A Hit and a Miss

It feels like an age since I’ve written about any books. This must be partly because the books I’ve been reading lately have often left me uncertain how I feel about them. I’m not sure whether it was because of the writing course, which encouraged us to unpack pieces of writing (I’m not exactly unused to that) or whether it’s just been the nature of the past couple of months with their run of irritations that have put me in a funny place in relation to my books. It’s one of the great paradoxical truths of existence that the more you long for things to be perfect, the less likely it is that they will be so.

Matisse woman with goldfishNothing ruins the experience of a book more surely than having too high expectations for it, and I wonder whether that was at the root of my troubles with Patricia Hampl’s Blue Arabesque; A Search for the Sublime. In theory this ticked all my boxes. I’d read one of Hampl’s essays on the writing course and been very impressed by it. This book was exactly the sort of hybrid creative non-fiction that I am most interested in, a journey across time and space that begins with the sighting of a Matisse painting in the Art Institute of Chicago. A young woman at the time, Hampl is on her way to lunch with a friend when she is stopped dead in her tracks by Matisse’s picture of a woman contemplating goldfish in a bowl. Something about the woman’s attitude, the timelessness of her gaze, the relaxation of her posture, appeals strongly to Hampl but resists articulation. Armed with the belief that the woman in the painting represents a way of seeing that is intrinsic to art and highly valuable to life, Hampl enters into a length meditation that encompasses the lives of artists she loves, as well as trips to the locations where they were inspired, and her thoughts on the work they produced.

What’s not to like? The artists considered include Matisse and Delacroix, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Katherine Mansfield – a small constellation of stars in Hampl’s inner universe. And the travel writing, moving from Minneapolis where Hampl lives, to the Côte D’Azur and North Africa provides suitably glossy and exotic locations. What appears to be the main thrust of the series of interlinked essays – that the speed of the modern world makes us miss the sort of experience that end up being most valuable to us – is one I wholeheartedly endorse. And in all honesty there is much to love in this book, so many exquisite sentences, beautiful, vivid imagery, some nice points made, and at all times Hampl’s intelligence shines through.

But I just could not stay awake while reading it.

There is a fundamental problem with this kind of hybrid writing that skips between memoir, biography and criticism, and that’s the difficulty the reader is bound to experience trying to hang onto the point. I find that, like a complex dream, all those weird shifts between heterogeneous scenes erase what came before, and I can lose whole chunks of narrative, forget them as if I’d never read them. I finished this book only a couple of weeks ago and have retained practically nothing from it. No, in all fairness, I recall the travel writing, which was excellent. And I felt that in those scenes something was happening, something I could really engage with. Hampl’s art criticism, whilst always intelligent, tended to sink into the swamp of its own thought, witness this small excerpt where she is talking about an autobiographical film:

I was listening to a memoir, the genre that inhabits a fascinatingly indeterminate narrative space between fiction and documentary. As it refines its point of view, lavishing itself on the curious habits of personal consciousness, memoir achieves a rare detachment even as it enters more deeply into the revelation of individual consciousness. Its greatest intimacy (the display of perception) paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality. It wishes to see the world, not itself. Hill’s real subject, like Matisse’s was individual perception: not simply what was seen, but how seeing was experienced.’

A few paragraphs like this strung together and I was out like a light. Which goes to show that, like everything else, critical writing needs to keep the concrete in sight at all times. The more grounded the writing, the more it is about something real, the better the chance of hanging onto the reader’s attention. But this book frustrated me, as I felt it had a lot of interesting things to say, and I really did wish I could stay conscious long enough to hear them.


Weissmanns of WestportAltogether more grounded was Cathleen Schine’s The Three Weissmanns of Westport. In my twenties I’d enjoyed her first novels, The Love Letter and Rameau’s Niece and recalled them as being sort of literary rom-coms. Not a lot has changed in the intervening decades – the Weissmanns tale being loosely based on Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. I forgot this detail until halfway through the novel, when I thought to myself, ‘goodness me, these sisters are exactly like Eleanor and Marianne Blackwood!’ and recalled that this was, in fact, the point. And then I was aware enough of these literary ghosts to watch the novel diverge from Austen’s plotting and play a few neat tricks with its model. Just in case you were wondering how that particular borrowing worked out.

At the tender age of 75, Betty Weissmann finds herself being divorced by husband, Joe, on grounds of irreconcilable differences. ‘Irreconcilable differences? she said. Of course there are irreconcilable differences. What has that to do with divorce?’ Of course, there is another woman, Joe’s secretary, Felicity, and Felicity manages to talk Joe out of leaving the New York appartment to his estranged wife on the grounds that it is much more generous to take the burden of worry about taxes from Betty’s shoulders. So Betty finds herself exiled and downsized to a holiday cottage owned by wealthy, family-loving cousin, Lou in Westport, Connecticut. Partly to support their mother, mostly because of financial crises of their own, Betty’s daughters Annie and Miranda move out to live with her.

