Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

I’ve not read any of Dani Shapiro’s previous works, this short book was passed to me by a friend and read in an afternoon. I enjoyed reading it, though I couldn’t say I related to it. It’s a very personal observation of a marriage, of the passage of time, a woman observing herself change, reflecting on her inclinations and trying to understand herself, her husband and their evolving relationship. As the title indicates, it’s a reflection on time passing, on memory and on marriage.

It’s full of nostalgia for moments passed, brought back to life as she picks up journals from girlhood and her earlier life and quotes from them, in particular, from her honeymoon spent in France. She wonders about the woman she was then.

She worries about the lack of a plan, despite being in her fifties and her husband almost sixty. She shares these anxious moments, as she begins to lose a little faith in the words her husband has uttered in the past, words that gave her reassurance “I’ll take care of it”.

Anyone who has lived with that kind of comfort will likely relate, but inherent within it lies a deep vulnerability, a fissure, a unassuageable fear of loss. It is here her words pierce the fabric of living, when they illuminate the cracks in the facade, opening a small window into that anxiety-inducing perception of reality that sees itself as separate.

It is that undercurrent of misplaced fear that disconcerts me, for there is no hint of resolution, little evidence of a desire to go within and face the abyss, to heal it. She remains focused on that which is external and therein perhaps lies the problem. Maybe that is a memoir still to come, when she will embark on the inner journey and learn to listen to her own guidance, to the whispers of her soul that are capable of reassuring her more than anyone or anything on the outside. Something that marriage appears to protect us from, at least until menopause, a subject she doesn’t mention but one that can also unravel our perceptions of the life structures we’ve created in our minds.

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It is a work of quietly observed transformation, the writer is trying to observe herself from both without and within, she has a long experience of observing from a distance and now she feels the pull to go within, yet it’s as if she has only just begun to put her toe in the river. She is aware of the pull of the river and quotes from Virginia Woolf:

The past only comes back when the present runs so smoothly that it is like the sliding surface of a deep river. Then one sees through the surface to the depths…But to feel the present sliding over the depths of the past, peace is necessary. The present must be smooth, habitual. For this reason – that it destroys the fullness of life – any break… causes me great distress; it breaks; it shallows; it turns the depths into hard splinters. As I say to L[eonard]: “What’s there real about this? Shall we ever live a real life again?

She recalls that she used to tell her students that to write good memoir, the kind that would be of interest to the disinterested reader, the writer had to have some distance from the material, not to write from feelings but from the wisdom and insight of retrospect.

But like every fixed idea, this one has lost its hold on me as years have passed and the onrushing present – the only place from which the writer can tell the story – continues to shift along with the sands of time. Our recollections alter as we attempt to gather  them. Even retrospect is mutable. Perspective, a momentary fragment of consciousness. Memoir freezes a moment like an insect trapped in amber. Me now, me then. This woman, that girl. It all keeps changing. And so: If retrospect is an illusion, why not attempt to tell the story as I’m inside of it?  Which is to say: before the story has become a story?

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And so as her reflections come to an end, they indicate that she may be at another beginning.

Somewhere, a clock ticks. Sand pours through the hourglass.  I am no longer interested in the stories but rather, what is underneath the stories: the soft, pulsing thing that is true. Why now?  What is this insistence?  All of me – the whole crowd – wants to know.

I am left intrigued to know what she will write next, where her inner journey will take her, when she lets go of looking through the lens of marriage, time and memory and observes life through a newly expanded awareness.

7 thoughts on “Hourglass – Time, Memory, Marriage by Dani Shapiro

  1. Claire, thanks for writing about this. I just finished her latest memoir, Inheritance which is truly mind-blowing and I think of great significance for all of us in this day and age. You might want to google it to see what I’m talking about. I will be writing about it in the next few weeks on my blog. I haven’t read this particular memoir of hers – I’ve only read Still Writing, which I liked, and I haven’t read her novels. But I do have a deep respect for Shapiro and I think she is having a tremendous influence for the good. Speaking of Inheritance, I’ll be heading for Sweden, for the first time, in May to research family history, and then making my way down to Sicily for a family wedding. I’m so looking forward to getting back to Europe, and only wish I could stop in France. I still remember your recommendation about which Paris neighborhood to stay in; it was truly a wonderful family vacation with our sons, as was heading up to Metz to see where my father was wounded in WWII. I wish I could experience more of your lovely country. Anyway, thanks for all the good work you do on this blog, Claire.

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    • Thanks Valorie, yes the friend who lent me this book told me about Inheritance, so I know the story briefly and that is a subject much closer to my own heart perhaps than this one was and I even wondered if that story, which follows this writing exercise, partly explains something here. At this point she doesn’t know about her ‘inheritance’ but it represents a loss, one she has lived all her life with without consciously knowing. I will be interested to read your review, I find it incredibly difficult to review books like that, where honesty about an individuals identity has been with-held, that lack of recognition of it as a basic human right, no matter how wonderful the relationship with the substitute parent(s).
      Oh do have a wonderful trip to Europe and more family research, how great! I am sure one day you’ll make it again to France and perhaps even to the South, I certainly hope so. It would such a pleasure to meet you. Thank you too for your inspiring posts and reading, I always look forward to your reviews.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I came across this author only last night when I was considering her latest book about genetic and looking at her previous work thought this one looked interesting- serendipitous that your review popped up!

    Liked by 1 person

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