Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime by Patricia Hampl

It is a short book but has a range and depth that is uncommon. The skill of the author is disarming and the orchestration of this personal essay is flawless. Some books we welcome, but this is a book to be embraced.

Reviewed by Bob WIlliams

Blue Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime
by Patricia Hampl
Harcourt
2006, ISBN 0-15-101506-6, $22.00, 215 pages

Patricia Hampl has written three previous books of prose and two of poetry. She is Regents Professor at the University of Minnesota.

What happens to English majors after graduation? Is it possible after the bludgeoning of higher education to experience life and beauty? Hampl encountered her liberation on the way to lunch when she saw Woman before an Aquarium by Henri Matisse. Such encounters open closed doors through which tumble riches and revelations. One’s immediate response is a deep gratitude for the occurrence followed by the appalling realization that it might not have happened.

Hampl’s experience was tempered by her Catholic upbringing. She is familiar and comfortable with religion and those who lead a religious life. She accepts the revelation of Matisse as a secular event, but the language with which she assesses it is that of a person with faith. And her language is choice. In a world of incongruities she finds the combination of conflicting material to make her points, to search out the significant cluster of the absurdly combined to express our society’s own absurdity. In the early pages of Blue Arabesque she will sometimes go too far. What began as an impressive and sweeping survey threatens to topple into unintended comedy. Good writing should have some restraint, and as Blue Arabesque continues she finds that necessary sobriety of language without any sacrifice of vividness.

But her initial concern with herself forms a prelude to what follows although she keeps our awareness of her persistently in the picture. Her concern now is with Matisse and his discovery of the themes and means whereby he was able to paint. Necessarily she deals with the meaning of the artistic act and the untidy way in which it spills from one frame of reference to another. She is, as one might expect from a writer of her background, concerned with moral and ethical issues as well as with those that are purely esthetic. Her progress is that of association as she asks a series of questions. What is the attraction of the odalisque and the culture from which – mistakenly – it is felt to come? What is the nature of travel as the tourist seeks the fleeting truth of other lands and cultures? She finds her answers in her own experiences and in that of the expatriates who sought haven in Europe, and returned home to write about it. Prominent among these is F. Scott Fitzgerald, like her a product of St. Paul – the dark and cold yet mellow city in which both she and he were raised.

It is a short book but has a range and depth that is uncommon. The skill of the author is disarming and the orchestration of this personal essay is flawless. Some books we welcome, but this is a book to be embraced.

About the Reviewer: Bob Williams is retired and lives in a small town with his wife, dogs and a cat. He has been collecting books all his life, and has done freelance writing, mostly on classical music. His principal interests are James Joyce, Jane Austen and Homer. His writings, two books and a number of short articles on Joyce, can be accessed at: http://www.grand-teton.com/service/Persons_Places

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