I’m in the middle of a memoir project this summer, and much of my reading list consists of autobiographical nonfiction, works that I feel I need to read in order to understand how the memoir functions within the limits of language and memory. Nabokov’s Speak, Memory was an excellent place to start, although now I will inevitably end up comparing everything I read with his memoir.
Dani Shapiro came through Rochester this past year, and for some reason, I bought two of her books that were being sold that evening–my usual limit is one. But I was attracted to Shapiro’s craft book, Still Writing, and paging through it before her reading made me realize that it could come in handy with my writing (it has), while I was also intrigued with her latest work, Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage. I wanted to know what her take on the longevity of marriage was, and then when I heard her read from the book, I was very glad that I had bent my book-buying rule, since the way she uses language not only to describe but also to structure the circularity of time and memory is masterful.
Hourglass, Shapiro’s fourth memoir, inquires into the nature of marriage across time, and how a life together changes both people in a long-term relationship. Shapiro writes, “What must we summon and continue to summon in order to form ourselves toward, against, alongside another person for the duration? To join ourselves to the unknown? What steadiness of spirit? What relentless faith?” (33). Shapiro and her third husband, referred to as “M” in the memoir, have been married for eighteen years and have experienced the near-death of their infant son, together with the death of both her parents and his mother’s descent into Alzheimer’s. Both are writers, but M.’s career has stalled–he had been a foreign correspondent before turning to screenwriting, and the vagaries of the writing life have been much more challenging to him. This disparity–she is a best-selling and prolific author–shapes the dynamic of their relationship in a dangerous way, though Shapiro comes to realize that her fantasy of a prince who rescues his intended is exactly that–a fantasy, and to her credit, acknowledges that her husband’s strengths weight more in the balance than his detriments.
But there is no escaping from the notion that Shapiro may still regard herself as a princess. Her life together with M. and their son–who recovers, almost miraculously–is privileged, secure (even though they have no savings or retirement plan), and full of admirers. The live first in a brownstone in Brooklyn (think: worth millions), then a farmhouse in Connecticut. Together, they run a writing retreat in Positano, Italy. Shapiro probably spends more on her hair than most people spend on necessities, like food and shelter. And it is difficult not to see their life together–buffeted by difficulties, to be sure–as one which many people also share, and worse, of course. Yet Shapiro attempts to absolve herself by suggesting that the way things have turned out is the result of randomness: “Time is like a tall building made of playing cards. It seems orderly until a strong gust of wind comes along and blows the whole thing skyward” (144). Anything could have happened, she continues; they could have ended up homeless. But lucky them–it all worked out, and Shapiro has managed to monetize their experience by writing this book.
And so I’ve decided that the next book I need to read should offer a completely different view on what this life in our society offers. I am going to deviate from my list and read James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son next. Some people may also experience a randomness in life, like playing cards flipping in the wind, but the order in which these cards are read is determined not just by fate, but also by ingrained notions of race and class. I think Baldwin will be what I need to remind me that fate is different depending on the color of our skin.
But Hourglass is still worth reading. Shapiro writes movingly about the experience she and her husband have taking a “virtual dementia tour” as part of a work they write together about families experiencing Alzheimer’s. And the way she uses language to circle back to recurring words and ideas is beautifully rendered, as if the writing is mirroring the way memory works, the way memories keep coming back, even though each remembrance is different over time. Her use of imagery is stunning–the opening metaphor, of a woodpecker destroying the outside of their farmhouse, and her husband trying to shoot it, the instability beneath the veneer of control, and her husband’s wildly inappropriate and destructive method for fixing it is chilling and resonant. Hourglass is also a short book and a quick read at 145 pages, and Shapiro’s writing in so many places is austere, haunting. We are all travelers through time and memory and relationship–this is what life is, though what it can be is not always the same for all of us.