Sunday, June 5, 2011

Speaking aloud our secrets (Books - I Could Tell You Stories by Patricia Hampl)

Patricia Hampl has made art of contemplation through writing. Her collection of essays I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory sift through the subjects of self and narrative, turning them over and over as one would a favorite stone. Two sorts of essays emerge from this act. One sort look at how ordinary life is lifted to the light, beheld as beautiful or horrible, in the act of writing about our own and others' lives, an act that is always irrevocable. Others observe poetry or prose in the act of encapsulating, of speaking for us of the revelations that we were sure were private and uniquely ours. She considers both sorts memoir - literary narrative creations of self, and yet works of non-fiction.

I haven't read really good pieces about the acts of reading, writing and how they are important to our lives in some time. Reading Hampl often evoked for me the experience of reading Virginia Woolf's essays, though her subject matter is more contemporary, she can be funnier, and she writes out of an era that has broken with the kind of formal literary cannon Woolf reckoned with and bucked against.
A writer is, first and last, a reader. Who do you write for? Gertrude Stein was asked, and famously replied, "Myself and strangers." That self, the reader-self who is allied with strangers, may be a writer's better half, more detached, more trustworthy, than the writing self who swaggers through a lifetimes of prose. It is difficult - and diminishing - to separate the self who writes from the one who reads. Both acts belong to the communion of the word, which is a writer's life.
Her opening invitation is to revel in this communion - which is the action of the essays that follow. They attempt to distinguish the act of making memoir from making fiction:
Memoirists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to "tell a story." They want to tell it all...Memoirists wish to tell their mind, not their story.
and to separate the act of reading from writing. This may sound a trifle simplistic, but it is an important consideration if one's job becomes to write. Having taught art making process for years, it is an essential early act in the formation of that thing artists call technique. Future actors approach their profession from having first sat in the audience, just as future writers approached theirs through reading. It is usually difficult to abandon one's lifelong habit of admiration for one of the strange actions that embody the artist's daily routine.
I think of the reader as a cat, endlessly fastidious, capable by turns of mordant indifference and riveted attention, luxurious, recumbent, ever poised. whereas the writer is absolutely a dog, panting and moping, too eager for an affectionate scratch behind the ears, lunging frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.
I think the term "alchemy" has been overused to exemplify an artistic synthesis of disparate influences into a new and surprising whole, yet I can think of no better metaphor for Hampl's accomplishment in her essay The Mayflower Moment. It combines the act of reading Walt Whitman's poems at lunch following the filling of her first birth control pill prescription, with the cauldron year of 1968 in which that took place, with the contemporary remembering of that act and a reconsideration of those poems.
I settled into the Reuben sandwich which, though big enough for two, was going to feed just one and no doubt about it now. I picked up the book (always bring a book to the doctor's office; they always make you wait: the wisdom of my mother - who didn't know about this doctor's appointment). I propped the book between the sugar dispenser and the plate, and I read and ate and was happy in my new high-tech body.
Holy cow, what a precise, relationship-filled, hilarious, and ultimate appropriate paragraph to usher in a serious reading of the premier poet of America's individualist creed! Her reading becomes a celebration of Whitman's powerful interaction with his reader. It begins with his direct address to his reader, his specific instructions for where one should be when reading, and his ultimate act of transmogrification of self into book:
Camerado, this is no book,
Who touches this touches a man...
Self transformation, and the literary form that that transformation takes - autobiography, poetry, fiction that acts to either revel in or obviate the self - is the refrain of Hampl's compelling contemplation. She considers, for example, the transformation of of Edith Stein, German Jewish philosopher, whose controversial spiritual transformation to a nun of the Carmelite order does not exclude her from murder by the Nazis at Auschwitz.
"The self is the individual's way of structuring experience." Self was necessary - but not for itself. It was necessary as the experiencer of "phenomena," of reality as it is absorbed by a life. Self was meant, in a real sense, to be lost. A kind of blessed anonymity attended the most genuine life, the most realized self.
Hampl reads Sylvia Plath's Ariel as embodying the very act of spiritual transformation, in a passionate essay I found hard to fully enter, so relentlessly was it colored by Hampl's Catholic upbringing. Yet I admired its brilliance and the apropos trinity of writers which she considered - Plath, Simone Weil, and Franz Kafka (although Kafka gets much more air time in a later essay) - all of whose writing was born of devotion to their suffering, which is, I suppose, itself an act of contemplation.

Narrative born of anguish, whether spiritual suffering or the horrors of the Holocaust, is another motif in Hampl's collection as she considers the original autobiographer - St. Augustine, the poet Czeslaw Milosz, and diarist Anne Frank in three separate essays. I found her short Chinese-mirror of-a-piece about the difficulty of writing a review of Anne Frank's iconic book a revelation about writing process. In it, she considers Anne Frank in the context of writing her diary and her reading of poet John Berryman's essay about Anne Frank's diary which unblocks her stuck process of writing a review of a new edition of The Diary of Anne Frank. I love what she says about her enjoyment of writing book reviews:
Reviewing has never struck me as having much to do with assigning scores or handing out demerits. The reviewer's job - and pleasure - is akin to any reader's. It is the pleasure of talk. If nobody talks about books, if they are not discussed or somehow contended with, literature ceases to be a conversation, ceases to be dynamic. Most of all, it ceases to be intimate. It degenerates into a monologue or a mutter. An unreviewed book is a struck bell that gives no resonance.
Indeed, that conversation is what draws me here to write this and, I hope, you to read it. Hampl's final essay considers the consequences of writing memoirs about real people, rather than fiction.
What memory "sees," it must regard through the image-making faculty of the mind. The parallel lines of memory and imagination cross finally and collide in narrative. The casualty is the dead body of privacy lying smashed on the track.
She considers the twin practices of privacy and expression in narrative as dueling "religions," an apt metaphor for the partisan passions they arouse and the devotional discipline required to practice them. This deeply thoughtful,vibrant, and generative collection of essays might be considered a meditation on narrative as a practice. One, Hampl tells us, that is not without costs, but whose benefits are worthwhile in giving voice to what are inherently the most private contents of our selves - love, spiritual creed, or suffering.

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