At seventeen I was so enamored of life, of its vagaries, its soaring flights and precipitous depths,” writes Kate Simon, ”that I promised myself I would experience everything, stipulating no qualities good or bad, and it has pretty much all happened.” And it is pretty much all in this mordant, evocative, and unsparing book, except for what is already in the previous two volumes of her memoirs, Bronx Primitive and A Wider World, which took Simon through her tumultuous childhood and adolescence. In this volume, the Bronx and her struggles with her despotic Polish-Jewish immigrant father are far behind. Her story is that of the emergence of an adventurous, self-sufficient travel writer from a long ordeal as an insecure wife and bereaved mother.
Wherever she goes in the nomadic, far-flung course of Etchings in an Hourglass, Simon runs into two mysterious strangers, Eros and Thanatos, sex and death, making the book a mosaic of wistful lyricism, grotesque comedy, and bitter tragedy. In her 30s, ”chilled to the bone with loneliness” after the death of her first husband, she plunges into an affair with a married man and discovers ”a great multicolored explosion of sexual fullness.” Thoroughly infatuated, she quits her job to be home when he calls to arrange their clandestine couplings; five years later, the sex is wearing thin, the man is flirting with waitresses, and she takes refuge in Mexico accompanied by uneasy memories.
In India, amid vivid vignettes of markets, beggars, and a storybook guru who utters fortune-cookie prophecies, we are given a slapstick subplot starring two Indian guides named Nick and Jack, with Kate and her fellow middle-aged tourist, Sara, in supporting roles. At dinner at the best tandoori restaurant in Delhi, one of the guides guides Kate’s hand to his lap and keeps it fully employed there as the conversation continues and the chicken is consumed, and this is just the beginning of the curious comedy of eros that has the two women running around India chased by ungainly libidos.
There is a brief, idyllic affair in Mexico with a stately midwesterner, but otherwise Simon spends much of her time attracting and eluding the desperately lonely and sexually wayward. A stunning Mexican woman insinuates herself in Simon’s bed before being firmly routed. A Scandinavian man and his beautiful Chinese wife form a hypnotic, disturbing platonic triangle with her in Mexico City. Roman homosexuals cry on her shoulder and introduce her to the city’s transvestite underworld.
Added to her alert sense of the dark undercurrents in human relationships is the profound anger in her account of the deaths — all from brain tumors — of her first husband, her sister, and her beloved, vibrantly promising daughter, who died before she was 20. During this time Simon begins to think ”of God, or Nature, or Life” as ”criminally insane.” Among other things, this book is about raging against the dying of the light. Confronting the cancer that killed her just after this book was finished, early this year, she writes: ”As death, a gigantic crab, stared at me and I at him, I found that I wasn’t afraid — furious, but not afraid.” A