Dickens, a literary salon or Montmartre?

Text: Solveig Hansen, 2022

A time traveler’s dilemma: Great Expectations, a literary Saturday soirée or a glass of absinthe?

WRITING PROMPT: If you had a time machine that let you spend one hour in a different time period, where would you go?

“Coming back in time, changing history, that’s cheating” (young Kirk to future Spock in Star Trek while preparing for trans-warp beaming). At that time, Kirk of course didn’t know that he and his crew would do the same (well, at least they did in the original timeline) years later, when they travel back to 1986 San Francisco (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home) to find humpback whales, inventing transparent aluminum in the process, and bring the whales back to their own time to save the Earth.

The concept of time travel captures our imagination more than anything. We tend to forget that we already are time travelers, traveling into the future second by second. Still, it’s not every day you get an opportunity to travel to a different time period, even only for an hour. You might want to get a glimpse of what’s ahead of you or go back to relive an episode in your own life or witness a historic event.

If I were to travel into a time in the future, I would choose an Earth colony in space, there’s no question about that. But most of all, I would like to travel back in time and observe the events as they unfold, like a movie. There’s plenty to choose from:

– Fall of the Berlin Wall

– Woodstock

– Apollo 11 as she descends to the lunar surface

– The shores of Normandy on D-Day

– Titanic in her final hour

– The very first performance of Beethoven’s mighty 9th Symphony, with the deaf master himself on the stage

– Michelangelo at work in the Sistine Chapel

– The Great Library of Alexandria

– And the list goes on…

We could go back to 33 AD to see what really happened, or be a fly on the wall at the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD to witness the making of dogmas. Or go even further back, to the time of the creation of the first alphabet and the written word. Or why not go all the way and watch the very first sunrays as they hit the newborn Earth?

I don’t choose any of the above. Instead, I decide to snoop around for inspiration in the past to take with me as I write my way onwards. No inventing of transparent aluminum, no humpback whales, no tampering with the timeline, just one hour of pure creative input.

I’m torn between three choices:

I could visit Charles Dickens as he works on Great Expectations in his study at Gad’s Hill Place. “Good day to you, Sir,” I shall say. Maybe he’ll say, “Would you like a cup of tea, dear?” I would ask him about the characters in his books. Does he create a full bio for them before he starts the actual writing? Does he know the full story beforehand, or does the story reveal itself as he writes? I would ask him about the role of writers as voices of society vs. entertainers. Things like that. If I tell him that I come from the future, will he ask whether he is still remembered? “Do people still read my books?”

Or I could swing by a Saturday soirée at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris sometime in the 1920’s. Gertrude Stein’s place. Picasso, Matisse, Braque, Ernest Hemingway, Sherwood Anderson and F. Scott Fitzgerald might be there. Maybe I find Stein sitting in her chair with poodle Basket on her lap, while her companion Alice Toklas is entertaining the artists’ wives.

Decision time: In the end, I choose the Paris bohemians at the turn of the 20th century and walk among the writers and artists in Montmartre for an hour. I know we tend to romanticize them, but we need a few rebels from time to time. There may have been destruction, but there was also creation. I raise my glass of absinthe to that.

Where would you go?

Image: Gerd Altmann @ Pixabay

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