The BookBrowse Review

Published May 15, 2019

ISSN: 1930-0018

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The Art of the Wasted Day
The Art of the Wasted Day
by Patricia Hampl

Paperback (16 Apr 2019), 288 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 9780143132882

A spirited inquiry into the lost value of leisure and daydream.

The Art of the Wasted Day is a picaresque travelogue of leisure written from a lifelong enchantment with solitude. Patricia Hampl visits the homes of historic exemplars of ease who made repose a goal, even an art form. She begins with two celebrated eighteenth-century Irish ladies who ran off to live a life of "retirement" in rural Wales. Her search then leads to Moravia to consider the monk-geneticist, Gregor Mendel, and finally to Bordeaux for Michel Montaigne--the hero of this book--who retreated from court life to sit in his chateau tower and write about whatever passed through his mind, thus inventing the personal essay.

Hampl's own life winds through these pilgrimages, from childhood days lazing under a neighbor's beechnut tree, to a fascination with monastic life, and then to love--and the loss of that love which forms this book's silver thread of inquiry. Finally, a remembered journey down the Mississippi near home in an old cabin cruiser with her husband turns out, after all her international quests, to be the great adventure of her life.

The real job of being human, Hampl finds, is getting lost in thought, something only leisure can provide. The Art of the Wasted Day is a compelling celebration of the purpose and appeal of letting go.

The Art of the Wasted Day

And what is that—"my life"? Fifty years—more—and "the life of the mind," lolling under the beechnut, has long since morphed into a scrum of tasks jittering down the day.

Life conceived—and lived—as a to-do list. This is the problem. I sense I'm not alone. Fretful, earnest, ambitious strivers—we take no comfort in existence unfurling easefully as God intended (my mother speaking, a middling midwesterner who knew how to let things unfold without rush, her head wreathed with vagueness, the smoke of her cig circling upward).

For the worker bee, life is given over to the grim satisfaction of striking a firm line through a task accomplished. On to the next, and the next. Check, check. Done and done. It explains—and solves—nothing to call this workaholism.

Whatever happened to that Roman concept, first encountered in Intermediate Latin—otium cum dignitate, honorable leisure? The peace that passeth understanding that the classical world held as its ideal, the ease I'd touched under the beechnut tree, not knowing it would disappear, fade, elude me when the time came to stop throwing myself on the grass and looking up at the passing clouds. Never mind the necessity of a slave class to keep the otium basking on the secluded hillside villa portico under its shaded grape arbor. Still, where is the ideal at least, if not the way of life?

And what about Montaigne in his tower, retiring from public life to muse about how to die—or was it how to live? Whichever. Put that on the list: Read Montaigne.

So many books I keep meaning to read. I move the titles from one to-do list to another. I don't bother listing Proust anymore. I've read the opening pages about the madeleine cookie soaked in linden flower tea so many times, I've come to think of In Search of Lost Time as a short lyric. I get the picture, if not the story. I have time for vignettes, but not for narrative arcs. I start a novel, but keep breaking off to check my iPhone. I-Phone indeed—the busyness of me myself and I.

I've already read enough Montaigne (I've even taught him—The Art of the Personal Essay, Eng 5610) to know I'd like to waste my life the way he did, taking up one conundrum after another, plucked out of idiosyncratic curiosity, how he wrote his way around a subject for a while, dropped it, picked up another—On Cannibals, On Experience, on this, on that.

He called them essays, but he didn't mean a freshman theme. He used the word to show he wasn't a professional literary man, that he was just tossing off unbidden thoughts for his own interest. Accidentally, he invented a literary genre.

The one I practice.

Yet, even before the essays, before my "work," I keep composing to-do lists. My most recent:

Return overdue books
Mammo appt
Mustard, garlic, milk (skim), bananas Date of Thanksgiving this year?
Letters of rec: Greg, Jeff, Susan ... who else???
Blurbs (3—actually read the books to the end)
Flowers to GK (mother's death—or was it father ... ask Ellen)
Ants in kitchen. Traps? Poison? Hardware store?
Fish oil (helps against aging—Sue)
Overcoats to Goodwill
Czech phrase book for G (leaves Monday)
Memoir ms. from Montreal paralytic (bottom right pile)—READ/RESPOND
Furnace inspection (ticking sound)
Rose wilt (ask Joan? Judith?)
Check to Refugee Sanctuary (how much?)
Geraniums and sprengeri fern for the graves
Dish soap
Dog food

This organization (or attempt at organization) is meant to sweep away all the dumb tasks of the day so that Real Life can be lived. Real Life? What comes after dog food?

Full Excerpt

Excerpt from The Art of the Wasted Day by Patricia Hampl, to be published on April 17, 2018 by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2018 by Patricia Hampl.

A compelling celebration of the purpose and appeal of letting go.

Print Article

Patricia Hampl wants you to know that daydreaming is not a waste of a day. Nor is spending time alone in the midst of who and what you love, like Sarah Ponsonby and Lady Eleanor Butler, two Irishwomen from upperclass families who, in 1778, escaped together to live in Wales where they spent 50 years simply studying language and literature and collecting woodcarvings. Their home is one of a few that Hampl visits on her many travels to investigate where "leisure lives are lived." She also visits the home of Michel de Montaigne, widely regarded as the inventor of the personal essay, who slipped away from the world into a room of his own to simply let his thoughts and writing come. In this context, the wasted in The Art of the Wasted Day is hard to accept. Instead, the title of these essays-as-memoir should use the word leisurely. Of course, Hempl is trying to make a point here – that a great swath of society, American society, might think such things as daydreaming to be frivolity, to be a - yes - waste of a day. But Hampl's goal is to prove that it's not. She mostly succeeds.