Annie is the sensible, one, a divorced librarian with two grown boys, who is impotently aware of her mother and sister spending far more money than they possess. Miranda is the flighty one, a literary agent recently humiliated and put out of business by revelations that the misery memoirs she traded in were more fiction than fact. The family hasn’t been in Westport long when Miranda starts a relationship with an out of work actor, Kit, and his enchanting little son, Henry. Meanwhile, Annie pines silently for Felicity’s brother, Frederick, a writer with whom she has been briefly entangled, but who is now persona non grata for obvious reasons. Best of all, nothing works out the way you might think it would. This was charming and funny and intelligently written enough that it was like hot chocolate with marshmallows and whipped cream and no guilt. If such a thing as a poignant soufflé existed, I could liken this book to one. Don’t come to it expecting Tolstoy, but the quality of the writing and the insights about love and life lift it above the level of your average comfort read.


22 thoughts on “A Hit and a Miss

  1. I empathize *so* much with what you say about the first book because I am struggling with a book I expected to like and should like, but I’m finding it – well, random and much shallower than I thought it would be. I guess that’s the danger of approaching a book with high expectations!!

    • Isn’t it tricky? Having delightful expectations for a book is a treat in itself, so it’s shame that they can undermine the reading experience a bit. I’m really glad it’s not just me, though! And I do hope that your book has picked up and is proving to be good after all. Surely some books turn out to be just as good as we hope?

  2. Here’s another reader struggling with a book that I ought to enjoy by a writer I usually appreciate but somehow knowing that this time she’s lost the plot. (Actually literally, in this case. It’s got away from her and is running rampant on its own behalf. You should never let a plot out on its own; it needs supervision.)

    I think I might hang fire on the Schine. I’m always uneasy about the books that re-work some one else’s plot. (Fickle things these plots. They’ll get into bed with anyone if you don’t watch them.) I think an author has to be very clever to bring it off.

    • Lol! You are on a roll with your plot metaphors today – love it! I’ve witnessed that runaway plot thing and it’s not pretty. As for the Schine, there are SO many books I want to read that it’s almost a relief sometimes to come across one that I can put aside without a qualm!

  3. This is the sort of comment we should see in the broadsheet reviews but never do: “I just could not stay awake while reading it.” 🙂

    When I first started reading books on how to write, I became very aware of the “commercial” drivers that are supposed to be present in fiction to make people want to read it. I was so aware of how totally opposed this was to the traditional way I had been taught literature in school, as something static, present to be studied and not something that had once been dynamically crafted, I imagine with the intention of wanting someone to read it.

    I think I went a bit too much that way and never really developed bigger thoughts of themes and what I actually wanted to say which is also important. (I am starting to think about these more.)

    I think both these factors are necessary for us to feel that we are enjoying a book rather than feeling that it is something that we should be enjoying. I do get surprised when you see something these days that has been published and seems to be lacking those commercial drivers ie the ones that make people want to read as a better option than falling asleep.

    • I perfectly understand your point of view – all those years as an academic and I realised I’d trained myself never to wonder whether I was enjoying a book or not. All I needed to know was whether there was something I could say about it! Now I look back, particularly at some of the critical analyses I waded through and wonder how on earth I did it. These days I really need something to keep me awake. I’ve got one of those quotes going around in my mind which I’m going to word wrongly and whose author I really can’t remember, but it said something like: so long as the reader is always being presented with something human happening, that reader will be content. That absolutely nails it for me. I can appreciate pages of beautiful abstract thought, but nothing grips me like the moment when the author begins: ‘I felt…..’ It’s taken me years and years to get more dynamic in my own prose too – how those old habits stick!

      • Oooh I was helping my daughter with a The Tempest creative response task last night and telling her that the important thing is to start with the character. All our interest as readers comes from the use of character to convey wider meaning, and interaction of characters to illustrate wider human characteristics. Motives and therefore action must stem from character not the other way round, otherwise the end result is unconvincing.

        It made me think of being in Year 10 and being taught lots of things about writing a story – language, imagery, theme, the all important twist… then we got to the end of that section and our teacher said, “I haven’t mentioned character, but if you get all the other things right then character will just flow from that.”

        I feel quite scarred by some aspects of my classical education.

        On the other hand, if you can make good use of that theoretical stuff, I think it makes a richer experience for the reader.

  4. The first book would be something that I’d like to read but just too bad, it doesn’t deliver? You’ve brought up a good point and that’s what you called hybrid writing. Sometimes it’s hard to distinguish the genre, isn’t it? Often writings are a fusion of real life and the imaginary. I just posted Proust’s Within A Budding Grove. In my post I quoted Lydia Davis saying about In Search of Lost Time: “this novel is not autobiography wearing a thin disguise of fiction but . . . fiction in the guise of autobiography.” Guess it’s hard even for the writer to distinguish what’s real and what’s not inside his head, let alone the reader. 🙂

    • Hhe, it’s a very 20th century thing, that mash-up. Proust and Colette were doing it about the same time, both pioneers. They transformed their experience directly into art, used their own names and then teased the reader by writing in the third person. Once you get into the postmodern mindset, then everything takes on a fictional cast – even something like history, however based on facts it may be, is still a story with a driving narrative. And that’s exactly where your point comes in – writers struggle to distinguish what’s real and not real!

      But if you fancy trying the Hampl you definitely should. There was much to enjoy in it, and it could just have been the wrong book at the wrong time for me.

  5. I’ve been meaning to read Hampl for a while now, but I think I’ve been afraid of just what you describe. I guess I’ll start with a different book of hers (eventually) and hope for the best! I saw her give a talk fairly recently, and she was great, so I’m hoping that translates onto the page … of another book than yours, I suppose. As Westport, Connecticut, is only a couple towns south of mine (but with an entirely different feel to it, let me hasten to add!), I feel like I should read the novel, especially since it’s so fun.

    • Rebecca, I Could Tell You Stories is supposed to be her best, I think! This one was good and you might get lots more out of it than I did – I think I just needed something a bit livelier at the time. She’s clearly a hugely intelligent woman with a poetic sensibility. Funnily enough I thought of you when I read the Schine. I thought, hmmm, Connecticut, isn’t that where Dorothy and Bike Prof live? (You will always be those personas for me!) It’s a fun book, but only pick it up if you’re tired and in need of something easy – you might find it a bit fluffy otherwise! 🙂

  6. The Three Weissmanns of Westport was one of the books I picked up at the last Big Book Sale at the library for $1 – hardback! I had read mixed reviews of it, so I am happy to hear you enjoyed it. I was hoping to get to it early next year.

    • Grad, I would think you’d enjoy the Schine. It’s very funny and I thought the quality of the writing was surprisingly good. I’d love to know what you think – please do let me know when you’ve read it!

  7. Too bad about the Hampl. I’ve got it on my TBR list it generally is so well spoken of. Maybe it’s a case of right book, wrong time? The other book sounds like fun.

    • It could so easily have been just the wrong moment. I think there’s a lot in it that you’d enjoy so I’d definitely urge you to give it a go – so long as you let me know what you make of it afterwards! I’d love to know what you think of it.

  8. I’ve tried Hampl in the past (the title escapes me — I gave the book away) and thought she used a lot of fake profound to make a small kernel of a point. “Its greatest intimacy (the display of perception) paradoxically reveals its essential impersonality.” — Right. Sounds deep. Says almost but not quite nothing. But because she tosses the word paradoxically in there, it sounds like she’s said something meaningful. Give me E.B. White or Hazlitt or Montaigne.

    • That was the essence of the problem for me. I get really picky – especially about art criticism – and object when I feel we’re entering a realm of abstraction. Or, alternatively, there’s a kind of art critique based on statements like: ‘the carmine is delicious’. In both cases I feel short-changed and that there must be more of value to be said about a painting. I so much preferred it when she was writing about her experiences in travel – they felt real and she was able to portray them in ways that were properly meaningful.

  9. Oh what a shame about the Hampl! I am still interested in it, I’ve been watching it sitting on your sidebar and waiting hopefully for the review. Even if it doesn’t quite deliver, and that paragraph was rather a corker, I still mean to read it.

    And I owe you a big thank-you! I’ve been faffing about with books recently, I keep missing my mood with what I pick up, and then I have a pile of unfinished books scattered about, which gives me a feeling I hate hate hate. (And one book I put down with just 10 pages left to read, and that was about 3 months ago and I don’t think I can go back to it, what was I thinking?!) Anyway, I trawled back through your reviews and ordered a few books based on your thoughts; they’ve just arrived and I have that lovely and recently so rare experience of wanting to abandon everything so that I can sit down and read. I’ve just started on ‘Black Milk’…

    • Helen, DO read the Hampl. There’s a lot to enjoy in it, and I’d love to know what you make of it. It could so easily have been me that was to blame. I’ve had such a similar experience lately when it comes to reading – lots of books that haven’t quite matched my mood, and I hate that too. Oooh I do so hope the ones you’ve ordered turn out to be just what you need. I would love to know what you make of Black Milk – please do tell, whether it’s good or bad or indifferent, I’d love to know!

  10. Hahaha, I sympathize with your plight on the Hampl book! I’m sure it’s (at least partly) because you primed me, but I couldn’t make head nor tails of the excerpt you quoted. I kept staring at it and feeling my eyes glaze over and my brain start taking in “words words words words” instead of the actual words.

    I’m in the midst of a book about college football that I was sure I’d love, or at least be horrified/fascinated by. Instead I am just feeling so-so about it. It’s the so-so-iness I dread when I’m reading — I’d truly rather dislike a book outright than feel wishy-washy about it. At least the former would make for an interesting post (I always think).

    • Oh Lord! I realized you could construe the last bit of my comment to imply that your post wasn’t interesting. That isn’t at all what I think, or what I meant. I love your description of losing chunks of information in all the shifts from one topic to another, as I’ve had that very experience myself and find it quite maddening.

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