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.

To the River: A Journey Beneath the Surface by Olivia Laing

A relationship ends, prompting the author to plan a journey that follows the course of the River Ouse in Southern England, a river that has changed over time, through man’s battles, interventions and industrial/agricultural practices.

To The RiverAs she walks the river, Olivia Laing narrates a number of those historic events, occurrences that the river today bears little trace of, including the last immersion of Virginia Woolf, her pockets laden with heavy rocks as she strode with purpose into the river, her corpse emerging downstream three weeks later.

“Let me then, like a child advancing with bare feet into a cold river, descend again into that stream.” Virgina Woolf

The narrative meanders like the river might have done, had it not had its more interesting aspects and life-filled curves, sliced and straightened long ago, making it in parts more like a dredged canal. By bringing disparate events together in one narrative, Laing attempts to connect history to the landscape, reviving ghosts of the past, on a route where no markers inform the casual walker of its gruesome days gone by.

It is an attractive premise, to walk the length of a river as a form of therapy, writing and researching its length, though rather than submerge as Virginia Woolf was so drawn towards doing and did in this same river, Olivia Laing’s journey is more one of, walk, pause, reflect on great battles and digs, other lives lived, move swiftly on.

She spends little time reflecting on her own troubled narrative, the barely mentioned Matthew, a ghost-like figure never fully formed, their dilemma not shared on the page, instead it is the river we begin to grieve for, her character sliced and cut and reformed to meet the purpose of man, ignorant of the smaller life forms dependent on it for survival.

Deflecting attention away from her own purpose, Laing has written a tribute to a little known river, a metaphor of life, with all the events that chip away at and form its character, though its true essence remains.

She recalls the brutal Barons’ War of the 13th century, the dinosaur hunters of the 19th century at a time when that word had not yet been invented and the many writers whose lives and works were inspired or touched by rivers.

“I’d been thinking that morning of  The Wind and the Willows, and it struck me that if it had nurtured my love of rivers,  might also be responsible for this faint mistrust of woods…”

As she recalls listening with her sister to tapes of Kenneth Grahame’s stories of Rat, Mole, Toad and Badger, she tells the tragic tale of the author’s son Alistair, aspects of whose nature were immortalised in the character of Toad, his difficulty adjusting to the expectations of public school and university life and his premature death. This event segues into the question of whether A.S. Byatt in her novel The Children’s Book, who casts a character who writes children’s stories and uses her children as inspiration, has created an epitaph for Kenneth Grahame.

Of particular interest to those familiar with the landscape and interested in its history and of Virginia Woolf, it provides a brief introduction to many subjects, meandering off course at times. The book may have held my attention more, if the author had reached deeper into her own inner journey, though perhaps these lessons are realised long after the physical journey has taken place.

“Water,in Woolf’s personal lexicon, represented a way of slipping the superficial self … and ducking down into a deeper, nameless realm.  When Virginia writes about writing, the images she employs are liquid. She is flooded or floated; she breaks the current. When the books are going well she plunges off, happy as a swimmer, into the marine element of private thought.  When the work is going poorly, however, when headaches prevail,  or sleeplessness sets in, her descriptions begin to acquire a nightmarish dryness.”

Trip to Echo SpringOlivia Laing combines a present day physical journey with threads of the past, as she does with The Trip to Echo Spring, a journey across America via a topographical map of alcoholism that examines the link between creativity and alcohol apparent in the books of John Cheever, John Berryman, Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tennessee Williams.

A Quiet Obsession

Rain in AixIt’s Saturday in Provence and my elderly neighbour in the apartment downstairs is leaning over her balcony telling me she is depressed and waving her hand skywards. It is spring and it has been raining for a couple of days every week consistently since the end of February.

With a smile I can’t suppress, I tell her it feels like home to me, the home I knew as a child anyway, that country down under where it rains every week but where there is sun every week too, and everything looks clean and green and grows constantly. But our residents in Aix-en-Provence aren’t used to it and the grey skies reflect their mood.

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

Aix sous la pluie by the artist Barbarion

But not me.

