. A myth-making function that sits in the highest room of the highest tower of the self like some gnomic Rumplestiltskin, spinning the unpromising, raw straw of our lived experience into the golden threads of story. In the novel, there is no ‘cause and effect’, as such. There is no unifying arc: it is only the place that unites these lives. To use the word in both its senses, you could say, Ulverton has no plot: it is one. And yet, the book leaves you with a sense that there is in fact some mysterious force at work; that not everything is down to chance, and there are more things in heaven and Earth that even Thorpe has dreamt of: “The inexplicable echo. The nudge of ghosts.”
First published in The Hindu Business Line BLInk supplement 20.4.18