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Issue Date:  January 11, 2008

Patricia Hampl
Pilgrim soul

Memoirist Patricia Hampl talks about the quest literature of our time


Reading Patricia Hampl is a little like coming home, not necessarily to the house you grew up in but to a place that nonetheless seems familiar. It’s an intimate experience and an exhilarating one, partly because of the elegance with which Ms. Hampl writes, partly because of the acuteness of her insights. You read her words and you feel a thrill of recognition shot with gratitude. That’s exactly it, you say in triumph, as if it were you rather than she who nailed the passing moment in all its ambiguity and color.

Memoir has been called the literary genre of our age, and Patricia Hampl is a master of it. “Memoir and I grew up together,” said the 61-year-old author, who published her first memoir, A Romantic Education, in 1981, when the category of memoir didn’t yet command its own shelves at bookstores. The author of two books of poetry and six books of nonfiction, most of them considered memoirs, Ms. Hampl has had her work recognized by a Guggenheim fellowship, two National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships (one in poetry and the other in prose) and a MacArthur “genius” award.

In the last two years, she’s come out with two new books, Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, a meditation on art, women and spirituality inspired by Matisse, and The Florist’s Daughter, a memoir that picks up the threads laid down in A Romantic Education. The latter depicted Ms. Hampl’s Catholic girlhood in St. Paul, Minn., and her sojourn to communist Czechoslovakia as the author, granddaughter of Czech immigrants, explored her heritage. The Florist’s Daughter opens with Ms. Hampl sitting at the deathbed of her mother and within the 24-hour period that the book depicts the reader is treated to a detailed evocation of Ms. Hampl’s suspicious, acid-tongued mother and her honorable, unworldly father, a man dedicated to bringing beauty to the world through flowers.

Necessarily, the author figures in the story if only as the storyteller, the family rebel and one-time hippie who longed to leave the Midwest and yet grew up to become the faithful daughter, the mainstay of her parents in their old age.

In conversation, Ms. Hampl talked about the memoir, its popularity and privileged status today, its role as the quest literature of our time. “It’s an inquiry,” she said. “You’re in possession of something and you pause to look back in order to move forward.” Whereas journalism depicts what happens, memoir, said Ms. Hampl, is how people reflect on what has happened. And for her, she said, memoir is not always or necessarily about herself. “It’s not about me. It’s about using me,” she said. “It’s about the world I’m creating using the first person. The first person is the instrument, not the subject.”

Ms. Hampl said her life put her in possession of two subjects: the long, lingering life of immigration and her experience of Catholicism. The romantic Catholic education she received attending a private school for girls run by cloistered nuns vanished after Vatican II; since then, Ms. Hampl has written affectionately about that world and probed its differences from contemporary Catholic practice.

But one way or another, Catholicism seems to pervade all of Ms. Hampl’s work. To read her is to read a peculiarly Catholic writer, not a common characteristic for a writer these days, a throwback to another era in which writers like Flannery O’Connor and Graham Greene attested to the permeable borders of faith and literature. Much of that seems gone these days. But not, it appears, for Ms. Hampl.

Cadillac Catholicism
Mine was a Catholic girlhood spent gorging on metaphor -- Mystical Body, transubstantiation, dark night of the soul, the little martyrdom of everyday life. And remember, girls, life is a journey. Your own life is a pilgrimage. Maybe we had too much meaning too early. It was like having too much money. The quirkiness of life was betrayed, given inflated significance by our rich symbology. We powered around our ordinary lives in the Cadillac language of Catholic spirituality, looking on with pity as the Protestants pedaled their stripped-down bicycles.

-- An excerpt from Virgin Time

It wasn’t always the case. For 20 years, Ms. Hampl said she never set foot in a church, not even to look at art. In her mid-30s, however, she returned to the practice of Catholicism. “The way in for me was through Franciscan monasticism,” she said. “A group of Poor Clare nuns. I went to the Poor Clare monastery in Minnesota and it was love at first sight. I began going to Mass there, and I never stopped and that was 25 years ago.”

The Poor Clares presented her with a conundrum.

“It was fascinating in our contemporary world to think of contemplative nuns who had dedicated their lives, their days and their intelligence to prayer,” Ms. Hampl said. “No fools these women. They were and are passionate, profoundly inquiring, intelligent. Why were they doing this? Why were they putting prayer first? I wanted to pursue that.

A skeptical seeker

The book that grew out of that pursuit, Virgin Time, is an inquiry into the contemplative life. “The spine of the book, the through line,” as Ms. Hampl puts it, is Assissi. In the book, published in 1992, Ms. Hampl tacks back and forth between Assissi and her childhood in Minnesota, with stops in Lourdes and a women’s monastery in Northern California. Along the way, she serves up dead-on, humorous depictions of her fellow travelers’ eccentricities and a wry, self-deprecating look at herself as the skeptical but hopeful pilgrim. It’s a kind of Canterbury Tales for today’s world. The Minnesota nuns feature only briefly in the book, though they act as an anchor and inspiration for it.

They still have that effect on Ms. Hampl, who lives with her husband in St. Paul and is Regents Professor in the English Department at the University of Minnesota. “It was reaching for the deep experience of being alive. That was what they were focused on,” she reflected. Part of what drew her to the Poor Clare sisters was the psalms they recited, she said, and the effect those psalms had on the sisters’ lives.

“I came to perceive that they were living poetry,” Ms. Hampl said. “I don’t mean hearts and flowers and pretty thoughts and sentimental emotions but that they were living the raw utterance of what it is to be a striving, desirous human being and that they were singing or saying those ancient, ancient poems every few hours of the day all their lives. The rhythm of that was immensely powerful, overwhelming to me,” she said.

