Day in the Life, Year in the Life
Time, of course, is a construct, one that organizes our lives and slices history into manageable portions. Both of the books I read this week examined the inner lives of their central characters, and both took liberties with time, one expanding, one compressing it to fit between the covers.
Ian McEwan’s novel Saturday is a day in the life of neurosurgeon Henry Perowne. Henry’s plans for Saturday include a mix of tasks—stopping at the fish market for the coming night’s family party, visiting his mother, who suffers from advanced dementia, and small pleasures—intimate time with his wife, catching up with his son, a game of racquetball. But the day starts strangely. Henry wakes with an unusual, especially heightened sense of awareness and stands, silently, in his bedroom window witnessing a cargo plane crash in the distance. Then it’s back to some sense of normalcy until the next surprise. The day, like all days, has peaks and valleys, but it evolves into a remarkable turn of events.
The book is written in third person but manages quite skillfully to have the reader inhabit Henry’s brain for a full twenty-four–hour day. It’s not long past 9-11, and he’s thinking about Iraq, about terrorism, about which way the future will go in the midst of otherwise comfortable and pleasing surroundings. His children are grown and he’s beginning to show his age, just around the edges. He’s noticing touches of grey, as well as a somewhat less cooperative body on the racquetball court.
His performance on the court is affected by more than just aging knees, however. On the way there Henry is nearly mugged. It’s already more than a third into the book and only around midmorning when a trio of criminals enters the scene, and McEwan expertly uses time slowed by detail to show Henry’s mind hastily calculating his chances for altering the course of this menacing encounter. Ultimately he pulls a card that only an astute medical practitioner would have at his disposal. He notices small tremors, trouble with shifting the gaze, and guesses correctly that the ring leader Baxter has early signs of Huntington’s chorea and is fated for a long, painful course of illness. His offer of help shifts the balance of power, allowing him to slip away unharmed.
But Henry and Baxter seem destined to have intertwined lives. Baxter is enraged not only by Henry’s escape but also by the inevitability of his encroaching illness. His desperation escalates, and when he tracks Henry down he takes the whole Perowne family hostage, pulling all down into a vortex of fear. It’s revealing that, of all things, it’s a recitation of a poem that turns the tide of events, for the whole of Saturday has an undercurrent of poetry. Not only are Henry’s daughter and father-in-law poets, but McEwan’s voice itself has a poetic sensibility. Take this otherwise inconsequential encounter between Henry and a street sweeper:
And beyond them, across the metropolis, a daily blizzard of litter. As the two men pass, their eyes meet briefly, neutrally. The whites of the sweeper’s eyes are fringed with egg-yellow shading to red along the lids. For a vertiginous moment Henry feels himself bound to the other man, as though on a seesaw with him, pinned to an axis that could tip them into each other’s life.
The poetry of daily life, and poetic justice of the gentlest sort—poetry shining a light on the chances for redemption—are what make Saturday more than just a recounting of a day that, for a prolonged and painful interlude, goes horribly wrong.
The next book I picked up did the opposite of Saturday. While McEwan used a novel to unfold a day, editor Richard Grossman culled through Ralph Waldo Emerson’s lifelong body of work to give us a year’s worth of his most compelling insights, written in daybook format.
David Leff, a local poet and writer here in Connecticut, renewed my interest in Emerson, because he credits him with changing the course of his life. Leff, of course, is not the only one on whom Emerson has had a powerful effect. Emerson was a true thinker, unafraid to venture in unconventional directions in the midst of an era with so many conventional constraints. Grossman had a tall order in trying to capture his essence in day-by-day, month-by-month format.
Taking the whole year of the book in a few sittings might also have been a tall order on my part, because I was exploring a large mind in a short time. But even at this whirlwind clip Emerson’s words managed to give me pause, and a desire to go back and reread at a more contemplative pace. Many of his words alluded, indirectly, to the Eastern philosophies—a commonplace occurrence in our time but relatively radical in the 1800s. I hadn’t known before that his aunt introduced him to Hindu scripture. In the preface the editor cites a letter from Emerson to Thoreau that paraphrases Vedantic texts—“I can, with a modest aspiring say, ‘I am God,’ by transferring me out of the unclean precincts of my body, my fortunes, my private will…” In fact, many of the book’s quotations are in the vein of Emerson’s famous essay Self-Reliance, in which the importance of paying attention to one’s inner thoughts and intuitions and trusting one’s own instincts is emphasized above waiting for external guidance. Here, toward the end of the December quotations, Emerson’s words about living on two planes remain relevant, and in fact could even be especially relevant today:
We live on different planes of platforms. There is an external life, which is educated at school, taught to read, write cipher and trade; taught to grasp all the boy can get, urging him to put himself forward, to make himself useful and agreeable in the world, to write, run, argue, and contend, unfold his talents, shine, conquer and possess.
But the inner life sits at home and does not learn to do things, nor value these feats at all. ‘Tis a quiet, wise perception. It loves truth because it is itself real; it loves right, it knows nothing else, but it makes no progress; was as wise in our first memory of it as now; is just the same now and hereafter in age, as it was in youth . . . This tranquil, well-founded, wide-seeing soul is no express-rider, no attorney, no magistrate; it lies in the sun and broods on the world.
Both books I read this week are “broods” on the world, in the sense of dwelling on, of contemplating those truths that are at work just below the more factual aspects of the day. In each book words like “Saturday” or “year” are sequestered to an irrelevant space, weak beside the thoughts of the authors, which are not tethered to time despite the structure of time that is needed to organize them. “Timeless” has become an overplayed word, smacking of the hyperbole of overly sentimental description. But in the context of a read that stays with you, a read that can bring you out of the artificial boundaries that the daily world sets up for all of us, there may be no better word.
Books mentioned in this column:
Saturday, by Ian McEwan (Nan A. Talese, 2005)
A Year with Emerson, selected and edited by Richard Grossman (David R. Godine, 2003)
Katherine Hauswirth is a medical writer by day and a creative writer by stolen moments. She writes creative nonfiction and poetry. She is the author of the book Harriet’s Voice: A Writing Mother’s Journey and contributed to the anthology Get Satisfied: How Twenty People Like You Found the Satisfaction of Enough. Katherine has been published in many venues including The Writer, Byline, The Christian Science Monitor, Pregnancy, The Writer's Handbook, The Writer's Guide to Fiction, Chronogram, Women of Spirit, Wilderness House Literary Review, Poetry Kit, Eat a Peach, Lutheran Digest, and Pilgrimage. A Long Island native, Katherine lives with her husband and son in Deep River, Connecticut. Harriet’s Voice: Home Base for Writing Mothers is her personal website. Contact Katherine.