Saturday, March 24, 2007

Blue Arabesque

Patricia Hampl’s A Romantic Education was one of a handful of books about which George Janecky raved when we were working together at Odegard Books St. Paul. He loved this elegant memoir in which the St. Paul author travels to Prague to connect with her family’s roots. I have been meaning to read Hampl for a long time and was pleased when her latest, Blue Arabesque, was selected for my book group.

This slim volume consists of a meditation on a Matisse painting, which catches Hampl’s attention at the Art Institute of Chicago as she’s running past it to meet a friend. The painting becomes one of the author’s obsessions, and she examines it and the odalisque in painting, as well as the quality of light in the South of France and North Africa. She diverges to other art topics, such as St. Paul natives F. Scott Fitzgerald and filmmaker Jerome Hill, and weaves in her Catholic upbringing throughout.

Blue Arabesque
was, not surprisingly, widely and highly reviewed last year. It was a NYT Notable book and received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly.
It may surprise you then to learn that my book group, collectively, found the essay pretentious and boring. Some quality of Hampl’s writing is really bloated and difficult to read, especially at the beginning of the book, such as this nugget on page 27: “A painting must depict the act of seeing, not the object seen. Even if that object represents an entire exotic world, it must pass through the veil of the self to be realized—to be art.”

Occasionally Hampl hits a graceful note—for example, the chapter about Katherine Mansfield, who was the Sylvia Plath for an earlier generation. The most flattering reviews concur that Blue Arabesque is a paean to art and to the act of contemplation. I think Hampl has potential, she’s smart and a good observer, and I’m hopeful that her skills as a memoirist are strong so when I finally get around to reading A Romantic Education, I find that quality that, fifteen years ago, inspired George J. to put the book into customer’s hands.

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