Patricia Hampl–A Romantic Education
One of the magical moments in a writer’s life is the moment when you read something with a sense of recognition--I can do that too!! Seamus Heaney describes his unpleasant adventures with frog spawn and tadpoles in a poem called “The Death of a Naturalist.” –the naturalist he now knows he will never be.
However, the converse is also true. Anne Sexton writes about how she heard John Berryman read his poems aloud when she was 28, and how she realized in that moment that she was a writer. Marc Chagall tells how he discovered his artistic vocation while watching a fellow student draw. “How do you do that? ” he asked.” It’s easy, you blockhead,” the student replied. (Chagall, a working-class Jew, studied in a school for Russian children because his mother had bribed the headmaster). “Get a book from the library, and copy the pictures.” The library? Chagall persevered, and, well, became Marc Chagall.
One of my own moments of recognition–of reading something which came very close to my own experience, and what I thought were my abilities to render it happened when I read A Romantic Education by Patrica Hampl. The Catholic family united around enormous meals, with food a shorthand for love, power, competition… The childish sense of snugness in such a family. I still remember phrases several years later, “Come Eat,” the cri du couer of middle Europe. Falling asleep watching the talismanic figure of a wizard on a coffee tin.
Trish describes her Catholic upbringing in a convent school, her love of beauty, her attempts at writing poetry, and then a trip to Czechoslakia, where her grandmother, who worked in Minneapolis as a housekeeper was originally from. She renders golden Praha beautifully– I made a mental note to go there one day, and well, I am writing this from Prague.
However, the Iron Curtain has blown away since she wrote her book, and it is a different, plusher Prague. Poverty is not good for the human spirit, and I am glad the genteel older man who picked us up at the airport and drove us to our hotel no longer suffers from it. The Prague Trish describes with women offering to exchange rings with her as a token of friendship–exchanging worthless trash for her grandmother’s garnet ring; women squeezing favours out of her in exchange for promised sausage (which never appears)– has apparently gone with the wind, and good riddance.