The Truest Music
By Sven BirkertsJuly 2, 2018
The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl
Categories are a special curse for the writer of personal nonfiction, as Hampl knows well. She is a veteran practitioner of this shape-shifting genre. Her Blue Arabesque took its departure from her fascination with a painting and escaped ready labels; The Florist’s Daughter was a family portrait rendered slant through memories of the family business. And late in The Art of the Wasted Day, an extended meditation on leisure and the cultivation of inwardness, she reacts to a novel by writer Gustaf Sobin, announcing: “[T]here was too much magical realism for me, I suppose, or maybe I was becoming allergic to widow books, determined never to write one. Though — look at me.”
It is a tricky moment, a literary “tell,” conveying both Hampl’s determination to avoid and the countering impetus. The Art of the Wasted Day is not a widow book, even as the ghostly subnarrative, start to finish, is the recent death of her husband. That her sadness at the loss is felt throughout illustrates the paradox of restraint — how reticence, handled artfully, can resonate an emotion as fully as any direct expression. In the narrative, Hampl moves from place to place, pursuing her themes — solitude, writing, self-communion — but then every so often she will, figuratively speaking, turn to her absent partner with some remark. The effect is of an intensified intimacy; it is at once sorrowful and affirming. Even in absence she keeps his immediacy.
The Art of the Wasted Day is aptly and cunningly titled — aptly because the subject matter has to do with contemplative leisure (hence Montaigne), and cunningly because the phrase is a preempting of certain expectations. No one would expect such a book to move with logical agenda or, necessarily, come to a definite conclusion. It claims for itself the province of idleness and daydreaming, has as its aim the savoring of the passing moment.
Indeed, Hampl begins the book with a brief prelude in which she introduces the figure of Montaigne and sets the key signature for what is to follow. She writes, concluding her description: “He divined early the value of being sluggish, lax, drowsy […] He was not, as people now say, the first modern skeptic. He was the first modern daydreamer.”
From here she proceeds directly to her first section, “Timelessness,” in which she narrates a few scenes from her girlhood through the lens of her theme. She begins by remembering her neighbor, a Mr. Kinney, who liked to sit on his porch before dinner, sipping whiskey. He is the first of Hampl’s many contemplative dreamer avatars. But Mr. Kinney also has a housekeeper, his opposite number, and she takes Hampl’s measure straightaway: “She recognizes me […] for what I am: her natural enemy. A girl up to no good, lazing my days away, conducting music no one else hears. A time-waster. A daydreamer.”
That word again — it signifies. When Hampl is preparing to make her First Confession, the Sister at her Catholic school gives her the Baltimore Catechism to study, and there, among the listed sins, “shockingly, without explanation,” she finds daydreaming.
“I’m thunderstruck,” she writes.
Yet also oddly confirmed. A faint bell chimes within — of course the imagination is up to no good. You know that, you were born knowing that. It’s the real, the true occasion of sin. […] But connected to everything, conducting the unheard harmony that is the truest music. The sweetness of it. […] You possess everything that passes through the mind. It’s divinity. That must be the sweetness.
But connected to everything … Hampl is here laying the groundwork for her aesthetic, the life of writing as she will practice it. And as her rambling account, her flânerie, unfolds, she presents an array of scenes that together offer a nuanced apologia for the alternative life — the life in which being trumps doing and the apprehension and appreciation of our fleeting existence is the sovereign good.
Loose and associative though its agenda may be, a work like this still needs a certain structure. The Art of the Wasted Day is set up as a series of self-assigned exploratory travels, and though it is not billed as any sort of travelogue, the reader does eventually realize that nearly all of the “action” happens while Hampl is away from her native St. Paul. This accords perfectly with her reflective subject matter. Travel, for a sensibility like Hampl’s, is a state of heightened noticing and reflection. Escaped from habit, forced to navigate new circumstance and to interact with strangers, the writer takes nothing for granted. She finds her way forward, improvising, carrying on much like the essayist who writes to find out what she really thinks.
Hampl’s first destination is in Llangollen, Wales, where she looks to gather impressions and lore about two women, Sarah Ponsonby and Eleanor Butler, who in the late 1800s escaped Ireland and set up housekeeping together in that village. Their plan, which they fulfilled during their long lives together, was to create a routine of activities — reading and study, writing, gardening — in order to wrest from their days a maximum of self-directed pleasure. They had means, and shared the ambition. A newspaper article written a few years after they settled there bore the headline “Extraordinary Female Affection.” Writes Hampl: “The implication was clear: they were Sapphists.” But they were left alone to tend their lives. “Life lived, life described, the bits and pieces of the day collected, vignette by vignette. And thus, life affirmed. More than enough.”
