Book review: The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl
If you’re a “seeker” (and who, opening a book, is not?), isn’t the open road the only way, paradoxically, to find the lost life of daydream where all the rest – wisdom, decency, generosity, compassion, joy, and plain honesty – are sequestered?
If life is a journey, has it just become a getaway to somewhere warm on JetBlue? How to be a pilgrim without being either a tourist or, worse, a pious trekker, lugging freeze-dried soup on your back, believing it’s all about “getting away” – especially from other people?
Reading Patricia Hampl doesn’t feel like reading other memoirists. Her prose wanders and rambles, and it actually feels like the progression of a daydream – bouncing from one loosely connected thought to the next, being reminded of something you read once or a quote you remember and like, your awareness popping back from time to time to the thing that’s weighing on your mind underneath it all.
For Hampl, that underlying thought is the loss of her life’s great love, her husband. She addresses her thoughts to him as they come to her, when she’s reminded of something they did or discussed or shared. It’s so bittersweet.
This is memoir but blends travelogue, literary theory, poetic prose – a strange mishmash of genres and themes but it somehow works.
Although I didn’t necessarily like or connect with every foray she made – for instance, her memories in Catholic school or discussions of certain esoteric literature weren’t as interesting to me to read about as her travels or meandering musings through topics of psychology, relationships, etc. But it all felt worth reading, because her writing buries some little linguistic gem or revelation amidst a page of sentences you weren’t sure you were interested in in the first place.
Hampl’s inquiries have to do with what it means to waste time, and if it’s really wasted when it’s spent deep in thought that makes you happy or intellectually and emotionally satisfied, and what leisure really means to different people. She finds, from her research and tracing the lives of authors, poets, essayists, nuns, Gregor Mendel – different figures whose life’s work she admires – that you need leisure in order to think, create, and contribute. It’s a simple truth but she underscores it sweetly, in an off the beaten path sort of way.
Hampl travels to Bordeaux to see the chateau of the father of the essay, Martin Montaigne, and to Moravia to learn about Mendel and monastic life. Here she weaves in her personal experience connected to the Iron Curtain falling over Europe and her family’s history in the Czech Republic, and a remembered youthful visit to Prague. This section in particular was a beautiful example of what goes into, or is purposefully kept out of, personal writing. I loved getting this glimpse.
Her first foray, to rural Wales to see the home of two reclusive Irish women who withdrew from the world to live together, was a strange one – I’m actually not even sure who the women were (in my defense, it’s easy to get lost in her narrative style and it’s not necessarily a bad thing either. I liked just going where her wandering mind led me.) What was more interesting was her experience during the travel, and what it made her reflect on in her own life. That’s the best kind of travel writing, in my opinion – what a place can teach you about yourself, or what memories it stokes in you, how it changes you.
Beyond this, the book is difficult to describe. Hampl writes about literature and interpretation, then on deeply personal topics, like the aforementioned loss of her husband (though never too directly) while recalling moments they spent together and their adventures – the sweetest of which was a surprising one taken on a Mississippi river cruiser. She writes a lot about writing, and of course what she’s gleaned from the figures she admires about the art of solitude and its importance for creation.
Details, tossed into the shoebox of the mind, fragments. Not a regal “story” riding its narrative arc. Just a bunch of snapshots, never amounting to a shape, but too tender to be tossed.
Otherwise this book is a journey beyond categorization. If you’re interested in literary theory or analysis (this aspect was sometimes a little dry for me, elsewhere completely lovely – very open to personal preference), musings on being alone and stoking creativity, history’s effects on a personal level, and allowing yourself the luxury of alone time and what some would call laziness or daydreaming but for others is reflective, meditative time vital for inspiration – then this is a great read.
Some favorite lines:
Still looking for bliss in nothing at all, the cloudy mind moving over existence, outside time.
I hardly realized all these trips were pilgrimages, sometimes spiritual, more often secular, hajjes to to the homes or haunts of figures I knew – or felt I knew, people who flared alive in my mind from reading. They seemed to invite me from the page to call on them, as if they were there, a trace at least.
…the second glass of wine, my low-grade misery, my difficulty claiming my place on planet earth.
I took myself off to the Minneapolis Institute of Art and sat down in front of a Bonnard. I wrote the painting. Described it. I went home and looked at a teacup on the table – wrote that too. Still-life descriptions that ran on for several pages. I wrote and wrote, describing my way through art galleries and the inadvertent still lives of my house and my memory, my grandmother’s garden, her Sunday dinners.
To my growing astonishment, these descriptive passages, sometimes running two, three pages, even longer, had a way of shearing off into narrative after all. The teacup had been given to me by my mother. And once I thought of the fact that she had bought these cups, made in Czechoslovakia, as a bride just before the Second World War, I was writing about that war, about my mother and her later disappointments, which somehow were – and were not – part of this fragile cup. Description, which had seemed like background in novels, static and inert as a butterfly pinned to the page of my notebook, proved to be a dynamic engine that stoked voice and, even more, propelled the occasional narrative arc.
But what of lives lived in the flyover? Lives that don’t have that powerful, if terrible, historical resonance of radical suffering. Ordinary lives. Mine in middling Minnesota in the middle of the twentieth century. Why bother to describe it? Because all details are divine, not just Nabokov’s. In fact, the poorer the supposed value, the more the detail requires description to attest to its divinity.
There’s something joyful and hopeful in Hampl’s writing, even amidst some of the melancholy that comes with reflecting on loss and the past. A dreamlike retreat for writers and creative types, imparting wisdom on writing, solitude, history, love, loss, and adventure.
The Art of the Wasted Day
by Patricia Hampl
published April 17, 2018 by Viking
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.
This sounds so interesting. I’m not sure it’s the kind of book I could pick up at any old time but if I were in the right mood it’d be amazing.
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That’s exactly how to take this one – you have to be in the right mood for it and when you are, it’s wonderful. I had one day while reading that I put it aside and read something else because I wasn’t in the right frame of mind, and another day where I was glued to it and at the risk of sounding cheesy, really reflecting and feeling things alongside with what I was reading. So it’s definitely one of those! Very meditative.
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Sounds interesting! Thanks!
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Oh dear. My to – read list is getting out of control, but this sounds interesting. Thank you for the thoughtful review–very helpful.