Today, despite her description of herself as a “lefty” in the culture wars, a rebellious child who retains some of that in her relationship with her church, Ms. Hampl seems very much at home with her Catholicism.

“As an adult, I began to understand that the church is a cultural artifact,” Ms. Hampl said. “It’s a big mess of a thing. It was when I began to accept the fact that it’s a human construction that I could let go of my earlier rebellion against it as not being perfect, as having all sorts of warts. Suddenly it seemed very funny to me that I expected it to be perfect.

Not only acceptance but gratitude and enthusiasm lurk behind Ms. Hampl’s words. Catholicism is her language, her natural tongue, she said. It’s who she is.

“I like being a Catholic,” she said. “I like being embattled with it, and I like being uplifted by it. Some of my best friends are atheists. I have no desire to convert them. But it feels threadbare to me.”

Published in October, The Florist’s Daughter is not as explicitly a Catholic book as Virgin Time, but it is suffused with Ms. Hampl’s memories of her Catholic upbringing, as is Blue Arabesque, published in 2006. A key scene in Blue Arabesque occurs early in the book when the author asks a cloistered nun what she considers the core of the contemplative life. “Leisure,” the sister replies, surprising Ms. Hampl. It’s the catalyst for all that follows in the book -- an extended essay, or, rather, a series of apercus on time, perception, consciousness and art radiating out from a discussion of Matisse’s painting.

Playful and profound, it reveals the depth and liveliness of Ms. Hampl’s intelligence, the wide arc of her imagination. The book is another pilgrimage for Ms. Hampl, one that ends with her visit to the Chapel of the Rosary that Matisse designed in Vence, France, for a former model. She eventually became Sr. Jacques-Marie, and it was for her that Matisse designed what he regarded as his greatest work. In a stroke of serendipity, Ms. Hampl, clutching Sr. Jacques-Marie’s memoir, meets the aged nun, still alive much to Ms. Hampl’s surprise.

Spirituality, feminism, art -- Ms. Hampl comes full circle in Blue Arabesque, from her first artistic epiphany standing before Mattise’s painting of a woman gazing at a goldfish to her discussion of Matisse’s odalisques, the languorous voluptuaries that provoke, outrage and transcend Western stereotypes of women in the East. As in Virgin Time, contemplation is at the core of the book, though here it is artistic contemplation rather than religious contemplation that is the focus. But the book suggests how similar the two are, and how contemplation is intertwined with creativity.

Contemplation is, of course, central to the memoir. A life spent in contemplation produces a certain grace, or should, one thinks. An angry contemplative seems an oxymoron, almost a monstrosity, and while there are angry memoirs -- the kiss-and-tell confession seems a backbone of the genre -- a quarter-century of reflection should be purgative. Or maybe it’s truer to say the memoir form attracts both those with an ax to grind and those whose temperament inclines them to reflection. There are memoirs and there are memoirists.

An observant eye

In Ms. Hampl’s case, the longtime habit of reflection seems to have engendered honesty along with generosity; people are described frankly in her books but rarely judged. That’s true of the depiction of her family in The Florist’s Daughter, including the straightforward portrait of the fractures in her parents’ marriage. Unabashedly autobiographical in a way that Blue Arabesque is not, the memoir is about ordinary people who seem innocent and heroic, willful and passionate, but never average -- a concept that applies to statistics but not, one realizes, to human beings.

“I think everybody should write a memoir,” Ms. Hampl said, who notes that in writing The Florist’s Daughter she came to perceive her parents in terms not only of their individuality but of the age they lived in, the Depression era that shaped their choices.

Memoir is the most personal form of literature. Reading Patricia Hampl’s books, I have the illusion that I know her. There’s the ardent young Midwestern girl hungry for experience; the self-aware adult who winces at her inability to surmount her convent-bred politeness; the gifted artist whose maturity of mind equals her astounding reach. But of course, as Ms. Hampl points out, what’s revealed in her books is a version of herself, not the complete self. In person, she surprises me by being much more the poet than I’d imagined. Memoir and poetry are closer than people realize, she observes, the membrane between them intimate and porous. She tells me that memoir should not be categorized as nonfiction but as non-poetry.

The allure of faith, the search for religious experience, the yearning for a dedicated life -- these are subjects that surface in Ms. Hampl’s work time and again. We talk about the current rash of books on atheism. Why is it, she’s asked, that people have such a hard time believing in God, believing in anything today?

“I think people misunderstand the relationship between science and faith. They misunderstand the wellspring of faith,” she said. “The life of faith squares with the life of poetry, not with the life of science. Note that we also diminish and denigrate poetry, meaning ‘That’s just made up.’ We don’t understand what poetry is and what it’s for. If we did, we wouldn’t have such trouble with faith. By faith, I don’t mean signing up for a set of catechistic beliefs. I mean the recognition of wonder that pulls one’s self out of one’s self into the life of prayer.

The book Virgin Time refers to the virgin point between light and darkness, the instant when creation waits on the threshold to be born. Time -- and timelessness -- is a leitmotif in Ms. Hampl’s work. An elegiac tone pervades her work, a nostalgia for a slower pace of life when people could gaze and wonder, not glimpse life on the fly in rushed commute. I ask Ms. Hampl if she’s achieved that sense of unhurried contemplation in her own life. There’s the Ivory Tower she inhabits, the graced life of a professor that non-academics sometimes imagine. Heavens, no, she shakes her head in disbelief. She mentions her students, all pressing to make their way in life. She feels, she said, as if she’s standing in the middle of a very busy intersection.

“You write about what you desire more than what you experience,” Ms. Hampl said. “You write about what you long for.”

Margot Patterson is an editor at NCR.

National Catholic Reporter, January 11, 2008

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