Just as interesting as the description of the ladies’ life at Llangollen is Hampl’s counterpoint detailing of her days in the village, her various errands and interactions, her observations, her reading of Colette as she eats alone in the inn. Here is the beauty of the form — that it can accommodate her own daily notations, and at key moments convey the sense of the present merging with the past:
I feel slightly elderly — or possibly I feel stately, moving forward with my walking stick, a woman of means surveying my domain. I’m headed toward the nature walk the Ladies loved, the “Home Circuit,” what still exists of it, running along the Cuffleyman that rushes and burbles over the stones Eleanor often described in her journal as she did on a fine day in April 1788. The Ladies have taken their books into the garden, rising at six to an “enchanting morning.” Their morning reading is Sterne. Wonderful to think of them reading Tristram Shandy, a novel that is a meandering bunch of narrative snippets and essays. Another writer belonging, if more narratively, to Montaigne’s tribe.
The trip to Wales is followed by a section in which Hampl goes to Czechoslovakia, the ancestral home, where she follows the trail of the monk Gregor Mendel, another practitioner of orderly devotions. Mendel spent decades tending pea plants in the garden of his abbey, carrying out the studies that eventually led him to one of the great discoveries of science: the principles of genetic inheritance. “What I saw in his charting,” writes Hampl, “was clear evidence not of genetic theory, but of patience, tenderness […] Care and tending, the pacific life of gardening, the Edenic assignment that predated laboring ‘by the sweat of your brow.’” Here it is again, the counter to the ethos of industry, the celebration of the contemplative way. It is a fitting approach to her main exemplar, Montaigne.
Montaigne, the 16th-century humanist philosopher who lived and died in Bordeaux, served for a time as the mayor of that city, but retired in midlife to a tower room on his estate and lived out his days writing the essays that established him as the father of the genre. Montaigne was not writing to argue any point, unless that point was the ongoing exploration of the self. For Hampl, he holds a double appeal. There is his celebrated withdrawal from the ruckus of human affairs to study and write, and then there is what he wrote. Essays. Such a wealth of implication in the word itself. An essay is a venture, an attempt. It proposes not the Q.E.D. of arrival but ongoingness, forward motion.
The second half of the book, while loosely structured for digressive latitude, gradually gathers shape around these themes of Montaigne and the contemplative essay. Hampl is in France, on a literal pilgrimage, one that will ultimately lead her to Montaigne’s tower in Bordeaux. Her approach is unhurried — how else to stalk the master meanderer? — and allows her a number of side-road reflections on writing. These musings reveal the heart of Hampl’s own practice even as they shed generous light on Montaigne and the genre as a whole.
Thinking back, for example, on the lock-and-key leatherette diary she kept as a girl, which she calls “a book that was a room to live in alone,” Hampl explains how that writing was a practice of attention, which she regarded even then as a truth different from what was purveyed to her in religion class. It was not dogma.
This other truth was fluid, the mote in the eye, the sniff of the nose, the stroke of the hand reaching out. It was the truth of noticing, the patchwork of reality. It had no superstructure, no organization. Its order was the integrity of the eye, moving over chaos, but repudiating chaos by the fact of its attention.
That last phrase, repudiating chaos by the fact of its attention, gets us very close to the heart of the essayist’s — and artist’s — impulse.
A few pages later, Hampl takes up the decidedly unsexy business of tinkering, the endless-seeming process of trying to get it all right on the page. “Montaigne called what he was doing ‘meddling with writing,’” she observes,
as if it were impossible simply to latch onto a subject, write it for God’s sake, and be done with it. He discovered that the act of writing gets all tangled up with what is supposed to be “the subject.” Writing becomes the subject, or becomes part of the subject.
And, recalling how the writer J. F. Powers claimed to have spent the morning “trying to decide whether to have my character call his friend pal or chum,” she asserts that “whatever truth writing lays claim to resides in a passion for just such mad micro-distinctions.”
Hampl enfolds many of her observations about writing in her meandering account of her pilgrimage to Montaigne’s Bordeaux. One thing triggers another — that’s how it is with the essay. Looking back at her own evolution as an essayist, she pauses to reflect on Nabokov:
Perhaps only someone as thoroughly divested of his paradise as Nabokov had been of his boyhood Russia, his native language, and all his beloved associations and privileged expectations could enshrine the detail, the fragment, as the god of his literary religion, could trust the truths to be found in the DNA of detail, attentively rendered in ardent description. The dutiful observation that is the yeoman’s work of description finally ascended, as Nabokov demonstrated, to the transcendent reality of literature — to metaphor.