Today is the English Book Sale, a rare event that I have missed on the last two occasions and I know I don’t need any more books, but I have to go just to see what is on offer and to hang about in the presence of other souls quietly obsessed with books.  You know, that old-fashioned kind, hardcover, softcover, some with post it notes and book marks, one with an attractive business card inside, I left that mystery for the next person to find. And the rain is not keeping people away here; I find the last space left in the car park and join the growing crowd of ex-pats and Anglophones scouting for book treasure.

One of the first books I find is a Virginia Woolf biography by Quentin Bell, and so soon after reading Susan Hill’s Howard’s End is on the Landing, and remembering Valerie’s comment about regretting having released all her Bloomsbury books to a sale, I rescue this volume from its fate and bring it home in readiness for its mate, the diary I will be picking up from Persephone Books on my next London visit.

The next book I purchase for my Dad, whom I will be seeing in exactly one month, in Istanbul. My father is a retired farmer who had a love of horses all his life, they were the main mode of transport around the farm and at the weekends, we would pile into his converted furniture removals truck, horses in the back, to watch him play an unsophisticated, remote countryside, farming people’s style polo. He will enjoy this true story of an equine beauty by Laura Hillenbrand I am sure.

My Booksale Haul

My Booksale Haul

I am detecting a bit of a theme here, I buy this Rose Tremain novel The Colour, because it is set in New Zealand and it has been recommended numerous times and though I have picked it up and even taken it from the library once, I have never read it – and there is something about the cover on this version that makes me want to own it.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go I pick up without hesitation, I loved his recent collection of short stories and this one has slipped by unread thus far.

I see a fellow book loving friend who thrusts Lisa Scottoline’s book Look Again into my hands and tells me she stayed up all night last night reading it. It’s disturbing but unputdownable she says. Ok, always room on the shelf for a book that grips one from the first page and perfect holiday reading material, though perhaps not the upcoming Turkish holiday, I don’t want to read about lost children before taking mine to a large unknown city.

The cute little Julie Otsuka novel When the Emperor was Divine, I can’t resist. I want to read The Buddha in the Attic, but this is the book that presents itself first, it’s more of a novella and the seductive testimonial on the front cover is enough to tempt me, one who rarely buys into contrived book cover descriptions, but mesmerising, lyric gifts, narrative poise, a heat-seeking eye for detail, there are enough enticing adjectives in that one blurb for me to appreciate, living in an era of twitter fiction, so I take it.

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

A Political Tragedy in Six Acts

And the pièce de résistance, a hardback, first edition of John Keane’s biography of Václav Havel A Political Tragedy in Six Acts. I don’t know a lot about Havel, he was a renowned playwright turned President of the Czech Republic and a daring dissident in his youth, yet the little I do know of him, makes we want to know a lot more. He died in Dec 2011 but I believe that there are lessons to be learned from the life he lived.

And so, with my arms straining under the load of seven books, I look up to the balcony of my neighbour and tell her to do what I would do if I felt that way about the day, find a good book and escape into it for the afternoon, and don’t worry, the forecast is for sun tomorrow.

At last she smiles, ‘Yes, that I can do’, she says and ‘Bon Livre’ as I disappear inside with my stash of books, a hot roasted chicken, 2 fresh baguettes and 3 chocolate éclairs. Life is good!

Howard’s End is on the Landing, A Writer’s Reading Journey

There is much to love in books about a reading journey, just as there is in an exhibition of a well-known painter’s own personal collection, especially when those collections include the work of their friends and personal anecdotes.

Susan Hill certainly comes up with many personal anecdotes of interactions with some of her favourite writers as well as some ‘I almost met…’ which made me laugh because with each of those non-encounters, she says the same thing, that most likely she would have had nothing to say anyway. I am sure that would not have been the case, being so widely read, she would be able to find common ground with almost any great writer, though ever humble a writer be of their own work perhaps in the presence of an idol.

