Words to transport me across generations, centuries, continents and viewpoints – such is the mastery of writer Arnold Zable in his acclaimed memoir Jewels and Ashes.
What began as a “case study” for my Master’s exegesis – too dry a term by far for this riveting narrative and beautifully told story – became a lesson in the art of traversing narrative time. I chose Zable’s work because I’ve long admired him and his writing and have attended various of his talks and his inspirational Painting with Words workshop. (You know how every now and again you get that feeling your writing has upped a level, well, I believe this workshop prompted one of those shifts. But, I digress.)
With my next novel unstarted, at the time, but swirling in my mind, I wanted to write my exegesis to inform on an aspect of its writing. I can already see the structure of my new novel forming as a complex narrative where I plan to show three characters’ viewpoints and visit them in different time spans, on different continents and be able to crisscross between them all. Hence my exegesis topic: Traversing Narrative Time, Space and Viewpoint. Part of the reflective practice in my uni subject’s title is to look to the masters to see how they’ve achieved such techniques. Zable was my first choice, though I also studied Gabriel Garcia Marquez who is the master Zable says he studied to learn his artistry of transitions.
Jewels and Ashes traces the author’s pilgrimage to the birthplace of his Jewish parents, (in Bialystok, Poland), crisscrossing the decades of the twentieth century to uncover the truth and fate of his extended family. When I first read the book several years ago, I marvelled at how Zable showed history while weaving his family background around his 1986 journey to Poland, but I didn’t really understand what he was doing craftwise, how he was doing it or why. I just knew whatever he was doing transported me on one amazing journey. Mind you the way Zable paints his words in such rich detail and description transports you with seamless ease too.
Of course, I’ve read many novels featuring multiple viewpoints, time and places, but I’d always been keenly aware of the transitions from one to the next. Some jolt you out of the story with a clunk, or shifts only occur at the end of chapters or storybreaks, whereas Zable weaves into the next event, place, time with seamless transitions, be they in mid-sentence or mid-paragraph.
How does he do it?
Through my study of Jewels and Ashes, and Arnold’s own explanation of his technique, I understand him to effect many of his transitions by connecting story fragments or threads using subtle and well placed links. Closer study of the text reveals these to be both tangible and intangible associations, such as events, trees, photographs and letters, and/or sensory connections, such as memories, smells and sounds. For the purpose of my exegesis I extracted the examples below to demonstrate:
- Decades later,… (p. 8 ) a simple flashforward (prolepsis)
- We leap through the centuries (p. 46) transition bringing narrative forward two-hundred years
- As a child I would often gaze at his portrait in the Bialystok photo album… (p. 46) transition back through flashback (analepsis)
- Father has now warmed to the subject. He draws me with him to Nieronies Lane. (p. 76) transition of place
- Years later, when Mother fell on a Melbourne street, the memory of another fall, in a time and place far removed, came flooding back. (p. 88) incident as link to another time
- At 4 a.m. on summer mornings, throughout the twenties… (p. 93) connects one paragraph later through the link of season to On a summer morning in 1986…
- Above all, Father recalls the seasons (p.139) a memory and seasonal transition of time and place.
Arnold Zable is not only a wonderful storyteller, but a generous humanitarian, and I was lucky enough on two chance occasions during the writing of my exegesis to have opportunity to speak to him and ask him about his practice when writing his memoir. Arnold told me he did not plot the narrative of Jewels and Ashes, but followed his physical journey and allowed the threads of the greater story to emerge instinctively. However organically these evolved, the chronological discontinuity and disruption of story serve to build a sense of mounting dread even in a fact-based narrative where the reader knows the holocaust history:
‘At Linowe station the trains were drawn up by the platform, waiting. The time-tabling was precise, the organisation efficient. The doors of the cattle wagons slid to a close on entire families, crammed together, robbed of light, air and hope. Soon after they were on the move: a journey of several hundred kilometres southwest, across the breadth of Poland, to a town called Auschwitz’ (p.137).
The switch to a new focus in the next paragraph serves to discontinue the narrative and heighten tension even with foreknowledge of the horror coming.
This post offers only a glimpse of one of the multiple narrative devices available to traverse time, space and viewpoint to best dramatic and emotional effect. Regardless of whether you’re interested in the writing craft, I urge you to read Jewels and Ashes. You’re in for a treat, a harsh history beautifully told and one that must never pass out of memory. Honour goes to Zable and all those it recalls.
It is so true what they say about the value of reading as a writer and what you can learn. Though I’ve never studied a topic quite so intently (or academically) before, and found the initial drafting of my exegesis extremely challenging, I can honestly say what I’ve learned is invaluable. If I can begin the writing of my new novel and in some small way emulate the beauty of the transitions of Arnold Zable in his writing, I’ll be thrilled. What once seemed impossible, now seems achievable.
I hope this post excites the idea of some ‘narrative’ time travel in your writing. If so, I’d love you to let me know or leave any thoughts you’d like to add in the comments.