A reader could easily speed through these sentences, carried along by the sway of the language, but they repay a closer attention. That “DNA of detail,” and the exhilarating suggestion that the precise capture of a subject can render it transcendent — these are insights that can only come after long apprenticeship, and their meanings deepen with contemplation.
Hampl herself is herself a canny deployer of detail, with a developed instinct for strategic placement, for of course a detail is always a detail in context. If the writer has worked things right, and not too consciously, she can get a seemingly peripheral observation or moment to resonate the greater reality of what she is narrating. At such moments we experience a kind of “un-staging” — a feeling that we have gotten in behind the writerly orchestration — even if the effect itself has been subtly orchestrated.
A case in point is her focus on the shoe. Long after I have forgotten much of what happens in this book, I know I will remember this one detail. It is for me the axis of the book, and retrospectively everything else gathers around it, like the wilderness around Wallace Stevens’s famous jar in Tennessee. Writes Hampl:
When you come upon the statue of Montaigne in Paris, you find him amid overgrown greenery in the Carré Paul-Painlevé, across from the main approach to the Sorbonne on the rue des Écoles. He’s sequestered in the bushes, as if in bronze he preferred the margin he chose in life. The first thing you notice is his shoe. Even at night, the shoe emerges clearly, golden against the dusky bronze of his casually seated figure, cross-legged, bending forward as if to catch what you might be saying there on the sidewalk.
Hampl’s first “contact” with the great Montaigne may be the most vivid. This has everything to do with the specificity of the sighting and the mini-narrative she spins around it. She is here remembering being in Paris some years before with her husband. It’s evening and they are hurrying through the rain to get to a restaurant when she spots it. Of course they have to stop. “Out with the iPhone. Snap snap, “ she writes. “Got the shoe. Didn’t, couldn’t quite, get the face.”
You were patient, standing there in the dripping cold, holding the black umbrella over me as I got the shoe, tried for the face. Only now I see you were glad to pause in the rain, glad not to keep up the pace. It was the beginning of slowing down, the beginning of your bum ticker deciding things, the beat slowing, slower. Stopped, finally. But we didn’t think that then — or I didn’t.
This is lightest of touches here, but it gathers reverberating power as we read on about the more recent road trip to Bordeaux, the pilgrimage, which she is making with a friend. Her traveling impressions are wonderfully sensory, as when she describes having dinner in a country house where they have lodged for the night: “Candles, the rest of the wine, chicken unctuous in a bronzed sauce, pale shallots pillowed under the soft lacquer of the sauce, and sweet. Then some kind of nut liquor in tiny shot glasses. Sipping, sighing.”
It is after Hampl and her friend have arrived at Montaigne’s chateau the next day that she ducks to pass through a low doorway and smacks her head into the wall. She sees a swirl of stars, and remarks the cliché with a certain bemusement. But she also remembers from her reading that Montaigne, riding, had once collided with another rider and had fallen from his horse; he had been knocked unconscious and taken for dead. Of course, he recovered to write of the experience, as Hampl writes of hers, finding in that accident one of her culminating realizations: “To express experience accurately you must, paradoxically, be knocked out of yourself — knocked out of the inevitable narcissism and egotism that is our narrative lot.”
There are blows like this, knockout events, in every life. By now we understand that for Hampl it was the death of her husband and great companion. How to carry on? She has declared herself resolved not to write “a widow’s book,” and contrary to her own suspicion, she has not. But there is also no denying that the whole of her essayistic meander has been touched by sorrow, hinted at but mainly skirted. Finally, though, she takes it on more directly. In the last pages of the book she shifts her address, speaking less to the reader and more fully to her absent partner. We get the all-powerful second person, as well as the embrace of the first-person plural. Hampl has gone to sit on their old boat, which is docked on the Mississippi, and now her tone takes on a more intimate cast. “I still come down here,” she says, “sit, read, stare out at the river as the barges go by this scruffy city marina tucked under the High Bridge. We never thought of mooring the boat out of the city.”
There with their dog, Hampl lets the memories of their times on the river come back to her. Should she keep the boat or sell it, she wonders. The question hovers, but she does not press it too hard. Instead, she succumbs to her reveries, savoring the spirit of the long marriage, and then lets herself shade back into thoughts of Montaigne. She quotes: “Our great and glorious masterpiece is to live appropriately.” To the reader it feels that she has — the pages are the evidence. And there is the suggestion of a wink as she adds, turning back to her originating theme: “To do this you must be idle. He says this in his Essai titled — what else? — ‘On Idleness.’”
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