Why Mr. Plimpton's clock has no hands

AT this time of year, time itself threatens to take over, driving us to spring madly toward 1985 as if it's a plane we're in danger of missing. Everybody's bound to a schedule of celebration as demanding as a work week. Deadlines! Deadlines! Five more . . . four more . . . three more shopping days until Christmas.

Then it's countdown to the New Year. On the morning of Jan. 1, one must submit, like a due bill, one's resolutions for 1985. ''I resolve not to be late with my New Year's resolutions.'' Remember how you promised that in 1984 - and failed?

We are simply dominated by year-ending (or year-beginning) rituals until our pear trees don't have room for one more partridge. How can a harried bell ringer keep the holidays from turning into tyrants, ordering everybody to feel the same response at the same moment? Those of us who have trouble producing emotion by appointment received a timely - if the word is appropriate - reprieve this season when the Paris Review celebrated its 30th anniversary.

One more call upon scheduled enthusiasm, you say? Quite the contrary. The Paris Review is throwing what Humpty Dumpty termed an un-birthday party. The 30 th anniversary occurred in 1983. The Paris Review just never got around to blowing horns and putting on funny hats. As the editor, George Plimpton, explains in the un-birthday issue: ''It has arrived a year late, but that's a distinct improvement on the special 25th anniversary issue, which in 1981 appeared three years later than it should have.''

A reader has to admire Mr. Plimpton's style. Journalists, of all people, earn their name: those who live by the day. Yet in a year when the New Republic celebrated its 70th anniversary and Partisan Review celebrated its 50th, both right on the button, here comes George, making a nice mockery of what is known in the trade as the time peg.

He goes on to celebrate - belatedly - what he thinks should count for more than punctuality. The Paris Review, he points out, has the longest masthead of any magazine except Time, Newsweek, and Rolling Stone. A reader can count 81 names, including two former publishers, plus the Squaw Valley Community of Writers, listed as ''consultants.''

Furthermore, Mr. Plimpton boasts, the Paris Review gives more prizes than any literary - or for that matter, nonliterary - magazine. First of all, there's the Prince Aga Khan Short Story Prize, established 30 - make that 31 - years ago by the father of the first publisher of the Paris Review. Then there's the Bernard F. Conners Poetry Prize, and - never to be forgotten - the Gertrude Vanderbilt Humor Prize. The donor hoped her award might encourage ''less gloomy'' writing in future issues. When her expectations were dashed, Mrs. Vanderbilt discontinued her prize, but the Paris Review's first managing editor has now established the John Train Humor Prize.

Mr. Plimpton ought to qualify for a Vanderbilt or a Train himself for observing of the 81 names on his staff: ''The hope is, of course, that those honored by being on the masthead will feel obliged to subscribe. Alas, this is not so. If everyone on the masthead subscribed - which is one of the reasons it is so long - the magazine would obviously be reaching out to a larger and more discerning audience.''

Funny fellow! Serious fellow, too. For freeing oneself from time is no trivial antic but a fundamental declaration of independence, and Mr. Plimpton has the sense to print other witty and profound time-defyers in his splendid quarterly. Here is Philip Roth, in that 30th anniversary issue, speaking of an enslaving world where everybody and everything is ''working to change, persuade, tempt, and control'' everybody else. ''The best readers,'' he tells an interviewer, ''come to fiction to be free of all that noise, to have set loose in them the consciousness that's otherwise conditioned and hemmed in by all that isn't fiction.''

Like Mr. Plimpton, like Proust, Mr. Roth seems to be saying that you can't understand history until you unlock time from its literal tick-tock and play with it - make it an act of the imagination.

A delightful idea. A wise idea.

For the rest of the Christmas season, if not the New Year, a reader could do worse than to live by George Plimpton's clock.

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