Finding kinship on pages of a good book (or five)

Author Patricia Hempl frequently weaves life stories, travelogues and contemplations on life into her books. In that, columnist John Spevack finds great similarities.
Author Patricia Hempl frequently weaves life stories, travelogues and contemplations on life into her books. In that, columnist John Spevack finds great similarities.

I have found my doppelganger, that stranger who seems to be your double. But unlike the usual doppelganger, an apparent physical twin, my doppelganger looks nothing like me. In fact, we aren’t even the same gender.

Other details of our lives, however, are so similar that she could be described as my virtual doppelganger.

Patricia Hampl is my virtual doppelganger. I came across her by chance not long ago after reading a review of her recent book, “The Art of the Wasted Day.”

The review prompted me to buy that book and eventually four others she had written, “The Romantic Imagination,” “Spillville,” “Virgin Time” and “The Florist’s Daughter.” All are memoirs of a certain type – essays blending reflections, travel accounts and life stories.

I consider myself a person who writes essays that blend reflections, travel accounts and live stories – in my case, these columns. But that’s just the beginning of correlations between Hampl and me. We are almost the same age (she is four months younger) and both of us grew up in the Midwest (she in Minnesota, I in Illinois). We both are the children of working-class Czech fathers, skilled in their crafts, who eventually owned their own businesses.

Both fathers ended up financially strapped because they were too embarrassed to go after “good customers” who didn’t pay their bills. And both Hampl and I had Czech grandmothers who baked poppyseed kolacky.

We both were raised Catholic and went to Catholic grade and high schools, taught by persons in the “religious life” (nuns and monks). We both became English majors in college after realizing our first choice (for her, music; for me, journalism) wasn’t in the cards.

The allure of reading and writing (the staples of being an English major) and of Catholic reflection have remained in both our lives more than half a century after college. And we both appreciate solitude, which triggers reflection, which often leads to writing. Like Hampl, I have lived and appreciated “the life of the mind.”

There are many differences besides gender. She is talented at playing the piano and ice skating, two skills I will never possess. And she travels much more frequently than I, though both of us have been enraptured by the city of Prague.

I have found the pleasure of recognition in reading Hampl’s books, having had many similar experiences and thoughts. And I appreciate her writing style – personal, meditative, lyrical.

Regular readers know I value life stories, brief personal accounts that reveal something of a person’s character. Hampl has a similar perspective. The five books of hers that I’ve read (and recommend) knit together life stories and reflections, a collection of what she calls “vignettes.”

In “A Romantic Education” (1981), the book that first brought her attention as a memoirist, she reflects on the various paths and places she’s explored, including several visits to Prague while it still was under Communist control.

“Spillville” (1987) is an account of her visit to Spillville, Iowa, where Czech composer Antonin Dvorak spent time in 1893 while composing his “American Quartet.” In “Virgin Time” (1992) she reflects upon her search for solitude and contemplation.

“The Florist’s Daughter” (2007) recounts stories of her life growing up in St. Paul, the granddaughter (on her father’s side) of a Czech woman who came from the old country and brought with her recipes for kolacky and dumplings, just as my grandmother did. (Her mother, unlike mine, is Irish, which creates a cultural tension in her life I didn’t have.)

In “The Art of the Wasted Life” Hampl travels to England, the Czech Republic and France to visit the homes of people who valued a slow measured life, including Gregor Mendel and Michel de Montaigne.

In spite of our similarities, I have no desire to meet Hampl in person. I simply appreciate there is someone out there who shares in print so much of my background and perspective.

Anyone else who understands the value of slowing down, reflecting and paying attention to life in all of its fascinating and wondrous details, and who have a gentle sense of humor, also will enjoy Hampl’s books.

And I hope you get an opportunity sometime in your life to encounter your own virtual doppelganger. It’s an experience that’s weirdly enchanting.

John Spevak is a resident of Los Banos; he wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise.