An Ode to Daydreaming, the History of Angels, and a Detective's New Case
It’s Minnesota Alumni’s quarterly books roundup.
In this era in which no one admits to having a spare moment and everyone brags about how busy they are, it’s surprising to come across a book like the new one by Patricia Hampl. The Art of the Wasted Day (Viking) is a paean to the joys of silence, solitude, and most of all, uninterrupted times of ease.
Hampl, the author of eight books of poetry and prose and a longtime creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota, has hardly led a life of leisure. Nevertheless, she starts this book by looking back at her own discovery of daydreaming, which she describes as “this inner glide, articulation of the wordless, plotless truth of existence . . . this effortless flight of the mind.” Only Hampl could so beautifully articulate something as ephemeral yet universal as daydreaming.
A good Catholic girl from St. Paul, she is horrified to realize that the church considers daydreaming a kind of covetousness, an occasion for sin. And as a pre-Vatican II Catholic, she recognizes too that anything so sweet must also be sinful.
Yet, despite years of to-do lists, accomplishments, and literary output, Hampl remains drawn to those characters from history who have lived lives of “honorable leisure,” no longer “awash in the brackish flotsam of effort.”
She proceeds to travel the world exploring the homes and lives of the famously indolent: the Victorian “Ladies of Llangollen,” who spent half a century retired in the Welsh countryside; Gregor Mendel, father of genetics but also a gentle monk and gardener, who “passed his days within the liturgy of Hours;” and Michel de Montaigne, the writer/philosopher who famously defended what Hampl calls “the imagination as the crucible of freedom,” once writing, “it is an absolute perfection and virtually divine to know how to enjoy our being rightfully.”
Hampl devotes many pages to Montaigne, struck by his insistence on the necessity of “wasted time” spent imagining and dreaming. “It is our rightful business,” Hampl paraphrases him, “to think, to muse, to wonder—to describe—using this image-beset faculty of mind for the job.”
She travels to the French philosopher’s chateau near Bordeaux to visit his writing room and his tower, and to gaze at the same blooming chestnut trees he did when he wrote that one must be “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”
But, how is that accomplished? Hampl answers, as Montaigne did: “By acquiescing to the leisure that is apparently so elusive, but is the key to ‘the life of the mind.’”
It’s an unwieldy task, exploring the notions of daydreaming and imagination, and it’s difficult to cultivate that flight of the mind. Hampl is at her best when she wrestles with the age-old conflict between getting stuff done and staying still enough to think. As in several of her previous books, especially The Florist’s Daughter and A Romantic Education, her memories from childhood are especially good at bringing the narrative to life: daydreaming under the beechnut tree; the way playing the piano made her thoughts soar; the reverential state she entered while riding her bicycle through the streets of St. Paul.
Sometimes, as Hampl makes her way through this elusive topic, she wanders off—literally and figuratively—on side journeys and tangents, many seemingly irrelevant to the subject at hand. There are lengthy descriptions of French inns, Welsh tea shops, and long lunches with Czech friends. Is it wrong to be bugged by digressions in a work about the pleasures of wasting time?
Woven through the book is a tantalizingly lovely, if scant, mini-memoir of her marriage to Terrence Williams, who died in 2016. Williams, 17 years Hampl’s senior, had long urged her to slow down, do less, and enjoy the moment.
She ends her book musing about whether a certain dove is called morning or mourning, asking Williams dreamily, “Which is it darling? Can’t remember or never knew. But I have the time now, don’t I?”
And… the roundup
Likely to be popular among younger readers is Sally Franson’s (M.F.A. ’13) first novel, A Lady’s Guide to Selling Out (Dial/Random House), described in publicity materials as Mad Men meets The Devil Wears Prada in the age of Instagram. It follows the story of Casey Pendergast, a would-be writer turned ad hack who persuades respected authors to shill for various businesses, some of them downright nasty. It ends with Casey, having had an epiphany, leaving advertising behind for the world of podcasting, but by then you may not like this protagonist.
Equally awash in pop culture but written in a more serious—almost reverential—tone is The World Only Spins Forward: The Ascent of Angels in America (Bloomsbury). In this, on the 25th anniversary of its Broadway premiere, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America earns its definitive history, written by director/writer Isaac Butler (M.F.A. ’13) and Dan Kois, a writer/editor for Slate. This oral history is compiled from a daunting series of 225 interviews with directors, cast members, producers, and others involved with the play and its later HBO adaptation.
Also extolling the magic of the arts is Mary Sharratt’s Ecstasy (Houghton Mifflin), a fictionalized reimagining of the life of Austrian composer Alma Schindler. Married to composer Gustav Mahler, architect Walter Gropius, and novelist Franz Werfel, Schindler struggled to accomplish her own work in a culture and time when women were not encouraged to do so. Given the many well-known artists who surrounded Schindler— she was friendly with iconic painter Gustav Klimt, among others—Sharratt’s (B.A. ’88) vivid novel makes for a great, gossipy, historical read.
Closer to home,The Deep Dark Descending (Seventh Street Books) is a mystery set squarely in our own home state. Allen Eskens’s (B.A. ’89) fourth volume, following his acclaimed The Life We Bury, alternates between Minneapolis and “Up North.” Homicide detective Max Rupert, who has discovered that his wife’s death was no accident, is bent on finding the killer and exacting revenge. You’ll shiver for more reasons than one as you flip between a remote frozen lake and landmarks like Hennepin County Medical Center and Lake of the Isles.
Still in Minnesota and still dark—but, sadly, nonfiction—is The Crusade for Forgotten Souls: Reforming Minnesota’s Mental Institutions, 1946–54 by Susan Bartlett Foote (University of Minnesota Press). Foote, a retired U professor of public health, tells the story of a group of Minnesota citizens who set about reforming the deplorable conditions in the state’s mental institutions.
Lynette Lamb (M.A. ’84) is a longtime Twin Cities editor and writer and a regular book reviewer for the Star Tribune.