If Heidi Julavits and Sarah Manguso ever sit next to each other at a dinner party, they can discuss their writing, children, students, 40th birthday parties, illnesses, anxieties about time passing, fascinations with accessing different selves through stories (their own and others’), and diaries. But despite these shared concerns, their diaries have led to strikingly different books.
When she began keeping the two-year chronicle that became “The Folded Clock: A Diary,’’ Julavits, a novelist and editor, “was no longer, or not for the time being, writing novels” because she could not “escape the trap of a plot.” Manguso, a memoirist and poet, kept a diary for 25 years, producing 800,000 words, none of which appear in her history of her diary, “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary.’’
“The Folded Clock’’ tells us that Julavits likes “The Bachelor,’’ ocean swimming, stories and gossip, antique shops and eBay, objects, and her husband, with whom she also likes to pick fights. She spends time in Germany (at an academy where her husband has a fellowship and she is resentful), Italy (at an arts colony where she has a fellowship and is depressed), New York (where she teaches at Columbia and goes to dinner parties), and Maine (where she summers and goes to more dinner parties).
From “Ongoingness,’’ we learn little about Manguso save that she has a husband and son, her husband’s mother died three weeks before her son was born, and she stopped taking photographs at 12 because they “were ruining my memory.” While “The Folded Clock’’ is a well-written, sometimes entertaining, occasionally irritating portrait of an intelligent and accomplished woman struggling with identity and aging, “Ongoingness’’ deeply examines the nature of time, memory, and diaries.
“The Folded Clock’’ initially looks like a regular diary, with daily dated entries that begin “Today I”: “June 21 Today I wondered What is the worth of a day?;” “August 2 Today I was stung by a wasp;” “July 4 Today we marched in our town’s Fourth of July parade.” But the entries are arranged nonchronologically, so the book is shaped less by the cycle of the year than by recurrent people, places, things, and themes.
Each day describes an event, but also the recollections and associations it sparks, which over time reveal Julavits’s life: childhood in Maine, desperate to escape; infatuation with the lives of wealthy college peers; entering the New York literary scene; an erroneous first and successful second marriage; and professional success, which leaves her raggedly busy, missing her children, and yearning for her summers back in Maine.
If some of Julavits’s anecdotes inspire winces (“In August, in Maine, it can sometimes seem that everyone, everywhere is having the same conversation between the hours of five and eight p.m.”), her search for identity, fear of time passing, and sense of her own aging can be poignant. A day spinning tops with her son brings up the familiar parental tension between the joy of “successfully losing yourself” in an activity and “waiting for it to be over,” which, for Julavits, has the same result: Every day passing means “my child will be older and I will be nearer to dead.”
In “The System of Objects,” Jean Baudrillard suggests that collecting is an effort to stave off death. Julavits is a collector, an “object person.” When she observes that a “day, like a top, can be an everyday object,” a profound subtext emerges: the diary as a way to collect time and stave off existential dread.
In “Ongoingness,’’ that subtext becomes text. Manguso began writing her diary “when I started finding myself in moments that were too full.” “[T]o empty the reservoir” of her memory, so she would have room for new experiences and not be “swept up” in the passing of time, “for twenty years, every day, I wrote down what happened.” This included “everything that had happened and everything I remembered thinking while it happened and everything I thought while recording what I remembered had happened.”
The idea of losing her memories and of others losing their memories of her was unbearable, “more like death than death.” So she wrote several times a day in small notebooks, editing and transcribing those entries at least once a day into a computer file.
Then she gave birth to her son, and “my worry about the lost memories began to subside.” First afflicted by “pregnancy brain,” then immersed in the “lost, empty time” of nursing, she lost both the capacity and the desire to remember. Getting older and having a child, she becomes, ultimately, “inured to the passage of time.” No longer interested in beginnings and endings, she is comfortable with living in “the middle;” no longer focused solely on her own existence, she sees herself persisting in her son, both of them part of “the churn of bodies through the world of light unending.” And where once she hoped her diary would capture “simply, everything,” now she writes infrequently, briefly, and largely about her son, seeing — and accepting — the diary as a “compilation of moments I’ll forget, their record finished in language as well as I could finish it — which is to say imperfectly.”
“Ongoingness’’ is a brief and economical book, each page containing a small handful of elliptical paragraphs, like undated diary entries. But it also a beautiful book. Not all readers will resonate with Manguso’s diary compulsion or her overwhelming experience of motherhood, but her powerful and provocative reflections reach beyond those specifics to interrogate the mortality we all share.
THE FOLDED CLOCK:
By Heidi Julavits
Doubleday, 304 pp., $26.95
The End of a Diary
By Sarah Manguso
Graywolf, 104 pp., $2
Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.