Book review

Time and Time Again (James Hilton)

I read this lovely book about a month ago now. I had read Hilton before — Goodbye, Mr. Chips and Lost Horizon — but this one had been on the shelf for a while, along with several other Hilton books I’ve picked up over the years at the Book Thing.

I don’t know if they write books like this anymore. I would think not. There isn’t the time. 

What this is is a slow, quiet, gentle unfolding of a character. Just like getting to know a person in real life, we are introduced to Charles Anderson in little bits and starts. And the Charles we meet at the beginning — stuffy, stodgy, fussy, overly careful — is not the Charles we know by the end — wise, compassionate, sad, kind. There are in Charles’s character some hints of the good Mr. Chips (who makes a very brief cameo as the headmaster of Charles’s public school at Brookfield), and there is a similarity in the loves of the two characters’ lives: both of these quiet men fall in love with dashing, larger-than-life women, seemingly beyond their reach, who come to them relatively late in life, love them, lift them up, laugh with them, and then leave them too soon.  

Despite the similarities, the book is not a retelling of Chips. It tells of Charles Anderson, his growth, his life, his times, his family, all in an unhurried, touching narrative. Like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, its focus on detail leaves you with the desire to pay more attention to the quiet and small, to be more aware of the passing scene. I am pretty sure they don’t write books like this anymore.

Charles, like James Hilton himself, is born with the new century in 1900. Hilton died the year after publishing this book, in 1954, of liver cancer. It is a book of looking back, a middle-aged book. Charles’s life is retold in three long flashbacks, bookended and separated by brief interludes in present-day Paris where Charles is meeting his just-come-of-age son. The titles of the flashback sequences derive from spoken and unspoken thoughts going through Charles’s mind during the Parisian scenes; these titles — “Nothing to Complain Of,” “Run of the Mill,” and “Till It Was All Over” — bespeak Charles’s modesty and British reserve. The events described in the sequences give us the young Charles, the maturing Charles, the post-war Charles, and are poignant and evocative. I was looking to balance the sentimentality and seriousness of those descriptors by adding that the incidents described are also funny, and rich, and real, but the words that come to mind in trying to summon up Hilton’s prose are not dynamic and hard-consonant-laden. Instead, words like “rueful” and “wistful” and “bittersweet” come to mind. 

We watch the young Charles, steady and perennially falling short of expectations — chiefly those of his mad, colorful, and often cruel father — grow into a man who trades first love and an artistic idyll for a diplomat’s portfolio. The futility of that choice, as evidenced by the second world war and Charles’s lack of a mark on his world as he is ultimately passed by and passed over in his profession, is keenly documented. But this is, as I said, a middle-aged book, and success is not measured by Charles’s material gains. We come to respect Charles as he slowly — so slowly, so realistically — grows up, grows wise, goes on. We watch as Charles, beaten down, betrayed, and undermined by his father over many years, turns the tables on their power struggle, not with vengeance or malice, but with humor and understanding — and, ultimately, warmth and even respect and love. It is an amazing arc, and utterly believable, fueled by adult insights layered over childish perceptions. 

The most striking episode for me in the book was the startling and stark descriptions of wartime London. Hilton makes the blitz very real, very terrifying, and very immediate, in a way I had never read before. And he does so without ever raising his voice, as it were. Just matter-of-fact descriptions of ordinary people living in extraordinary times, coping, managing, getting through.

Another notable sequence comes toward the end when Charles is asked in the last present-day sequence, “What sort of life have you had?”  And he responds, with reserve, “…But as for calling my life — as a whole — unhappy, I’d certainly say no to that. Oh, definitely no — at least nothing to complain of, mainly run of the mill…” And then, Charles discreetly folds back the curtain before he reveals too much. The unspoken “till it was all over” melancholically colors the scene.

Dipping back into the book just now for quotes and reference, I found myself again caught up in its tone and style of having made one’s peace with the world. I know they don’t write books like this anymore.

13 thoughts on “Time and Time Again (James Hilton)”

  1. I’m always glad to read anything about James Hilton. He is one of my favourite authors, and one that I discovered for myself. I admit I don’t remember Time And Time Again, it must be one of the first books of his that I read which I haven’t re-read since. But I remember some parts, and I certainly recognize the tone. It is a unique voice which may be out of fashion, and possibly not to everyone’s taste, and maybe not even all that good or important – but I like it a lot.

