This perpetually uneasy, occasionally unhealthy, relationship makes the subject fertile ground for creative exploration, and artists, particularly writers, have trafficked there for centuries. While Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu is perhaps the greatest attempt at reckoning with the life gone by, another favorite of mine is T. S. Eliot’s last major work, Four Quartets. The cycle, written between 1935 and 1942, is built around four locations from Eliot’s past that hold special significance for him. The work has many themes, though few are as emphatic as humanity’s complex relationship to time. Eliot enigmatically declares his postulates at the start of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the four poems:
Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
Georgi Gospodinov’s 2020 novel, Time Shelter, now available in a seamless English translation by Angela Rodel, shares its DNA with Four Quartets. The Bulgarian writer too sees a world where time future contains, and actually becomes, time past via the recreation of locations — first clinics, then entire societies — where individuals can go to recapture earlier eras of their lives. Gospodinov extends the conceit even further by contemplating entire countries, and eventually all of Europe, opting voluntarily to return to specific points in their past.
The novel asks a lot of intriguing questions but doesn’t provide many answers, leaving readers to come to their own conclusions. For a novel so steeped in layers of nostalgia, this open-endedness works well because every reader brings different experiences of the past and so will have different opinions and reactions to interpretations of it. Gospodinov can also feel unfocused, however, as if he has too much on his mind or is too enamored of what he finds there to linger long enough to provide any answers. This tendency was most acute in the novel’s intentionally meandering metafictional conclusion, written as the mind of the author/narrator is fighting against forgetting. It is a conceit — the writer writing about writing the novel we are reading — that is so overdone at this point that authors who go there should say something new. Gospodinov doesn’t. Despite what didn’t work for me, the novel as a whole poses a fascinating hypothetical: What if we as a society become so afraid of what lies ahead that we condemn ourselves to reliving our familiar pasts, despite knowing the horrors they contain and the destinations where they lead? And what if we are already heading in that direction?
That our narrator is an avatar of Gospodinov himself slowly emerges from textual hints, like the fact that both are Bulgarians with the initials G.G., and the similarities between the narrator’s physical journey in the novel and Gospodinov’s acknowledgments section at its conclusion. Gaustine, the novel’s catalyst and only other consistent character, is another incarnation of the narrator (and thus Gospodinov), who is described as an omnipresent “invisible friend, more real and visible than my very self.” For the narrator, Gaustine is both confidante, someone to bounce ideas off of in internal conversations, and enabler, a gateway to different eras and ideas. G.G. writes that he dreamed up Gaustine at an unspecified point, materializing to have him “sign his name beneath three lines that came to me […] as if from another time.” But in a Kundera-like animation, G.G. meets his imaginary creation face-to-face at a seaside literary seminar in early September 1989, where Gaustine, who hails from an abandoned house in a small town at the foothills of the Balkan Mountains, nurses a single coffee creamer over the course of an otherwise boozy, boisterous evening. After the rush of revolutions that cap the year (“a slew of things […] that have already been written and described ad nauseam”), G.G. and Gaustine begin exchanging letters, though the latter writes as if he is living in different times, first 1929 and then 1939, when he informs G.G. that Hitler is massing troops on the Polish border.
The men next meet in Zurich, where Gaustine has started “a little clinic of the past,” where it is always the “middle-class ’60s,” in order to help Alzheimer’s patients. He chose Switzerland because he believes its historic neutrality allowed it to pass through time unscathed, “without the identifying marks that keep you in a certain era.” The country also has a robust euthanasia industry, so anyone wanting to reinhabit their past before voluntarily shuffling off would be “ready to pay to die happy.” The clinic has a room “only for boys,” with Matchbox cars and sports posters, and “a girls’ room, too, if you want to check out Barbie and Ken.” There is a living room with chocolates from the ’60s and a typewriter, and so on. While Gaustine makes the obvious point that “not every past and not every youth was like this,” G.G. is taken in by the project (remember: they are aspects of the same personality) and becomes his assistant, “a collector of the past,” gathering memories and impressions, even sounds and smells, because what is important is to help the patient recreate their entire past, not simply build a replica. “The past is not just that which happened to you. Sometimes it is that which you just imagined.”