Hampl threads The Art of the Wasted Day with a steady presentation of beautiful imagery, both in descriptions of place and her ongoing "relationship" in widowhood with her late husband, who encourages her to be her best self, and also teases her. This is the thread that holds the book together; the reader wants to see what her husband will say next, and wants to learn more about the relationship that clearly was a great marriage.

Patience is the watchword here. Hampl's comment on one vignette could apply to the book as a whole: "It leads down the rabbit hole of thought, not to the taut wire of narrative." Fair enough, in instances like exploring the lives of Ponsonby and Butler, where she offers all of the reasons they fascinate her as she describes her trip to see where they had lived, what their rooms were like, and how they kept to a strict schedule which ironically made their leisure possible. But there is a real leap of faith she asks the reader to take in her section about Michel de Montaigne, who wrote about whatever struck his fancy in that very moment. She seems to mimic his style in this essay. For instance, she introduces genetic pea pioneer and monk Gregor Mendel, one of her "monastic heroes," but then indulges in a highway-wide tangent into two visits to Prague, her ancestral homeland. "Where's Mendel?" one might ask, even as there are some interesting tidbits about Soviet-saturated Prague. When he shows up ages later, the reader is done with this meandering stream of consciousness.

Finally, in her best and last essay, Hempl describes a trip she and her husband took aboard their "1940 Chris-Craft cabin cruiser." They visted Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, two hundred miles south of St. Paul, Minnesota, where she still lives. This river trip could last much longer for the reader; it is poetic and personal and brings together her relationship with her husband and the joy of unscheduled, relaxed time. This final chapter makes the sometimes-frustrating The Art of the Wasted Day worthwhile and inspires us to find our own version of peace that comes with "a wasted day."

Reviewed by Rory L. Aronsky

Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. A wonderfully lavish and leisurely exploration of the art of daydreaming ... [a] remarkable and touching book.

Kirkus Reviews
Starred Review. Lucent, tender, and wise ... a captivating and revelatory memoir.

Author Blurb Phillip Lopate
Vivid, passionate, bursting with ideas and insights, Patricia Hampl's new book is a summation of a lifetime of sensitive searching and thinking. A love story, a meditation on death, travel, Americanness, Catholicism, integrity and Montaigne, this beautiful journey is finally about the education of a soul.

Author Blurb Alice Kaplan
What ties together this beautiful book are the imaginary conversations born of Hampl's mourning for her life companion. An elegy, a reader's pilgrimage, a reflection on the writing life, full of humor, surprises, and wisdom gently given, The Art of the Wasted Day is a book for the ages.

Author Blurb Margo Jefferson
The art of Patricia Hampl is the art of a lyrical, contemplative self, a self as instrument attuned to the world's vibrations. Through reflection and investigation, vignette and daydream, she roams centuries and continents in this book.

Print Article

The Art of the Flaneur

The word flaneur sounds like a term for a connoisseur of flannel fabric but, in fact, the Oxford dictionary defines flaneur as "A man who saunters around observing society." It is derived from the French word flâner which means "saunter, lounge."

According to an article in the New Republic, Charles Baudelaire gave birth to the term in an essay called "The Painter of Modern Life", describing a person who is a "passionate spectator," open to and interested in all that's around him. Not a real person, at that point, as it came from Baudelaire's imagination. But the flaneur has become real enough through many subsequent people, real and fictional alike.

Virginia Woolf took a walk in Tavistock Square, London that inspired To the Lighthouse. She later wrote "I cannot get my sense of unity and coherency and all that makes me wish to write The Lighthouse etc. unless I am perpetually stimulated." And indeed, her Mrs. Dalloway said, "I love walking in London. Really, it's better than walking in the country."

Sophie Calle, a French artist, began her life as a flaneur one day when, out of boredom, she began following and photographing people at random. This went on for months. Then at a gallery opening one evening, she spotted a man whom she had followed that same afternoon. Upon overhearing that he was going to Venice the next day, she went to Venice too and followed him yet again under the disguise of a blond wig, until he recognized her. All this was compiled into a book and installation called Suite Vénitienne.

Paris appears to be the city most associated with the flaneur. Author Edmund White, who lived in Paris for 16 years, wrote a book called The Flaneur: A Stroll Through the Paradoxes of Paris, about all his wandering through its streets and avenues. In the 18th century, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, who was the first street reporter of Paris, walked around the city, noting everything he saw, from prostitutes to greengrocers, washerwomen to street vendors, servants to priests. He said about his Tableau de Paris, which spanned 12 volumes "I have run around so much while drawing my 'Tableau de Paris' that I may be said to have drawn it with my legs."

In this day and age, with technology ever more pervasive, there's crucial value in getting up and getting out for a while. Sure, the internet can be useful for seeing faraway places, but sometimes going out to the intersection at your corner and just watching the cars passing by or walking up the street in your neighborhood and noticing something you haven't seen before can give you a new perspective.

Paul Gavarni's Le Flâneur, 1842
Sophie Calle's photographs of a man in Venice

By Rory L. Aronsky

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