    1. I had never heard of it before reading it and was surprised — and I think a little saddened — to find it was his last book; that information kind of colored the reading experience for me. I agree with you about the voice — in fact, your comment is proffered very much IN his voice. I plan to read the other Hilton books I have on the shelf — Random Harvest, Morning Journey, So Well Remembered, and The Story of Dr. Wassell — and will post my impressions. Thank you for writing; your thoughts are much appreciated.

  2. The Story of Dr Wassell: left me a bit disappointed. The rest: all very good, and at least one is excellent.

    What I like about Hilton are his quiet protagonists – restrained, reserved, maybe even secretive, except that nobody would believe they’d carry a secret. Often, the stories are told in retrospect, and sometimes, people find about that secret and sometimes they don’t.
    A good example is And Now Good-Bye. From the prologue we learn (my summary):

    Howat Freemantle, a British clergyman, is praised by the press, by his wife and daughter, by the people of the village he lives in, for a heroic deed. Travelling from London by train, he was in a rail accident, 14 dead. Even more people would have lost their lives if it hadn’t been for him, desparately trying to get people out of the burning carriages. His action is presented as even more laudable since he did not even know any of the other passengers. Ah yes, and among the charred bodies were two unaccounted for, both female.

    Throughout the prologue we never hear Freemantle himself, who has grown very quiet after the accident.

    — The rest of the novel tells of the events that led up to that accident. And who the women were. Incidentally, it took me a dozen years to find out. I had read the first few pages in a book found (and left) in a youth hostel, then forgot the book’s title and only much later – by then, the WWW had been invented – got hold of a copy.

    I apologize for the lenghty comment, but Hilton is a pet subject of mine, and I don’t find many people reading him.

    1. That book sounds amazing! I’m going to have to find it. Thanks for telling me about it.

      I like to think that by quietly nattering on about James Hilton over here, in this tiny, secluded corner of the Internet, we may be fomenting a little revival and stirring up some interest in his work. Let’s see what happens…

  3. I first saw the film Goodbye, Mr. Chips when I was a twenty-something young man. I loved it (even at that age, I had a fondness for such fare). It never occurred to me to look for the book- didn’t even know there was one, until last year, when I bought a box of old magazines and books…and found an old printing. I was tickled, and sat down to read, with no particularly high expectations.
    What a wonderful surprise I had. The book was easily a match for the film; sentimental, but never cloying; gentle, but not soft; wise, but quietly so, sneaking up on you. I was knock out by how good it was (and yes, I shed a tear or two; at any age, I have a fondness for such fare).
    After stumbling across this review of Time, And TIme Again, I have decided to plan a visit to my local used book store…I will look for this book – along with Lost Horizions, which I did not know was written by Hilton. Thanks for putting me on the trail of what sounds like a good and rewarding read.

    1. What a lovely post; thank you for this. I hope you have much pleasure as you read through Hilton: he is indeed as you say, sentimental but never cloying. What really intrigues and delights me about this is that you found more Hilton from me, and I from a post four years ago on my blog from Herr Rau — this reignites for me the wonder of the Internet with its ability to create shared communities of interest across space and time. Enjoy.

  4. I just stumbled upon your blog. James Hilton has been one of my favourite authors for years and Random Harvest my all time favourite (I can heartily recommend it). Enjoyed your review of Time & Time Again, thank you.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words! I recently finished So Well Remembered: a slight book, perhaps, but such a pleasure to read. Hilton’s characters are just so interesting, so sympathetic, so stalwart and stoic and yet so genteel and appealing. A pleasure to spend time with them. And a privilege. I will indeed try Random Harvest soon — thank you!

  5. For an early work that is somewhat different, I recommend Dawn of Reckoning (Rage In Heaven), made into a flawed, but interesting film with Ingrid Bergman.

    1. Thank you for informing that Rage in Heaven was based on JH’s Dawn of Reckoning.
      I will ask the local library to get the book.
      Just read Nothing so Strange. Preferred Random Harvest which I have re read it many times

  6. I loved the poem in ‘Time and Time Again’ given in rebuttal to Joyce Kilmer’s ‘Trees,’ which began: “I think however well you know ’em, trees are not lovely as a poem.” The author, having visited America briefly, but not long enough to have learned the correct pronunciation of ‘Yosemite,’ wrote: “And even in the Yosemite, where trees are nearly out of sight.” When his pronunciation was challenged by a friend, he promptly changed the couplet to read: “And even in the Yosemite, where trees are in the extremity.”

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