All prose writers have their tendencies, the tool they return to and rely on. For some, it’s skill with dialogue, humor in the back-and-forth, an acuity in rendering landscape, a deftness with plot, a sense of dramatic timing, sharpness of metaphor or simile, the gift of humor, or the slyness of an eye for satire. Such inclinations are natural, and at best are strengths: we can shine when affinity meets application. At worst, tendencies become proclivities, tics—too much of the same damn thing. But how can we know the difference?
I have an especially dangerous tendency: I love retrospection, that most powerful form of reflection when one steps out of the immediate past to consider it from the vantage of the present. The great gift of American romanticism in the nineteenth century, the retrospective mode enables narrators to speak of events they have witnessed or taken part in at a point before the narrative present, allowing them to consider what happened with greater perspective. Retrospection clarifies what was in terms of what has come later, which in turn suggests what will be. It is Melville’s Ishmael, telling us of the Pequod’s great hunt for the white whale, and it is Conrad’s multilayered narrative in Heart of Darkness, where we are told a story that itself was retold by another. It is Nick in Fitzgerald’s Gatsby, and that great last metaphor, “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past,” and it is the best of Proust, everything distilled to lasting significance, for as he admonished, “We are able to find everything in our memory.” Today, it is what allows Ishiguro, in Never Let Me Go and Remains of the Day, to let his narrators look back with such pitch-perfect nostalgia and acuity, even as they themselves may not fully understand or be able to bear what happened and what it means. In the opening passage of Never Let Me Go, the narrator describes how one of the men in her care, whom she knew from childhood, and perhaps once could have loved, is on the verge of death. He asks her to retell her childhood stories over and over again, as if to make them his own: “What he wanted was not just to hear about Hailsham, but to remember Hailsham, just like it had been his own childhood.” The narrator obliges, not just for Tommy, the love of her youth, but for the reader as well: the novel’s functional mode is ceaselessly retrospective, that is, a looking back in order to recall and understand, given what ensues. We know we are reading of the innocence of youth, that time before the adult world and its burdens and obligations close in, and we are initially compelled by the relatable reflections and observations, the nostalgia and hints of future consequences. The novel depends on the retrospective past tense and its weighting of seemingly minor dramas and events with significance and increasing ominousness as we come to realize the horror of the dystopian world the characters inhabit.
Unfortunately, most of us cannot be Ishiguro. The perils of retrospection require one to look no further than a full volume of Proust: overuse it, and the result can be a syrupy obliqueness, heavy and treacly and digressive. I cut three-quarters of the retrospective lines I write because I can feel their strain—they have not been called by the narrative, and so stand free from the weave, perhaps pretty on their own terms, but not a part of the whole. When Ishiguro’s Kate describes the high, bright afternoons of Hailsham, and tells us of the students’ voices echoing down the halls and the carefree games and minor escapades, the narrator does so for a purpose: that time is utterly lost, and was in fact artificial, its happiness based on lies and omissions. A retrospective narrator needs to be looking back with reason—and finding more than rote nostalgia for the trivial. Usually retrospective lines are darlings; often, they seem to concern details of landscape or person not rooted in any greater need for reflection than having occurred long before. If every moment is burdened with significance that requires elaboration, we cannot see the past for the past. When I write a draft of a story or essay that deploys retrospection, I look at each instance and ask myself what it is doing there. Is it intrusive, a needless temporal jump that jars us from a scene? Is it focused on the matter at hand, or does it lead us away from what is actually at stake? Is it honest, a deepening of understanding given the perspective of years, or is it false, forced, or obvious? Is it necessary to the narrative itself?
In memoir, especially, retrospection is essential. Our memories are flawed and changeable, rewritten each time we tell or retell, and shaped as much by what comes after as by what actually happened: we create a story that we can live with and accept, that tells us who we are now. When we write of what happened, we are supposed to be bound by the “facts,” or by what actually occurred, but our memories are not recordings that can be reviewed and verified. The process of writing memoir is a constant retrospection: even in a straightforward accounting, where we never leave the scene or moment, what is written from memory is inevitably altered by the life we have lived since. Retrospection is that moment when the inconstancy of memory is simultaneously acknowledged and transcended, when the years that weight the past are brought to bear explicitly, their revelations or lack thereof confirmed: This is what happened, and who I was, how I was, and what this means now suggests who I am now and will be, how the world is and will become. Such lines resonate beneath surfaces because they are not bound by time or the uncertainty of memory, but embody the truth residing within those limitations.