Time After Time: Katy Simpson Smith’s The Everlasting 

New novel follows faith and love through 2,000 years.

There exists some comfort in the sheer breadth of human history. The story of humanity, when viewed from a distant enough remove, is not a cacophonous collection of individual songs, but a symphony with a myriad of players returning to certain familiar themes. Even in lives separated by millennia, there are some similarities — births and deaths, funerals and marriages. Even pandemics, for example, have torn through society before, leaving their mark on history.

“It’s surreal. It feels strange to publish a book that one has worked so hard on into a world where books, while still vital, are also kind of the least important thing,” says Katy Simpson Smith, author of The Everlasting (Harper Collins). “But also, I believe in the book enough that I do think it would be a source of comfort in the way it offers historical perspective.”
click to enlarge Katy Simpson Smith - PHOTO BY ELISE SMITH
  • Photo by Elise Smith
  • Katy Simpson Smith

Smith is a writer with a preoccupation with the past. “I think being Southern means being obsessed with history,” Smith says, “And trying to figure out the consequences that the past might have on the current day.” The Everlasting, with Rome as its setting, may seem like something of a departure for Smith, whose other works have been focused on the American South, but its focus on history situates the novel in the writer’s oeuvre. Her previous novel, Free Men, is set in the 18th century South, and her first book, a work of nonfiction, studied motherhood in the South. So naturally, when Smith, a writer with an interest in history, visited Rome, a city overflowing with history, she decided to write about it.

“Rome as a city has been through so much,” Smith says. “It’s lost its population and lost its treasures, and it just keeps coming back again and again as this incredibly strong cultural capital.” She adds, “Looking at the world in terms of 2,000-year chunks of time instead of two-week chunks of time is maybe a healthy way to approach this current crisis, too.”

“For me it was mostly the way its layered history is so visible. It doesn’t raze buildings,” the author continues, speaking of Rome. “It just keeps stacking on top of itself. As I was walking around the city, the visibility of every century just evoked a novel to me,” she says, remembering a trip she took to the fabled city in 2015. “And this idea that everything is existing simultaneously also reflected my own philosophy about history, which is that so much of it is circular and ever-present, it would be wrongheaded to view history as a singular march in one direction.” Similarly, Smith suggests that most traditions are equally fluid, flowing like a tide rather than a river, changing with the times.

That flow of time drives Smith’s newest novel, an ambitious chronicle spanning 2,000 years. The Everlasting tells the stories of four characters: an early Christian child martyr; a gay, medieval monk at work in the putridarium; a Medici princess of Moorish descent and dubious legitimacy; and a contemporary field biologist conducting an illicit affair. Each story revisits motifs of faith, freedom, and love, each time viewed through the perspective of a different era.
click to enlarge everlasting_hc_c.jpg

Smith’s third novel makes the case that faith, whether religious, spiritual, or otherwise, is one of the constants throughout human history. “The biologist character is probably the least religious character in the book, and yet he spends his whole day looking at microscopic objects and believing fundamentally in something that can’t be seen with the naked eye.”

“Even in the absence of faith, we look for things to believe in,” Smith says. “To attach us to, so that we don’t feel rudderless in this world, and I think love can have the same effect on people. It can be so hard to be alone in the universe that the idea of attaching one’s body to another person’s body has the same kind of primal comfort that believing in a deity does.”
The scope of The Everlasting is facilitated by the author’s familiarity with history. Smith studied the 18th- and 19th-century American South in graduate school at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, where she received her Ph.D. While working on the project that would become We Have Raised All of You: Motherhood in the South, 1750-1835, Smith realized the freedom inherent in working in fiction. “I was writing about poor women and black women and Cherokee women, women who didn’t leave behind much in the way of a historical record,” Smith says. “The further I got along in the project, the more frustrated I was by my own inability to responsibly speculate about their emotional lives. And it occurred to me that the one place you could responsibly speculate was in fiction. So I made the leap from history to fiction as a way to inhabit more characters and to get into the lives of people whose lives weren’t traditionally recorded.”

The transition was an easy move for Smith to make. “I grew up in Jackson, Mississippi, which was home to Eurdora Welty and Margaret Walker Alexander,” she says. “So I think being from the South allowed me to view writing as a viable profession in a way that I don’t think I would have if I had grown up in another part of the country.”

“Viable profession” is, one hopes, Smith being modest. Though in conversation she may liken her craft to any other trade, The Everlasting shows a writer using all the tools available to her — and excelling at creating something transcendent. Smith’s prose is poetic, pleasing in and of itself, and her intellectual understanding of the trends of human culture throughout history give the novel a firm grounding that is, itself, a comfort to the reader. Finally, the emotional heart beating beneath the other layers is the novel’s return to the almost primordial power of love and faith.

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