Endless Exile

What would it be like to live, and work, and fall in love if your life were 15 times longer than the average human?

Photo illustration, collage of archival photos of a man obscured, waving goodbye.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Library of Congress.

What is it like to live so long that you outpace your own era? Samuel Beckett, that reactionary to modernist excess, died in December 1989, old enough that he might have watched the music video for Madonna’s “Like a Prayer.” Would he have bopped along to the beat? Once, decades later, I thought I shouldered past him in a Parisian bookshop, shriveled but still handsome as a goshawk. It can’t have been Beckett, but if it was, he must have felt as much a stranger in my time as I did in his city.

Similar concerns preoccupy Tom Hazard—who has sometimes gone by John Frears, sometimes by Edward Cribbs, and sometimes by other names still—the narrator and protagonist of Matt Haig’s new novel How to Stop Time. Hazard was born in 1581, the child of minor French aristocrats. Soon after he hits puberty, he discovers that he has a rare disorder, one eventually known as “anageria,” that leaves him aging at roughly one-fifteenth the ordinary human rate. We meet him as he is now, a grudging inhabitant of the 21st century, resembling a spry fortysomething, but with eyes that are far older. Anageria is no blessing; long life, he finds, almost inevitably entails a kind of endless exile.

In telling Hazard’s story, Haig skips back and forth in time, from the present day to the distant past and from then to now. The lengths of these chapters vary erratically, as if to suggest that some memories bare down on us more than others, just as some experiences rush by in a flash while others never leave us. Sometimes, though, Haig pauses to list the things Hazard has lived through, nouns spooling out like a comically protracted Billy Joel verse: “Trains, telephones, photographs, electric lightbulbs, TV shows, computers, rockets to the moon. Skyscrapers. Einstein. Gandhi. Napoleon. Hitler. Civil rights. Tchaikovsky. Rock. Jazz. Kind of Blue. Revolver.” On the page, this goes on for several lines longer, culminating with a thud: “Donald Trump.” The present, Haig suggests, has a way of intruding, no matter how long you’ve lived, but the past inevitably undercuts it. If you’ve been through enough, Hazard tells us, “You understand quite completely that the main lesson of history is: humans don’t learn from history.”

Hazard, for his own part, has been through a great deal. A talented musician, he plays for a time at the Globe Theatre, strumming at his lute during the first performances of As You Like It. In the 18th century, he sails with Captain Cook, befriending an islander named Omai who shares his condition. One hundred-some years later, he meets Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald at a bar, where they convince him to try a Bloody Mary before vanishing into the crowd. Mostly, though, he drifts. How could he linger? He shares more with ancient bristlecone pines and Greenland sharks than he does with the fragile humans around him.

There is something refreshing about Hazard’s liminality. Too many of our fictional immortals fancy themselves masters of the universe. Hazard, by contrast, is quick to note that he is no “sexy vampire.” Long as he has lived, he accumulates neither wealth nor fame, his only treasure an Elizabethan penny that reminds him of his daughter, another anageriac for whom he has spent centuries searching. But if time leaves little mark on Hazard’s body, it still weighs him down. Most of all, he is haunted by the murder of his mother, drowned as a witch in the 16th century, her last words to him a directive that he should live on in her place.

Hazard may not be a hero, then, but he is a compelling survivor. Over the centuries, he has learned the rules: The first is that you stay out of sight, of course, and another is that you never stay in place long enough to be seen. “I have been so many different people, played so many different roles in my life,” he tells us at one point. “I am not a person. I am a crowd in one body.” The most important rule is the one imparted on him by another anageriac just after he passes the 300-year mark: never fall in love. Living alone may be painful, but loving can be fatal. It can only bind you to a world that is always flitting by.

This is a romantic novel, though, albeit one of an unusually subdued sort, so he does, of course, fall in love. That budding feeling is his way back to personhood, his path to really living again, and not just enduring. It begins not long after he steps into his latest identity, one that finds him serving as a history teacher in London where he hopes, as he puts it, “to tame the past.” He is very bad at his job, seemingly incapable of discussing earlier days except through the lens of his own experience. (When he tells his students about Shakespeare, he slips up, noting that the bard had bad breath. How could you possibly know that? they rightly wonder.) At the school, though, he meets Camille, a French teacher beset by her own tragedies who appears to be just about the age he claims to be, and who seems to know more about him than she should.

Haig spins their courtship out slowly, attentive to the measured pace of growing familiarity rather than the explosive bursts of timeless passion. As he does, Hazard keeps drifting back to his past romance with his long-dead wife, Rose. “Music,” he remembers telling Rose, “is about controlling time.” Rose, “the wisest person I ever knew,” quickly turns this formulation on its head. “But we are all at the mercy of time,” she responds. “We are all the strings, aren’t we?” Soon enough, she leads him to a compromise: “A kiss,” she teaches him, “is like music. It stops time.”

This phrase is the closest Haig comes to letting his characters swoon. Love, he knows, is typically as fraught as it is frustrating, whether we live to 900 or die young. More often, he saves his most rapturous phrases for Hazard’s observations on the steady rhythm of human repetition. “In the same way every dog is similar to every other dog, every baby’s cry echoes every crying baby there ever has been,” Hazard observes. Surely it’s this sense of familiarity and circularity that makes life feel endless, even when it isn’t.

After all his meditation on time, the novel itself ends quickly, everything coming to a head in a literally fiery flash. You might find his conclusion jarring in its suddenness; I did on my first pass. But this is how it often feels to live, isn’t it? We forget whole years, while singular days come at us with the force of fiction. When they do, they never leave.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig. Viking.

Read all the pieces in the Slate Book Review.