I suspect I might not be the only one who finds it unnerving to be at the start of a year that features, so prominently, the number thirteen. 2013 – it feels like bad luck just to read it in my head, let alone say it aloud! But worry not, I have assuaged my fears by turning to literature. There are some remarkable books which make use of the number thirteen, making me think that this number can be better understood as a source of inspiration, rather than a bringer of bad luck.
Most infamous must be Orwell’s 1984 with its opening line:
It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.
At least 2013 was rung in with just twelve strikes of the clock. How terrifying to be in a world where thirteen strikes is normal! (Of course the day would be in April, T.S. Eliot’s ‘cruellest month’.) Orwell’s chilling world is a place where numbers shift and lose their meaning. The reader knows from the title that the year is 1984, but the protagonist Winston Smith can’t be so sure: ‘it was never possible nowadays to pin down any date within a year or two’. This is the book where 101 gets a whole new resonance and, perhaps most fundamental of all, ‘2+2=5’. Thirteen, for Orwell, is the first number in a book where numbers, history, words and facts are slippery, changeable things, which take their meaning from Big Brother rather than existing as objective truths. Rereading 1984 is a powerful and unsettling experience. I spent most of the time trying to reassure myself that Oceania in 1984 is nothing like the UK in 2013 … or is it?
Philippa Pearce made the same eerie chime fundamental to her children’s book Tom’s Midnight Garden, written ten years after 1984. Tom is cooped up and bored in his doting aunt and uncle’s second-floor flat when, in the middle of the night, he hears the grandfather clock strike thirteen. He tiptoes downstairs in his pyjamas and opens the back door to discover a huge, beautiful garden. It transpires that he has stepped back in time and he has great fun playing in the garden where he befriends a Victorian girl, Hatty. Instead of a terrifying future dystopia, the thirteen strikes of Tom’s Midnight Garden pre-empt a magical trip back in time. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if 2013 were a year of playing in a beautiful garden in pyjamas! Better than a year of Newspeak anyway.
In James Thurber’s strange and astonishing tale The Thirteen Clocks, the clocks don’t strike thirteen, indeed they don’t strike at all. The wicked cold Duke has hands so cold that all the hands of his thirteen clocks have frozen:
Time lies frozen there. It’s always Then. It’s never Now. The cold Duke was afraid of Now, for Now has warmth and urgency, and Then is dead and buried.
Luckily beautiful Princess Saralinda, following cryptic instructions from the mysterious Golux, manages to get the clocks working again, while the clocks’ guards are busy being tied in knots by Prince Zorn of Zorna. Time is restored to the Duke’s castle:
The light of morning stained the windows, and in the walls the cold Duke moaned, ‘I hear the sound of time. And yet I slew it, and wiped my bloody sword upon its beard.’
Inevitably the coming of a New Year makes us particularly aware of time ticking ever on. This is when we look back on the year that’s gone and make resolutions for the year ahead. It can be terrifically alarming to think of how much time has passed, how quickly the year has flown, how loudly we hear time’s winged chariot at our backs. But only the wicked Duke, in Thurber’s The Thirteen Clocks, wants to freeze time. We should learn from the Prince and Princess and embrace the ‘warmth and urgency’ of Now.
And what will the Now of 2013 bring in terms of literary offerings? New books from Nadeem Aslam, Margaret Atwood, Kate Atkinson, Neil Gaiman, Jane Gardam, Javier Marias, Paul Muldoon, Rebecca Solnit, and many more. Rich pickings! As indeed they should be, given that a hundred years ago,1913 saw the publication of Alain-Fournier’s Le Grand Meaulnes, D.H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Proust’s Swann’s Way and it was the year that E.M. Forster wrote Maurice, even though publication wasn’t until 1971, after his death. Later this month we will celebrate the two hundred year anniversary of the publication of Pride and Prejudice. I wonder which books of 2013 will still be being read in a hundred, or even two hundred years time? An inspiring thought on which to start the year, which might, after all, prove lucky for some.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 6 issues delivered for just £6, with full web and app access. Join us.