Patricia Hampl begins so personally, relaying the story of her younger self riding the night bus and witnessing the mystical kiss between a beautiful young man and a woman she describes as “stout and unbeautiful” (19). Or, I should say, she starts even before that, still personally, offering a preface that sets out to explore the self composed of reader and writer, explaining that she will soon embark on “the surprisingly passionate experience of a reader trying to tease out from the works of others the habits of memory as it flares the imagination” (11). Curiously, however, even though I think of this start as tremendously close — “To the Reader,” it is titled, as a direct invitation, an arm around the shoulder pulling you in, to whisper secrets — Hampl writes without any use of first person singular (to loosely cite a fine and important essay by Scott Russell Sanders).
So it should come as no surprise that in a collection that opens with such heavy metaphorical use of the story of self, Hampl soon recedes behind the stories of others. She could tell us stories, of course, but she choose instead to tell the stories of others, sometimes with the framework of herself engaging those stories, more often as a scholar exploring ideas without much interest in her own autobiography. Yet I cannot help but consider how Hampl constructs her own self through the meat of this collection, in essays that focus on Walt Whitman, Mrs. Beranek, Czeslaw Milosz, Edith Stein, Sylvia Plath, St. Augustine, and Anne Frank (or, in fact, on trying to write a review of a “definitive” edition of Anne Frank’s Diary).
I worry that my sense of this created self might be a bit too facile. But here goes anyway: in declaring this project one of reconciliation between reader and writer, Hampl sets out to move through the way her own sense of authorial identity has been shaped by reading. She also returns often to a refrain declaring memoir as the act of tracing a mind at work. Thus, the motion through her reading of Whitman et al scribes the arc of her own sense of self. At the simplest (and most obvious), Hampl presents a self that is built from parts scavenged by the writers to whom she pays attention.
Somewhat more complexly, the sequence through which she moves and, more importantly, how her own self emerges occasionally in considering these other writers, reveals a constantly shifting and ever-deepening sense of nuance. Her thoughts on Whitman are about the loss of innocence, which is then partly reconciled by the inclusion of Milosz’s sense of history, which is made deeply internal through Hampl’s alignment to Stein’s refusal to reveal her conversion story. Then we come to Plath, where the memoir of Hampl strains through the writing again: her story of reviewing Plath as a college student shows the mind of Hampl at work, a prototype of her current self wrestling with what she first found, just as the author self of I Could Tell You Stories wrestles with the how Plath’s legacy limits the personality of the poet to idea alone. The lens moves out, then, to Augustine and his deeply personal quest — and more notably that “one of the things that made Augustine’s readers gasp was not his admission of lust, but his acknowledgement that, after conversion, indeed even as a bishop of the Church, he is still searching and speculating about his God and himself” (170). In this line, Hampl emerges as clearly as if she were penning straight memoir, as the compilation of focal points invites the reader to consider Augustine as metaphor for Hampl, too. And this very line seems to be a kind of mission statement for the book, something tied up in the difficulty of telling stories. Hampl continues to question, speculate, and search for a stable center in the field of memoir.
Now, Hampl is certainly writing about Augustine here. Don’t get me wrong: she’s not simply poaching his life story as a thinly veiled metaphor of self. Instead, I see Hampl writing through the animating cores of her subjects to find her own motivations. In Whitman, we find innocence and hope; in Beranek, we find guilt and complexity; in Milosz the weight of history; in Stein the power of that which is withheld; in Plath the collision of self-identity and -ism; in Augustine the desire to always question; in Frank the need for sane witness. By writing through these individuals, Hampl builds on the page her own desired self as memoirist. She argues (in the circular way an essayist can be said to argue) for these as crucial building blocks of the writer and, crucially, that we can find in reading books the core elements that can allow us to read the world which, after all, is the primary job of the memoirist.
It comes as no small surprise, then, that the fully personal voice of Hampl — the self-focused memoirist — cannot reappear until these influences are duly inspected. Moving forward, then, Hampl turns in the last two essays toward answers to questions posed in the very nature of the book’s title. Further, I remain convinced that “What She Couldn’t Tell” serves as the true centerpiece of this collection, that the fake-named Mrs. Beranek is the key to the selves on display here, and that Hampl’s own conflict with history and innocence is tied up in both the act of writing someone else’s story and the act of not being able to easily read that story. The reader-writer self, looking for a way to honor each end.