The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

I keep a long list of books that I’d love to read but know are only currently available in the USA. Occasionally I manage to chip away at it through my public library borrowing during trips back to visit my family, but I’m adding more titles all the time. I was pleased, then, to learn that The Folded Clock, a book I’ve wanted to get hold of ever since it was first released in the States in 2015, was recently published in the UK.

Heidi Julavits is a founding editor of The Believer magazine as well as a novelist and an associate professor of writing at Columbia University. She lives in New York City during the academic year and spends the rest of the time in Maine, where she was born and raised. The Folded Clock is a diary of two fairly average years in her life, but its dated entries (month and day only) are not in order; they’ve been rearranged into what at times feels like an arbitrary sequence. Yet this is in keeping with the overall theme of time’s fluidity.

The title comes from her daughter’s mishearing of “folded cloth” but is apt in that it suggests time stretching and collapsing back on itself. Indeed, one reason for starting the journal was that Julavits felt time had started to pass differently from how it did in her childhood. Whereas she once thought in terms of days, she realized in her forties that she now worked in weeks and months. She was also inspired by digging out her adolescent diary – though it was not nearly as profound or revelatory about her future writing career as she might have hoped.

Every single entry begins with “Today,” reflecting a determination to live in the present. But of course, that format still offers a broad scope for memory, with certain activities and objects provoking flashbacks. For instance, she finds her ten-year-old marriage vows in the pocket of an old coat, and rereads a biography of Edie Sedgwick (from Andy Warhol’s circle, she died of a drug overdose at 28), as she periodically does to gauge how her response changes as she ages.

Julavits also situates her writing in the context of other famous diarists, such as the Goncourt brothers and Henry David Thoreau. As the latter did in Walden, she’s seeking to live deliberately, though within her regular life and without venturing into nature all that much; “I am an outdoorsman of the indoors,” she quips.

The cover design is by Leanne Shapton.

There’s a huge variety of topics here. She writes about being afraid of sharks, stealing names to use for characters in her novels, entering her small Maine town’s Fourth of July parade float competition, visiting E.B. White’s grave, mourning a tree half-lost to a hurricane, her insistence on dwelling in west-facing rooms, and regretting never telling her doctor how much she appreciated him before he died in a cycling accident. Travel features heavily, too, what with accompanying her husband to a fellowship in Germany and spending time at an art colony in Italy. Often it’s the tiny encounters and incidents that remain in her mind, though, like accidentally buying bitter apricot kernels instead of almonds at a German market and worrying that her husband might have given himself cyanide poisoning by eating 14 at once.

Some of these pieces would function well as stand-alone essays, like the one about her obsession with The Bachelor, an American reality television franchise, which leads into her belief that crushes are fostered by small spaces – she fell for her second husband (author Ben Marcus) at an arts colony even though they were both attached to other people at the time.

I was delighted to see Julavits quote the Julian Barnes passage on episodicism versus narrativism that inspired my post on that topic back in January. Unsurprisingly, Julavits sees herself as a narrativist, drawing connections between different points in her life. She’s always pondering what small incidents reveal about her character. We learn that she’s so averse to inconveniencing others that she continued a phone call while nursing a wasp sting and once planned to pee in an airsickness bag rather than wake the two sleepers between her and the aisle on a flight. She avoids yard sales because she’s so cutthroat, and she’s been known to romanticize her daily life when e-mailing a friend in London: “I probably didn’t tell the truthiest truths. I never made stuff up. But I did strive to be entertaining. Such embellishments do not constitute lies. They constitute your personality.”

In one of the pieces that stood out most for me, Julavits feels typecast as a woman of a certain age when she attends a Virginia Woolf reading. “I am of that age now where I am looking for the next age I will be. How will I dress? How will I act?” It’s a good example of how she uses these mini-essays to negotiate the stages of life and contemplate her changing roles. Elsewhere she sums up her composite identity and what she seeks from her writing:

I am a jack-of-all-trades. I edit and teach and at times desire to be a clothing designer or an artist … and I write everything but poetry and I am a mother and a social maniac and a misanthrope and a burgeoning self-help guru and a girl who wants to look pretty and a girl who wants to look sexy and a girl who wants to look girly and a woman in her middle forties who wishes not to look like anything at all, who wishes sometimes to vanish.

I sometimes think this is why I became a writer. Here was a way to regularly exercise my desire. I could desire to do this thing that no one does perfectly, and by doing it and doing it I could learn how to desire more, and better. Here was an activity that would always leave me wanting … not youth exactly, but the opposite of death. That to me is a way to always feel like I am nowhere near the end.

Inevitably, some entries are more interesting than others, and Julavits’ neuroticism may grate for some readers, but I found this book to be chock-full of quotable lines and insights into what it means to be a time-bound human being. Like one of May Sarton’s journals, I read it slowly, just a few pieces at a time over the course of weeks, and I’ll be keeping it on the shelf to flick through if I ever need an example of how to write a piercing, bite-sized fragment of autobiography. I highly recommend it.

(See also this brief Guardian interview with Julavits.)


The Folded Clock: A Diary was published by Bloomsbury Circus on March 9th. My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.

My rating:

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21 thoughts on “The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

    1. I found it a little disorienting too at first: you’re not sure how everything fits together. In the Guardian interview she talked about ‘curating’ her memories as if they were museum pieces. I think she did have a grand scheme in mind, but it was hard to decipher. That’s probably why I didn’t read much at a time, as I struggled to find a narrative. Many of the individual pieces were excellent, though.

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  1. This sounds intriguing. I’m a fan of memoirs and diaries but so often I find myself reading those from the past. It would be a pleasing contrast to read something contemporary. I like the idea of ‘curating memories’ too!

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  2. Diaries about oneself tend to be a trifle narcissistic. What interest is a self, after all, except as a self-for-others? And these time shufflings seem mildly autistic. Hey, but I enjoy listening to you write (as is probably the case for listening to the author reviewed) despite the occasional typo. (I saw two.)

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    1. Self-involvement is a common critique of memoirs and diaries, but I don’t think there’s a way around that! The time jumbling was an interesting strategy, certainly, but I think if she’d left everything in its original chronological order there was a danger of it becoming boring. Thank you — I’m glad you enjoy my writing! If you let me know about the typos, I’ll gladly change them.

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      1. Typos: I saw one toward the end of the article (something like cors instead of course; typos taxi back to me in my own writing). And the you fixed a typo I wanted to point out — the missing name of Edie Sedgwick. So we’re okay, I mean you are. I enjoyed rereading the review; re-reviewing it. Nice job, although the expression “chock-full” derails me. I don’t know why.

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  3. This is one that I’ve been saving for a long time, because I’ve had a feeling that it’s going to be a real favourite, so I just lightly skimmed your thoughts (which only served to reinforce this idea) and then saw that you are a May Sarton fan too. She is one of my ATF writers and I have read and reread her journals many times. *contented sigh*

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    1. Yes, I love May Sarton’s journals, especially Journal of a Solitude. Luckily for me, I still have a few unread ones. How do you feel about her fiction? I’ve read two of her novels (Mrs. Stevens and As We Are Now) and I wasn’t too impressed. I have a couple others (Magnificent Spinster and Faithful Are the Wounds) on my Kindle, though. I’ve also read her collected poems.

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