Book of the week: On Borrowed Time

John Gilbey welcomes this study of zero hour throughout the ages

January 22, 2009

When an editor whose patience you have repeatedly tried sends you a book about deadlines, you might be forgiven for thinking that mind games are being played.

I found myself in this position recently and opened On Borrowed Time with a degree of trepidation. As it turned out I need not have worried, as this excellent book by Harald Weinrich is far removed from the rather pointed self-help title I had been concerned about receiving.

In my view, any tome that starts with a discussion of Hippocrates, Socrates and Plato and ends with an analysis of the 1998 film Run Lola Run has to be worthy of closer study. This one does not disappoint.

Weinrich gives himself a very broad canvas - the impact that shortness of time has had on humanity across history - and he fills it well. He uses an unhurried, easy and assured narrative style to tease out the complex nature of how we perceive time in natural and contrived situations.

The inexorable passage of time and the shortness of human life were obsessions long before our prevailing, almost neurotic, preoccupation with the subject. Weinrich takes examples of thought from a range of periods, countries and cultures to illustrate how we reached our current range of mindsets.

From deeply, almost innately, familiar aphorisms and gnomic maxims such as "Life is short, art is long", the author moves us forward through the centuries, stopping off at interesting points along the way, such as Benjamin Franklin's assertion that "Time is money." He dips into factual and fictional material throughout the book.

The journey is far from linear, however, with characters and cultures from wildly different times being measured against each other with interesting results.

At one point I was left with a vivid picture in my head of this book as an intensely upmarket version of Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure - taking the best in original thought and analysis from many ages, then combining it to deliver a modern context for the material.

The need to manage our use of time to best effect is discussed in a similar fashion. The impact of "public" timekeeping via mechanical instruments from about 1300 onwards and the concept of time having an economic value points us towards our current digitally delineated existence.

It is interesting to see through Weinrich's text how early in the development of timekeeping technologies that concern was expressed about their impact on society and family life.

In addition, those of us who have over recent years enrolled on time-management courses might take some comfort from the knowledge that recipes for these principles were being stoutly propounded by aristocratic English fathers as far back as the 1700s, so that their heirs might develop an understanding of the "true value of time". With the benefit of hindsight, it makes you wonder just how effective their advice was.

As a person well over the assumed midpoint of life - if you rely on the Psalmist's expectation of three score years and ten - I read the next section with some woe. It deals with the point in life where you acknowledge that you are over the hill, past your sell-by date and on the way out with your best years behind you.

Not surprisingly, various familiar Faustian stories are related at this point, along with a look at how various authors have personally viewed their declining years or have dealt with the lack of them. Piteous diary entries from wildly talented but despairing writers bemoaning "lost" time do little to make the reader feel better in these dark winter days, but once again the style of the narrative is warm and encouraging.

Limited time as a concept in the Judaeo-Christian tradition and the parallel revolutionary thoughts of Karl Marx lead into discussions of critical timing - where hugely important outcomes turn on a knife-edge of time. Emile Zola is used as one of our guides as we are introduced to a starkly modern world where market speculation - perhaps the ultimate time-critical transaction - has emerged as the pivot point for scandal, turbulence and human loss.

By the time the complexities of living with deadlines in today's society are discussed, we have been comprehensively softened up by the author. Perhaps because of the training I had been given in preceding chapters, I found that I enjoyed being a guest in his slightly idiosyncratic - certainly highly individual - world, so that a diversion into the concept of time within civil law seemed perfectly in train with the discussion.

In a similar manner, the imagery of life's journey as a path through a foggy, wild forest, full of tangled undergrowth and allowing no clear view of the road ahead, is profoundly effective. To reinforce the way our concepts of time have been developed and illustrated through literature, Weinrich includes a set of synopses of stories and films where shortness of time plays a role in defining the outcome.

The works cited range from One Thousand and One Nights through to Run Lola Run by way of The Merchant of Venice, an elegant short story by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days and the comedy Boeing-Boeing. This truly eclectic mix gives a strong flavour of the way the author has approached his theme, with no source being too familiar or too obscure for inclusion.

Mention must be made at this point of the highly skilled translation provided by Steven Rendall for this edition, the original German text having been published in 2005. The move from German to English has been achieved successfully and (for the reader at least) painlessly. It has given a fluid yet self-consistent voice to the author, and Rendall is to be congratulated on the way he has gone about achieving this challenging task.

As an example of his attention to detail, where key quotations have been translated, the original text is presented as well to give the reader an opportunity to look back and check the translator's assumptions.

The individual topics in the book are well structured, almost episodic, and there is a feeling that the reader is following a set of lectures. Although we weren't convinced about attending them at the outset, we find we increasingly look forward to them week by week.

The elements have been carefully crafted and combine to create a highly personal and deeply human compendium.

I believe that the structure and style of this book would lend itself well to being adapted for the screen, either as a single banquet or as a selection of very tasty snacks. If there is anyone out there looking to produce a high-quality, slightly quirky philosophical programme with a recognisably European flavour, then I strongly suggest that you take a look at this book and seek to secure the rights.

Think of something in the graphic style of Jacob Bronowski's The Ascent of Man presented in high definition for a BBC Four audience - it could easily turn out to be a landmark piece. Oh, and I'd love to do the screenplay.

THE AUTHOR

Harald Weinrich is emeritus professor of literature at the College de France, where he was previously the holder of a chair in Romance literature. Before that, he held positions at Bielefeld University and at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. He gained his doctorate and habilitation from the University of Munster.

As might be expected of a champion of interdisciplinary research, Weinrich has produced books whose content ranges from literature and language to forgetfulness and time.

He is also a passionate advocate of learning new languages - in 1985 he set up the Adelbert von Chamisso Prize, a literary award for non-German authors who write in the German language. Weinrich learnt French as a prisoner of war, and he believes that a strong language-learning motivation arises not from a scholarly impulse but rather grows out of necessity and curiosity.

On Borrowed Time - The Art and Economy of Living with Deadlines

By Harald Weinrich

The University of Chicago Press

256pp, £19.00

ISBN 9780226886015

Published 12 December 2008

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