On the surface of her first new novel in a decade, the vaguely autobiographical, startlingly ambitious "See Now Then," author Jamaica Kincaid seems to tell a simple story about a New England family that is falling apart. Mr. Sweet, a musician and composer, turns out to hate his wife, a writer known only as Mrs. Sweet, and their children, Persephone and Heracles. But just beneath the surface is a much larger, even cosmic meditation on the nature of time — as Mr. Sweet puts it, "the seeing of Now being Then and how Then becomes Now."
For Mrs. Sweet, as for Kincaid herself, Then includes her history as a child growing up on a small island in the Caribbean — the former British colony of Antigua, in the author's case — where she was punished for her youthful precocity by being forced to copy out large sections of John Milton's "Paradise Lost."
Kincaid, 63, is best known for "At the Bottom of the River" (1983), "Lucy" (1990), "The Autobiography of My Mother" (1996) and "Mr. Potter" (2002), along with her voluminous writings on gardening. Printers Row Journal talked with the author, who spoke in a mellifluous British accent, by phone; here's an edited transcript of our chat.
Q: The title of the book relates to both its theme — the mystery of time — and its modernist form, which communicates a sense of how the past and future relate to the present.
A: Yes, that's right. I have a photograph of myself when I was 2 years of age, and I don't recognize the person in the photograph. She doesn't look anything like me, and I can't find any trace of her in me physically. And yet I remember her very, very well — even her anxiety. Her brow is already creased, vertically not horizontally. The two sides of her brow are knitted together, seemingly falling toward each other, creating a cleft. I still have it. It hasn't gotten any deeper; it's just now permanent. But I look at the picture and think, where did she go?
I'm sure there's a chemist or physicist or somebody who studies cells and so on who could tell you all sorts of things about it, but it wouldn't be a very satisfactory explanation. It's something that's always obsessed me: Where do things go? How do things get old? And I started with that, I suppose, as the germ of the novel, a sort of scaffold, and sort of hung domestic life, the life of the family, on it. But mainly it's to do with time.
Q: And so the story of the family, including the decaying marriage at the center of it, is really subordinate to your thoughts about time.
A: Yes. You might be the first interviewer who hasn't started out by saying, "You were married to a composer, you have two children, you live in Vermont, so this must be about you." It's not about me. If I were going to write a book about me, believe me, I would say so.
Q: Reading the book, I was constantly struck by its unusual form, which seems to have been influenced by the writing of Gertrude Stein. Could you talk about your influences in the book?
A: The big influences on my writing are, first, the King James version of the Bible, which I read obsessively as a child because it was the only thing I had to read, really. I grew up in a place where books were very, very scarce, and I loved to read. I used to read the writing on my breakfast Ovaltine over and over again because it was in front of me, and I couldn't help but read anything that was in front of me. And I had my own little Bible, very small, and read it a lot, along with the Concise Oxford Dictionary, which my mother gave to me when I was 7. My emphasis on words — emphasizing words, isolating words, the way I want them to have another meaning other than the one immediately relevant — must come from that experience of reading the dictionary as a piece of literature.
Another influence is "Paradise Lost," which I had to copy as a punishment when I was 7 also. A lot of things happened to me when I was 7; it was the age when I was the most precocious and got into a lot of trouble with being put into situations where people tried to contain me physically because of my active mind. They thought if they could contain me physically, they could contain me intellectually. And yes, there's a connection to Stein. I think I read that she didn't grow up in a religious home, but the Hebrew Bible is clearly a big influence on her, particularly in the authorial authority she has, which is rather godlike. She exerts a tremendous, tyrannical force on the written word, so that you don't really question what she's doing. You're either a believer in Stein or not.
Finally I have to mention Charlotte Bronte, whose "Jane Eyre" was given to me to read, again as a punishment, at age 11.
Q: You must have been a rather naughty child, to have been punished by your parents and teachers so often.
A: In their eyes, I was a naughty child. But of course it wasn't really that I was naughty. I was curious, and there wasn't enough to satisfy my curiosity on a small island, a British colony where the resources were extremely limited. My family was poor. I was often the youngest person in my classes, but I always subverted the class by making my friends laugh, making fun of the teacher behind her back or something. You wouldn't call me naughty now; you would recognize me as someone who should be kept busy, intellectually. But in that colonial situation I grew up in, and being female, I obviously wasn't going to be the prime minister. I was going to be the prime minister's mistress, maybe; nothing, really, was meant to become of me. And so I probably misbehaved a lot, and certainly I was punished a lot.
Q: Copying "Paradise Lost" must have been quite daunting at that age.
A: The daunting part was that I didn't have any light. I grew up without electricity, so it was lamplight, and got very dark. The intellectual part of it wasn't daunting at all. We were expected to know all sorts of things at a quite early age, like the list of kings of England — and they were mostly kings — starting from the beginning. By that time I knew the Bible very well, and in fact the book of Revelation was a favorite of mine, because it was terrifying.
Q: There's also, in "See Now Then," a kind of mythical overlay, for example with the children's names, Persephone and Heracles. That's a modernist tendency, going back to James Joyce, reinventing old mythologies for contemporary purposes. Did you start out consciously with that strategy in mind?
A: Not consciously, no. I trust my unconscious more than my conscious. I think with the children's names, there was an indication of them never changing or evolving, which was basically conscious. Then I started to write about the view from the house where they lived, and the view involved, in my imagination, a house I could see, and the house was real. I remembered that house, which was rehabilitated by a man named Homer, a real person. All the description in the novel about Homer dying — I actually went to his funeral, and had those thoughts. And only long afterwards, I thought, "Oh my gosh, it's Homer." And there are also references to the Iliad and the Odyssey.