Time, St Augustine remarked in his Confessions, is something we all understand – until we're asked to explain it. The saint would likely be amused by the efforts of contemporary theoretical physicists, who regularly tie themselves into knots trying to sort out our relationship to the phenomenon known as four-dimensional space-time.
The complexity of temporal perception has also been a fruitful theme for poets. It is woven into the fabric of TS Eliot's series of meditations on mortality, Four Quartets. And the new novel by the Antrim-born writer Deirdre Madden takes its title, Time Present and Time Past, from the first poem of Eliot's quartet, Burnt Norton.
Time, perhaps, to start worrying that this is going to be a weird, obscure or overly philosophical book? On the contrary. Madden’s eighth novel slips by faster than two sunny weeks by the sea.
“It’s a very simple book,” she says. “It’s a family story set in contemporary Dublin. But there are these other ideas which are shot through it, so I hope that anybody who wants to take it a bit deeper will notice that.”
What made her decide to approach this slipperiest of subjects through the medium of fiction? “I got into it in the first instance by looking at photographs,” she says. “I’ve always liked old black-and-white photographs, and I came across some very early colour photographs and was really amazed by them. By how clear and vivid they were.”
Clear and vivid is also a perfect summation of Madden's prose style. Her writing is unshowy, even understated – which may be one reason why she doesn't get as much attention as she deserves. Nevertheless her most recent book, Molly Fox's Birthday, which follows a day in the life of a successful actor through the eyes of one of her friends, was shortlisted for the 2009 Orange Prize.
One By One in the Darkness, a study of three sisters in the North just before the IRA ceasefire, was also an Orange finalist.
Time Present and Time Past focuses on a Dublin family just before the bank guarantee. The Buckleys are a resolutely ordinary middle-class family – and also, more startlingly perhaps, a resolutely happy one. There are no late-night drunken street fights. There's no shouting or roaring. "I hope people will enjoy reading about a happy family, because there are so few books about it," Madden says, tongue placed firmly in cheek. "It isn't a very dramatic book. But they have their complications. Families can be hard, but family is also a good thing. I wanted to look at that idea as well. But also how the family dynamic changes. Different currents within it. The tensions, attractions, repulsions."
It’s the narrative voice that signals the author’s intention in this regard. The opening paragraph sets the tone. “Where does it all begin?” Madden writes. “Perhaps here, in Baggot Street, on the first floor of one of Dublin’s best restaurants, on a day in spring. It seems as good a place to start as any.”
In that restaurant we meet Fintan Buckley – a businessman who is treating himself to dessert in the wake of an unhappy lunchtime meeting – as well as his mother, Joan, and his aunt Beth, who, coincidentally, are also lunching there that day.
Madden’s deceptively limpid present-tense narration places the reader right in the midst of the self-consciousness and sea bass. But the reader is reading this text in the wake of the economic crash and the recession and all the rest of it; we know, in that sense, what will happen. Later in the book the narrative voice will shift and slip, too, to take account of that retrospective knowledge.
Meanwhile, should life in the Buckley household ever threaten to get dull, there’s likely to be an outbreak of satisfying spite from the rather terrifying Joan, the mother of all matriarchs. Madden laughs. “I’ll be interested to know what people make of her,” she says. “Some people think she’s an absolute demon. Others don’t see her that way. She’s quite sympathetic and , I think, not a bad person at all. But her life went down a road it maybe shouldn’t have gone down, and she lived it as best she could afterwards.”
Waspishly, some would say. The novel also features a cat, symbol of – well, of what exactly? “It has a function within the novel which is clear to me, at any rate,” Madden says. “I’ll leave people to figure that out for themselves.”
There was a cat in Molly Fox's Birthday, too. Is there one in each of Madden's books?
She frowns. “I don’t think so,” she says. “I’d have to go back and look. Lately they’re making their way in. Maybe it’s because years ago, when I was living at home, I was around them more. And now, because I haven’t got one, I keep inventing cats for myself.”
One of the most striking moments in Molly Fox's Birthday is, however, based on a real incident. "It was on a bus," Madden says. "Not in Ireland. But it was very strange, because it was in a city. And I looked round and a man had this . . . thing. In his arms." The creature was a hare. Madden's narrator, a writer, finds the incident disturbing because of the pair's stillness, which disrupts her ability to judge the relationship between them. Is he going to kill it and eat it? Give it to someone as a gift?
“The man did not tenderly stroke its fur, but nor did he appear to treat it harshly,” she writes. “It was impossible to know if the hare was still because of fear or trust.”
This moment in which time appears to stand still may be related to the moments, in the new novel, in which Fintan Buckley finds himself in a state of altered consciousness. “Sometimes you can feel a bit out of your own time,” Madden says. “Something can happen very suddenly and you can have these instances of feeling that you’re not quite where you are in time.”
Born in Toomebridge, Co Antrim, Madden now lives in an apartment in Dublin. She is married to the poet Harry Clifton, and she teaches creative writing at Trinity College Dublin. Has the job affected her own writing? “Not so much, except in relation to the actual time you have available for it,” she says ruefully. “And not just the time but what you might call the head space.”
The two activities are, she says, diametric opposites. “Teaching is quite an extrovert thing, and writing is very introverted. When you walk into a room to teach you have to be damned sure that you know what you’re about, whereas writing is often a very dreamy, sleepy activity. You have to let your thoughts grow. You have to waste a lot of time. You have to go down the wrong track and think about things.”
Do her students welcome such advice?
She laughs. “It’s not a question of drinking coffee and looking out the window. You might work on a project for a long time and nothing comes of it. And then you leave it aside and do something else, and it comes quite quickly. There’s lots of things, like weeding the garden, where you can say, ‘Okay, I’ll do 10 minutes, and after 10 minutes I’ll have got up as far as the fence.’
“Writing is not like that. If you haven’t written or painted it’s quite hard to understand that, especially in our society, which is so production-driven. The time goes in, the product comes out.”
Or, as a theoretical physicist might put it, the time/output ratio is perfectly predictable. There it is again, that dastardly business of time. And, dear reader, we’ve run out of it.
Time Present and Time Past is published by Faber and Faber