Soon there are other clinics, including one in Bulgaria where Mr. N, who remembers little of his past, is a patient. Mr. A, however, who interrogated Mr. N for years, knows everything that happened in the man’s life, and so is put in the position of doling out the details of Mr. N’s past, once again giving him control over the man’s future and raising questions about agency and the power of narrative. “Without being able to formulate it clearly, [Mr. A] senses that if no one remembers, then everything is permissible. ‘If no one remembers’ becomes the equivalent of ‘If there is no God.’”
But Gaustine and Gospodinov have bigger designs, and these compelling inquiries are set aside. The clinics, which expand to cover different decades, begin allowing healthy people to live in them with their loved ones. G.G. concludes that Gaustine’s obsessions have turned him into a “monster,” someone no longer satisfied with only clinics and campuses. G.G. fears a world where whole cities and perhaps nations turn back the clock, a concept that, he metafictionally muses, could even become the seed for a short novel. (Your tolerance for such fourth-wall-breaking moments will vary, but they grow increasingly indulgent.)
The rest of Time Shelter is essentially this hypothetical short novel and its creation. The EU, confronting creeping nationalism, decides that, rather than face the uncertainties of what lies ahead, each country will hold a referendum to choose which decade of their past will constitute their future. They see the choice as “living together in a shared past, which we have already done, or letting ourselves fall apart and slaughtering one another, which we have also already done.”
G.G. returns to Bulgaria to document the lead-up to its referendum, reconnecting with an old friend who is stage-managing purportedly spontaneous events, including dueling rallies in support of the Soc movement, which want to “bring back the time of mature socialism, more specifically the 1960s and ’70s,” and the Heroes, a group that favors a return to “a late, idealized Bulgarian Revival Period, whose apex is the April Uprising of 1876.” After recalling how, when they were growing up, G.G. and his friend would sell naked pictures of neighborhood girls to Komsomol members, they turn to more germane matters, such as the mental gymnastics necessary to embrace the past, namely ignoring certain aspects of it. “Forgetting takes a lot of work. You have to constantly remember that you are supposed to forget something. Surely that’s how every ideology functions.”
Gospodinov, to his credit or folly, covers the referendum results for every country in Europe, positing how he imagines each would have voted — France and Spain choose the 1980s, Portugal opts for the 1970s, and so on. He even includes, for some reason, a sloppily hand-annotated map. After the votes, Gaustine slowly disappears back into 1939, though excerpts from his professional writing appear occasionally, including a painfully relatable chapter about “Absentee Syndrome,” basically a FOMO for all of time, which concludes: “A person is not built to live in the prison of one body and one time.” (If I had tattoos, I would seriously consider imprinting this on my one-body prison.)
What we are left with is G.G. writing as his mind crumbles, in a final chapter mashing up pseudo-philosophy, autofiction, random asides, pithy observations, and more amateurish sketches, including a bunch of faces and a shelf of books. “I’m trying to finish a book about memory receding and … I’m hurrying to finish it, before I forget what it is actually about.” It is one man’s time shelter as a preening journal of deep thoughts, including familiar musings about ginkgo leaves and the Rose Reading Room in New York City. But perhaps the biggest sour note is the last, through no real fault of the author’s — a bizarre recreation of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, played by an actor, that goes off the rails and somehow sets off another war. It is risible to read this passage about a single killing sparking mass slaughter when every day we learn about large-scale atrocities in Ukraine committed by Russians who invaded without provocation, and yet the West has not even made a pretense toward decisive action. The murder of one obscurely famous man in our world would not even merit a complete news cycle.
What is true, however, is that we have grown so afraid of the future that we can’t even retreat into the past. Instead, we have chosen inertia on any number of issues. On Russian aggression. On climate change. Would it be better to fracture our futures and live disconnected in past decades of our choosing? Perhaps, but Gospodinov points out that recapturing lost time, redeeming the unredeemable, comes at a cost, too. And our current world doesn’t want to pay for a single thing, and so we wait, unsheltered, hoping that all manner of things shall be well.
Cory Oldweiler is a freelance writer and editor.