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I came from people,"" writes poet Hampl, ""who have always been polite enough to feel that nothing has ever happened to them."" In her St. Paul, Minnesota, family, only her maternal grandmother was foreign-born--Czech--and even she was ""not of history, but of mythic, granite secrecy which is ignorance."" When Patricia's family reached back, it was toward nostalgia--""as accurate in their knowledge of what is not there as history ever is in its recognition of what is."" Yet Patricia understood that it was somehow significant that her father was a florist in a glacial place, that her grandmother's eyes misted over at scenes of old Prague in an album; and knew, despite Midwestern disdain, that a case for beauty--far, foreign--could be made. Grown-up, shopping at Dayton's with religious regularity, she realizes that ""it was more than the crisp bag and more than the object within it. It was the elevated sphere of the perfect I sought."" It comes to her, finally--as it did to many of her Vietnam-protesting generation once the shouting died down (""Perhaps, like others. . . I'll never get over having been right"")--to explore her roots and go to Prague. (But not without hesitations--roots ought properly to be left buried.) What up to this point has been an especially graceful extended personal essay--on the phenomenology of the lovely, the redeeming beautiful--now turns into a travel account of large, affecting, naive fineness. In Prague--shepherded by a shrugging poet (to whom every irony and coincidence is ""Kafka"") and by two women friends (wonderful, different portraits)--Hampl finds Europe's center and an overarching ""brokenness,"" a chopped rhythm which her spirit knows is the unexpected yet exact nature of the beauty she's sought. And although, in a longish book, she makes missteps aplenty (going on, for instance, about thinness in Vogue mannequins as being an Auschwitz resonance--an idea as trite as it is dubious), her balance and recovery is always quite superb. She can wrap up none of it--she doesn't even try--but out of her suspicions about history and poetry and brutality and freedom, there does emerge an aerated yet integral whole. An evocative, careful, reaching book, and one with a palpable soul.

Pub Date: March 18th, 1981
ISBN: 0393319059
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin