Where The Mild Things Are

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Not a one trick pony...

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Rich.

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Sep 28, 2017
Spain
I'm reading The Tailor of Panama by John le Carré (and thoroughly enjoying it), and I've been struck by his use of tense changes. He does things like the following, where the book is mostly in past but occasionally switches to present:

Dressing quickly, though with his customary care, Pendel hastened to the kitchen [...] an unspoken puritanism dictated that the master of the family make breakfast. [...]​

Then a helter-skelter of recrimination and farewells as Louisa, dressed but late for work at the Panama Canal Company Administration Building, leaps for her Peugeot and Pendel and the kids take to the Toyota and set off on the school rat run, left, right, right, left, down the steep hillside to the main road.​

Shorty after, you get this:

[...] in the sweetness of his own company, Pendel rejoins the highway and switches on his Mozart. And at once his awareness sharpens, as it tends to do as soon as he is alone.​

And you realise that the present-tense sections represent that sharpness. I still can't decide if I'm frustrated or in love with the technique. I'm certainly intrigued.

I'm curious about how much this kind of device has been used in other books that have sold many copies. Do you know of any other examples from commercial fiction that switch tenses?
 
I can't remember other examples, but I have certainly noticed how Le Carre does this, and followed his example in my own work. I think what he is doing (and certainly what I do) is using the real present tense as opposed to the historic present, which I dislike. What the historic present does is ask you to 'be' in the historic period of the writing. It's a gimmick much loved of TV producers. On the other hand I can't see any reason why a work of fiction set in the present or the future, should not ask us to live alongside the characters of the book. Why should we use the past tense when writing about the future?
 
Sounds like an interesting concept. Something to play around and experiment with, methinks.

I haven't come across it in English books, but that doesn't mean a thing. I'm not exactly well read compared to many of you Litopians. But I have a vague, teenaged memory of reading a German author who was fairly free with tenses. (But that's not really helpful for you, I guess)
 
Did le Carré know what he was doing? I read some of his stuff years ago, but found it tedious despite his success.
Apparently Tolkein wasn't too hot on narrative viewpoint! (info courtesy of Agent Pete on pop-up session)
Being successful isn't always proof of good writing skill.
 
If someone writes well enough, they can do things that lesser writers cannot get away with. I think that appllies to switching tenses. If it works, go for it If it confuses the reader, find another way - or study how someone has done it successfully and emulate their technique. Le Carre is someone I consider worth studying, but that's my opinion. If we all liked the same things, the world would be boring.
 
I have certainly noticed how Le Carre does this ... I think what he is doing (and certainly what I do) is using the real present tense as opposed to the historic present, which I dislike.
I must admit, I don't really understand the difference, Richard. I know you've explained it above, but could you stick up a couple of examples to help me get my head round it?

Le Carré also mixed tenses in The Constant Gardner (interesting article in the Guardian about it here), and also in A Delicate Truth. But I have the feeling (I may be wrong) that he was playing by different rules each time.

Did le Carré know what he was doing?
Whether or not his work is any good (show me a fan; I'll show you a critic), he clearly knows what he's doing, did do, does do, will do, etc.

But anyway, le Carré can't be the only commercially successful author to mix up the tenses, can he?
 
I must admit, I don't really understand the difference, Richard. I know you've explained it above, but could you stick up a couple of examples to help me get my head round it?

Le Carré also mixed tenses in The Constant Gardner (interesting article in the Guardian about it here), and also in A Delicate Truth. But I have the feeling (I may be wrong) that he was playing by different rules each time.


Whether or not his work is any good (show me a fan; I'll show you a critic), he clearly knows what he's doing, did do, does do, will do, etc.

But anyway, le Carré can't be the only commercially successful author to mix up the tenses, can he?
I haven't got time to find quotes, but here's my take on the difference:
Historic present: "TV pundit: 'The date is 1066 and William is getting ready for battle.'"
Real present: "I'm writing this sitting on all that remains of William's castle."
 
Changing tenses within a chapter caused me problems, when writing my first novel in 2013, for while describing a serial killer stalking his next victim, I had him remembering previous killings from his days as a soldier. Bouncing around between the present tense and historic tense saw me with a bad case of 'Haditis'! In one short paragraph of five sentences, I'd used 'had' nine times. What I'd written was grammatically correct, but looked horrible and was a nightmare to read. I solved the issue by placing my killer's memories in separate paragraphs.

'Had' is given the boot these days, for modern writers like to make the action sound immediate, which sometimes has me wondering when something I've read actually occurred—was it just now or two years ago? Philip Pullman got his knickers in a twist about overuse of the present tense:

Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense
 
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Nice article, Paul. I found it compelling. I'd like to hear someone argue it passionately from the other side.
 
I'm surprised it's not done more, because we change tenses all the time when we talk and it never causes confusion. Possibly the reason children write that way and someone like me has to tell them how wrong they are... but are they? Consider your average water-cooler story:

Yeah, I was in a bar last night and we were all enjoying a pint, when this bloke comes in, giving it all that. I put my drink down and next thing I know, he's right there in front of me and he's ranting about politics... etc.

I really love that narrative flow going from one to the other. Stand up comics use it a lot, but I can't think of any written examples.
 
No, me neither, and I still can't believe le Carré is the only mainstream writer switching up tenses. I loved your observation, Colin. It's scene setting and action, isn't it?