Susan Hill Reading YearHoward’s End is On The Landing is Susan Hill’s account of a year spent reading from home, her collection easily the size of a small library from the way I read it, one bookshelf alone contains 743 books and this a country house of many rooms where books have snaked their way up the stairs across the walls and had bespoke shelves made to measure for hard to fit nooks and crannies.

At the end of the book, she includes a list of the final forty; it’s a page I refer back to often as her journey of short chapters includes picking up an author’s many works and often struggling to decide which one should go on the list. She loves her Victorians, perhaps more than anything, so Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Anthony Trollope, George Eliot and Emily Bronte are all there.

I have spent a long time among the Victorians this winter but the year is on the turn, the first spring crocuses are pushing up through the grass. It is not yet warm, there are no leaves on the trees but just perceptibly the nights are drawing out.

I am restless for the twentieth century again. Upstairs then, to the landing. Why Forster sits next to Graham Greene, or Anita Brookner is tucked in beside V.S. Naipaul, let alone why they are interspersed with odd volumes of the Finn Family Moomintroll, is one of the mysteries of the reading life.

It doesn’t really matter whether I have read the books or not, it is not only recognition of similar books we may read, it is as much about sharing the joy of reading, its ability to provoke, to uplift, to question. It is the consequence of reading and the confirmation of how different we all are in these observations that continues to prove the reality, that somewhere out there that same book will have been both adored by one person and despised by the next.

Just this morning I read a passionate review by Vishy the Knight of Nicole Brossard’s Yesterday, At the Hotel Clarendon in which he describes the effect of reading prose that to him was sublime, lush, delightful, transcendent, luscious, intoxicating. Well, I don’t know about Brossard’s prose, but I was enjoying Vishy’s. He went on:

After reading a particular passage and falling in love with it, I thought that this was it. Now Brossard will get back to business and get on with the story. And then followed another intoxicating passage. And then another. And another. It was the kind of intoxication that one gets while listening to classical music, the kind which is pleasurable but on which one never gets drunk. Nicole Brossard is also a poet and it shows in her prose. I want to read this novel again just for Brossard’s prose.

Then, at the end of his review, he mentions he was able to find two other reviews of the book in Canadian literary magazines and only one review on Goodreads, which said “I just can’t stand this book anymore.”  Just like films, the only way to really know is to see or read it yourself! And as I alluded to in my previous post, books and reading tell us and others who we really are. As for me, I trust Vishy’s judgement, I love lyrical prose.

Susan Hill’s book is very much influenced by the English tradition and I feel compelled to balance that a little by mentioning another book in a similar vein which I adored, Pat Conroy’s A Reading Life.

Conroy Reading LifeI have only read one of Pat Conroy’s books, The Prince of Tides, but would not hesitate to read more, especially as a summer read –they do tend to be big, bold, compelling books, great for a summer read. His reading life unfolds by the chapter in a mesmerising, delightful way, his storytelling and anecdotes within the book are captivating.

He is loyal to certain influential bookish people in his life and they often reappear throughout the chapters. The chapter on the influence of his mother and references to both the book and film of Gone With the Wind is a great story in itself. But my favourite chapter and one that has stayed with me in the years since I first read this, was Chapter Eleven A Love Letter to Thomas Wolfe, because he is so honest and appreciative, ignoring intellectual snobbery and sharing what he describes as a pivotal event of his life – his reading of Look Homeward, Angel and though not knowing it at the time, entering into “the home territory of what would become my literary terrain”.

I have read very good reviews of Will Schwalbe’s book The End of Your Life Bookclub and know that one day I will venture into its pages, but have been warned, this one is a real tearjerker, so timing is important. There is no rush, just many future reading pleasures that will lead to even more.

And the one stand out book from Susan Hill’s reading year, that made me decide I must have a copy? Well, it’s not even on the list, but that’s because it seems to be permanently at her beside and I see Persephone Books have reissued a copy of it as well. It was Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary.

I have never exhausted  A Writer’s Diary, and never will.It gave me what I needed at 16, and it continues to give.

Have you read any of these books, or do you have another favourite book of a writer’s reading journey?