Tense tenses

Yesterday I decided to move some of my novel out of the past tense and into the present. Everything felt a bit stale, somewhat dead, lacking in vitality, so I brought this particular section into the present and now it feels more immediate and much more engaging. Phew.

I mentioned in my last post that I’d asked Edmund de Waal, my hero, why he wrote The Hare with Amber Eyes in the present tense. It absolutely works, but it seems like an unusual choice. The book is a kind of history, a kind of memoir – so it is resolutely set in the past. But by using the present de Waal takes the reader straight there, making you feel as though you are standing, for instance, in Charles Ephrussi’s salon looking at his Renoirs and Manets and yellow armchair.

Edmund de Waal said that he didn’t want to appear too authoritative, that the present tense made it more humble. I agree – using the present tense makes everything feel like it’s happening right this second. It removes the filter of memory, the strong viewpoint that makes the past resolutely feel like the author is telling his version of events – his-story – and asserting that story as the one in which the reader has to believe.

There’s something so definitive about the past, even in the most straightforward of sentences. Take, for instance:

Emily went to the shop and bought a loaf of bread.

Frankly, who cares? So what if she went to the shop? It doesn’t really encourage any suspense in the narrative, any wondering what might happen next. In the present tense it’s much more enthralling:

Emily goes to the shop and buys a loaf of bread.

And then what? What happens in the shop? What will she do with the bread? The present seems to encourage one to jump ahead to the future. Perhaps the past is just too far behind. And so the present tense is more, well, tense than the past.

In fact this other kind of tense was on my mind yesterday too. The day before, the fiancé and I are stuck in traffic on Holloway Road and getting incredibly irritable with each other. Just as the stress and tension is reaching its peak, he spots an Indian massage parlour, and we instantly park the car and go in, deciding that it will be the most effective way to get rid of all the tension and make us feel human again. I have a foot massage, he has a head massage and we both re-emerge feeling quite peculiar and almost like we can fly. We certainly feel too spaced out to be able to argue with each other anymore. (See, isn’t it better in the present tense?)

This ‘tense’, as in tension, is from a different root than the other ‘tense’, as in past/present/future etc. The tension ‘tense’ is derived from the Latin tensus, the past participle of tendere, meaning ‘to stretch’. It was used in 1670, meaning ‘stretched tight’, and the sense of ‘nervous tension’ was first recorded in 1821. The other ‘tense’, unsurprisingly, is much older – dating from the early fourteenth century – and derives from the Latin tens, meaning ‘time’.

I like the way these two tenses have joined up into one word with completely different meanings. And I think it helps to think of both of those meanings when choosing in which tense to write. Which tense creates the most tension?

Well, the present creates more than the past – it’s more intriguing. But also, when used in histories or memoirs, or telling stories that really are in the past, it takes on that resonance of ‘stretching tight’. Edmund de Waal, for instance, really stretches the present tense. We know that what he is telling us isn’t really happening now but a hundred years ago. He is stretching the our belief in the present tense, our understanding of it, and in so doing manages to bring the past into the now, back to life.

I suppose the tense which makes me feel most tense is the future. And this is one that is rarely ever written in. Sure, there’s the odd paragraph here and there, but a novel written entirely in the future tense would be a bit odd. The future is usually incredibly stressful. What am I going to do? What will happen? What will they think? What will I say? Where will I be in ten years’ time? It’s enough to bring on a cold sweat.

Yes, there are moments when thinking about the future is incredibly exciting. When you’re literally ‘looking forward’ to something – a holiday perhaps, meeting up with a friend, getting married … But the uncertainty of the future (‘It might never happen’) means there is always some doubt, some degree of nervousness.

Often, it is making these exciting things happen that causes the most tension. So many people complain about the stress of going on holiday! Getting packed, getting to the airport, queuing to check-in/baggage drop, fear of flying … I am trying my utmost not to indulge in any stresses about weddings, but tension-causing questions and moments do always rear their ugly heads. Things like trying to book a date that works with the registry office, the reception venue, a rabbi and priest – and wondering how on earth we’re going to convince them both to give us a blessing …

But then I suppose no tense is truly free from tension. Even the past can have a habit of making one cringe with horror. There are few things worse than remembering, or being reminded of, a situation in which you acted like a complete berk. When you said something unbelievably awful which at the time made you almost want to cry with embarrassment. I’ve been through many of those horrendous moments. The tension is there when you remember them because you know what’s about to happen, and you’ve got to walk that tight-rope of horror in order to get there. Hideous.

So tension is everywhere, in every tense … pretty much inescapable. I think the only possible strategy it to go to the Indian Massage place on Holloway Road as often as possible. Then, for a precious half-hour and a few moments afterwards, life is free of all tension whatsoever.

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One Response to “Tense tenses”

  1. astrid Says:

    brilliant emily!

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