Moments of Transience in Long Stories

May 14, 2013 § 1 Comment

I’ve been thinking about the effect of transience in a longer work of fiction (or music, or whatever) — when a particular and particularly subtle moment is called into significance precisely through its briefness — and how hard it is to do well.

The problem is that it takes a lot of work, and a lot of content, to buttress a single moment to the point where it’s effectively transient. If you have one transient moment in a work that’s composed of similarly passing moments, then its transience is lost — it’s more a pulse in a rhythm, say. But when the world of a work is strong enough that something specific sticks out, the effect can be very poignant.

Let me give a few examples that will, hopefully, show why a transient moment can be such an interesting structural specimen.

Joyce’s “The Dead”

In the ending section of Joyce’s famous short story, Gretta, the wife of protagonist Gabriel, admits that a song they heard earlier in the night recalls to her a lost love — a boy who died for her. He coaxes a few aloof details from his wife (“He was in the gasworks,” she admits), and finally indulging her coldly, asks for the story:

“I think he died for me,” she answered.

A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world.

The idea is that a whole world — his wife’s past, and her past passions — have come vividly and inaccessibly to life. At once in the same fleeting confession, Gabriel gets a glimpse into his wife’s secret past, and senses his distance from it.

This is what I really mean when I refer to transience. “The Dead” is a long story — some 15,000 words — that details an entire Christmas party with all its characters and exchanges. But the core of the story’s sense of loss and absence is disclosed in a brief and reluctant confession.

Mozart’s 40th Symphony, Finale

This is the example that inspired this blog entry. In an interview with pianist Glenn Gould about Mozart (which I can’t find online anymore! Frustrating!), Gould describes a passage from the last movement of Mozart’s 40th Symphony as an “oasis in a desert of cliches” (I think). It’s a very short, sharp transitional passage (from the exposition to the development) where every one of the twelve notes is played except the G of the piece’s G Minor key.

Here’s the passage, at 3:57, but rewind a little for some ambience:

This is kind of a weird example because the phrase doesn’t recur through the piece, so it sticks out like a sore thumb. It serves a transitional role through sheer contrast.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

This might be the most famous example of transience in art. Proust’s long fictional recollection is kicked off when the narrator, Marcel, enjoys a madeleine soaked in tea. One passing sensation — the taste, the scent of lime blossom — kicks off the whole enormous exploration of the past.

The structural trick here is interesting because it’s a reversal of what you might expect. The transient moment unfolds into the entire story. It’s a passing occurrence, but it’s not set against anything that came before — it’s the foundation of what follows.

The Simpsons, “The Way We Was”

In the first Simpsons flashback episode, there’s a moment where even in retrospect, Marge and Homer’s whole future together threatens not to be. Homer tricks Marge into a date to prom, she finds out she was deceived (Homer didn’t really need French lessons), and she dumps him to go with Artie Ziff instead. Marge finds Homer weeping in the hall at prom:

Homer: I’m sure we were meant to be together. Usually when I have a thought, there’s a lot of other thoughts in there — some things say yes, some things say no. But this time, there’s only yes! How can the one thing I’ve never been more sure about in my life be wrong?

Marge Simpson: Hm. I don’t know. But it is.

Homer and Marge not together at prom

Homer and Marge not together at prom

What makes this scene so affecting is that (if you’re like me) you’ve seen Homer and Marge’s years together so many times that a moment like this — one that threatens to replace the couple’s many experiences with an abyss — is deeply unsettling.

Here, the keen sadness of Homer and Marge’s estrangement is made possible by all the time spent in episodes where their life together is taken for granted. With all that narrative work put into everything else in their lives — work, kids, hijinks — this foundational wobble is scary. It’s like watching Marty disappear from that photo of himself in Back to the Future.


Counterintuitively, it takes a lot of work to pull off a fleeting feeling in a work of fiction. The problem is that fleeting moments run against the grain of selective moments in storytelling. It’s impossible to convey the whole sturdy breadth of experience in writing, so the necessary shortcuts — of selective detail and precision — would seem to shutter creative possibilities that depend on life’s bulk. So when Gabriel’s life is successfully turned upside-down in “The Dead”, for example, that’s an impressive achievement. He never had a life to begin with! And yet Joyce created one so he could undermine it.

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