“Perhaps it might be rightly said that there are three times: a time present of things past; a time present of things present; and a time present of things future. For these three do coexist somehow in the soul, for otherwise, I could not see them.” This passage is quoted from book ten of St. Augustine’s Confessions (A.D. 400), part of his reflections on time and memory. The mystery of time and how it is perceived, experienced, and remembered is everywhere in Gianrico Carofiglio’s Three O’Clock in the Morning (2021) – even a brief reference St. Augustine’s philosophy of time itself, cited above, makes an appearance.
But time in Three O’Clock in the Morning is not time as a philosopher or physicist would depict it. Here, for Antonio, the novel’s 51-year-old protagonist – who is remembering 48 hours he spent with his father in 1983 when he was 18-years-old – time is subjective and intimate, something that conceals and reveals, a source of consolation and wonder. Time experienced in this work of fiction is also time shared, and for Antonio, it becomes an occasion to hear, to listen, and to gradually understand truly that there are other lives and experiences distinct from his own.
This is principally why Three O’Clock in the Morning belongs to the “coming of age” genre. In graduating from the “adolescent cocoon” in which his own experiences appear as though they are unique and indescribable and supremely important, Antonio comes to re-examine his assumptions about himself, his father, and their relationship. He begins to take responsibility for his perspective.
Part of the beauty and simplicity of this novel is that communication is the only tool Carofiglio uses to set those processes into motion. Antonio and his father are by circumstance placed into an unusual situation. In Marseille, where a physician expert on epilepsy advises him that to determine if he is cured he must endure a “provocative test” of staying awake for 48 hours.
In this circumstance, Antonio and his father are forced to experience each other’s sustained company. And so they talk. They talk about their family, about their decisions and expectations, they reveal surprises and secrets about each other to each other; they talk about mathematics, love, music, and philosophy.
The process is uneven and imperfect for both men. But part of the novel’s gentle and understated drama is the distance that Antonio goes. He begins by admitting at the outset of the test that “he didn’t have the words, didn’t know how to speak” to his father. He ends eventually by using only simple words to connect with his father – to really talk and to really listen, to really communicate.
Even a non-verbal form of communication like instrumental music becomes a scaffolding for Carofiglio’s characters to express – in words – something about themselves and each other. “Your intention is where you want to get to when you’re playing a piece,” Antonio’s father says, describing his conception of jazz music. “Or rather, to be more precise, it’s where you want to get to but also how you want to get there. It’s the destination, but also the route.”
This episode and specific moments within it as remembered in retrospect by the narrator, Antonio, furnish the story with deeply moving truths about time and memory. It is true that, in one sense, time flows. Such moments come and go. But in another sense – in the sense that Augustine outlined, and that Carofiglio hints towards – such moments are fixed and incorruptible, and they remain in one’s memory, identity, and heart. Paraphrasing Augustine and Spinoza, the late English philosopher Roger Scruton put it another way: “Those memories are yours and they’re yours eternally.”
Antonio still dreams of the last moment he saw his father at the end of their time together in Marseille. His father is looking back, waving, and looking somewhat bemused. They remain in that moment. In his memory, in his dreams, and as the steward of his passage into adulthood, Antonio’s father is still with him as if no time has passed at all. In such a manner, Carofiglio’s drive for simplicity and directness in language carries the reader along to clarity about fundamental truths, including the ultimate challenge that we and our loved ones will all face in the end.