We spent all day building the stage, setting the lights and hanging the curtain. Everyone was freaking out that no one would show up. Everyone was bricking it. But eight o'clock arrived and the seats were full. You could hear the grins breaking out backstage. At eight-fifteen on the dot, the curtain went up. And on she comes, singing that song we wrote. She tip-toes to the spotlight, dances a twirl, and the whole damn audience sucks in its breath.

I'd never thought of it like that before. You've just expanded my mind. :)
 
Both passages are in present tense which I think is sort of what Richard Turner is saying. We do the same thing when we’re writing in past tense. We switch between types of past tense to indicate that something happened in the distant past opposed to the more immediate past.

He could have said, ‘Louisa is dressing’ but it doesn’t mean the same as ‘Louisa dressed’. He isn’t talking about something which is currently being done but rather describing Louisa’s state as in ... Louisa is dressed. After that she leaps and takes .. both present tense.

In the preceding paragraph it’s more difficult for me to tell because parts are missing. But i wonder if the second clause to those sentences has a present tense verb.
 
Yeah, I did a pretty rude job of hacking up the text. The book starts using typical past forms – Pendel wakes up and has a scene with his wife in the bedroom. Then he moves to the kitchen and we get the change of verb form to present (the first present simple verb being leaps). But two pages later you realise that everything from...

Then a helter-skelter of recrimination and farewells

...up to the moment when Pendel is sitting in his car having dropped everyone off is actually Pendel reflecting in that moment about what's just happened. The change of verb form is also a jump forward in time from the kitchen to later when Pendel is sitting in traffic.

I guess, by @Richard Turner's definition, all this is the historic present. The book is told in the past, but we slip into present verb forms when Pendel, the protagonist, is alone (and thinking).
 
Yeah, I did a pretty rude job of hacking up the text. The book starts using typical past forms – Pendel wakes up and has a scene with his wife in the bedroom. Then he moves to the kitchen and we get the change of verb form to present (the first present simple verb being leaps). But two pages later you realise that everything from...

Then a helter-skelter of recrimination and farewells

...up to the moment when Pendel is sitting in his car having dropped everyone off is actually Pendel reflecting in that moment about what's just happened. The change of verb form is also a jump forward in time from the kitchen to later when Pendel is sitting in traffic.

I guess, by @Richard Turner's definition, all this is the historic present. The book is told in the past, but we slip into present verb forms when Pendel, the protagonist, is alone (and thinking).

Trying to figure out verb forms hurts my head. I try to go by what sounds right and then look things up when there's something I can't figure out.

When I was answering questions for students they often had exercises with verb forms and I always ended up believing it was a type of torture, an exercise destined to end with the student hating English. It was always the remedial students who had to go through more of these sort of exercises. If they felt they couldn't get it before they certainly would by the end of class. Which, is the tragedy of education.. at least in the United States. Honors students are allowed to follow their passions a great deal of the time while remedial students are often widgeted to death.

Did you see the movie? I thought it was good.
 
Both passages are in present tense which I think is sort of what Richard Turner is saying. We do the same thing when we’re writing in past tense. We switch between types of past tense to indicate that something happened in the distant past opposed to the more immediate past.

He could have said, ‘Louisa is dressing’ but it doesn’t mean the same as ‘Louisa dressed’. He isn’t talking about something which is currently being done but rather describing Louisa’s state as in ... Louisa is dressed. After that she leaps and takes .. both present tense.

In the preceding paragraph it’s more difficult for me to tell because parts are missing. But i wonder if the second clause to those sentences has a present tense verb.
Just to add to the confusion, 'Louisa is dressing' is present continuous. Evidently this tense is a speciality of English. Did you mean to say 'Louisa dresses' which is the normal present tense, but we also use it for something which happens regularly. There's probably a name for this as well, but I can't remember it. 'Louisa is dressed' could also mean she has clothes on, or as if she were a foodstuff with dressing on it!
 
Honors students are allowed to follow their passions a great deal of the time while remedial students are often widgeted to death.
I think some version of this is true in most places (unfortunately).

Did you see the movie? I thought it was good.
I haven't. But I plan to as soon as I've finished the book.

[Did you notice how I changed the tense of your question in my answer? That's an American/British thing I think -- 'did you ever...?' vs 'have you ever...?']

--

Just to add to the confusion, 'Louisa is dressing' is present continuous. Evidently this tense is a speciality of English. Did you mean to say 'Louisa dresses' which is the normal present tense, but we also use it for something which happens regularly. There's probably a name for this as well, but I can't remember it.
Present simple -- used for habits and general statements of truth (I go swimming on Thursdays; I live on a spaceship), and by authors in the now.

'Louisa is dressed' could also mean she has clothes on, or as if she were a foodstuff with dressing on it!
Or that she's a Christmas Tree. :)
 
I haven't. But I plan to as soon as I've finished the book.

[Did you notice how I changed the tense of your question in my answer? That's an American/British thing I think -- 'did you ever...?' vs 'have you ever...?']

I did not and actually have no idea what is correct. But I do enjoy collecting UK/American discrepancies.
 
Just to add to the confusion, 'Louisa is dressing' is present continuous. Evidently this tense is a speciality of English. Did you mean to say 'Louisa dresses' which is the normal present tense, but we also use it for something which happens regularly. There's probably a name for this as well, but I can't remember it. 'Louisa is dressed' could also mean she has clothes on, or as if she were a foodstuff with dressing on it!

I meant -- Louisa is dressed. Meaning... the woman is fully clothed...:) ...describing a state as opposed to something being done or in process ... in the past or the present or the future.
 
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Where The Mild Things Are

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