Armen Avanessian’s Present Tense: A Poetics is an intricate, illuminating study of the uses of tenses in fiction, and the changes in the uses of the past and present tense in the novels of high modernists.
Käte Hamburger’s work sets the terms for Avanaessian’s discussion. On Hamburger’s account, the past tense in fiction is never really a past tense. Fiction “presentizes” the past tense, using it as a mark of “entry into a timeless present of fiction” (17). Tenses don’t have the same significance in fiction that they have outside: “the temporal meaning of literary tenses is not to be confused with an extra-fictional temporal meaning: The detemporalized tense past tense no longer signifies the past but the fictional here and now. Whether the unfolding of events is narrated analeptically or proleptically, all of its moments are equally fictionally present although they are in the past tense “(17).
The de-temporalizing of tense is matched by the de-spatializing of fictional place: “Since what is conveyed by the medium is never found in the place and at the time in and at which it is presented to us by the medium, the narrative can be seen not only as timeless, but also as placeless. In the narratological version of this principle, the sujet [narrator], by retreating behind the fabula [story], loses its spatial and temporal situatedness as an act of narration. This gives rise to the impression that, in some mysterious way, the fabula narrates itself (as if) by itself” (18).
Avanessian illustrates with this passage from Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov: “One morning, in a flat in one of the great buildings in Gorokhovaia Street, the population of which was sufficient to constitute that of a provincial town, there was lying in bed a gentleman named Ilya Ilyitch Oblomov.”
He observes, “There is no narrator as the subject of the proposition. The sentence is thus not anchored by any speaker at any particular place or at any particular time. Instead we enter without digression into the chronotopos of the fiction and stand at the main character’s bedside. Furthermore, the opening sentence displays the irregularity of tense usage that Hamburger has called typical of fiction. The use of the progressive past tense ‘was lying’ in connection with the temporal positioning ‘one morning’ precisely does not make us imagine ourselves to be reading at noon that day or to be looking back from some other, later point in time to participate in past events: morning is now and Ilya Ilyitch is lying in his bed” (24).
Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe illustrates the point from the other angle. Avanessian cites a passage where the narrator steps out from behind the fabula and addresses the reader directly: “Such being our chief scene, the date of our story refers to a period towards the end of the reign of Richard I, when his return from his long captivity had become an event rather wished than hoped for by his despairing subjects, who were in the meantime subjected to every species of subordinate oppression.”
By contrast, modernists turn to the narrative present tense. It is handled different and has different effects in various writers. Following the philosophy of time articulated by Bertrand Russell, Virginia Woolf depicts time as a “series of disconnected present points.”
At the beginning of Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf depicts the journey of an “ominous black card riding through the streets of London: “The car is present only in each of the perceptions and, in conformity with Woolf’s conception of time, is passed on momentarily and discontinuously from perception to perception, ‘handed off’ from one narrating passerby to the next. The black car exists (as a fictional car) only so long as the chain of perceptions, which maintain its presentness, does not break and so long as the narrating characters pay (narrating) attention to it. The moment the onlookers’ attention is distracted away from the car, it disappears (35).
Time has been subjectivized. In To the Lighthouse, Woolf uses a similar device by tracing the time-jumping consciousness of different characters. Though all share a present moment, their minds take them here and there in memory and anticipation. Time is in perception; there is no shared time.
Avanessian observes that twentieth century literature undergoes a “disintegration of the matrix’s three central dichotomies: fabula/sujet, fictional/factual, past tense/ present tense. These couples no longer form the systematic and coherent whole that used to determine their position within the matrix. In the classical system, each of the poles forms two series. Of the series fabula/fiction/past tense we can roughly say: The fabula (A) is conceived of as fictional (B) and past (C). For the series sujet/fact/ present tense, the guideline is that the sujet (A) is said to be factual (B) and present (C). The coherence of the entire matrix, in which all categories smoothly interlock, follows from these equivalences: the factual sujet presentifies the fictional fabula“ (37). In classical fiction, “I (narrator) hereby (sujet) tell you (dear reader) what once happened (fabula) to him–her (character/he–she).”
Modernism privileges first-person narration. The narrator is a present character telling about his own past: “the past tense still marks a temporal distinction between the first person at the level of the sujet and the ‘I who I once was’ at the level of the fabula, such that the latter I can nonetheless be perceived as a fictional character (as a she–he)” (38-9).
But this is an unstable solution. Why should the narrator be considered a factual present? What makes the “I” any less fictional than the “he/she” of the narrative? Modernism eventually acknowledges the fictionalized character of the sujet, and so slips into the “altermodernism” of, say, Pynchon, full of play with unreliable narrators who call attention to their own fictionality (39).