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Passing Time Summary

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The principal action of the novel is Jacques Revel’s physical and mental journey through the labyrinthine ways of Bleston, an industrial town in the north of England, where he has come to do translation work for a year. From his arrival in the early hours of October 2, 1951, through his departure on September 30, 1952, the major events of his story are recorded in his diary. This record of events begins ominously, with a missed train, a post-midnight arrival in rainy Bleston, the first of many confused wanderings in the city’s streets, and, to add to his inauspicious arrival, the necessity of sleeping in a railway station. The oppressive gloom of the city, the omnipresent falling of fine soot and ash, the limitations of its inhabitants, and the confusion of places and streets conspire to give Bleston such an atmosphere of hostility that the city itself becomes a sinister character seeking to overcome Revel and suffocate him.

Revel’s encounters with the city’s inhabitants range in significance from habitual misunderstandings with merchants, shopkeepers, and bus drivers to important meetings with the few who befriend him, chief among them James Jenkins, the Bailey sisters, Lucien Blaise, Horace Buck, and George Burton. His chance meeting with Burton, who, as J.C. Hamilton, wrote a mystery novel, The Murder of Bleston, leads him into an odd sequence of events. He comes to suspect a cover-up of an actual fratricide and the attempted murder of Burton by Jenkins, to whom Revel reveals Burton’s true identity. At the same time, Revel is also trying to fathom the mystery of the city and its inhabitants’ obsession with the fratricidal Cain depicted in the stained glass of the Old Cathedral. A series of fires of mysterious origin, perhaps set by Horace Buck, perhaps even set by Revel, who engages in four ritual incinerations, adds to the aura of fear, anxiety, and uneasiness that overshadows the city and Revel.

Revel first seeks to escape Bleston and the oppressive confinement that both repels and attracts him by trying to walk beyond its precincts into the countryside; this, however, proves impossible. His escapes to the oases of amusement parks that move from one section of the city to another are short-lived and...

(The entire section is 559 words.)