Patrick Madden, Quotidiana. University of Nebraska Press, 2010.
I started reading Quotidiana because I liked the title and because I’ve recently discovered how much I love the essay form. Good essays take the small, apparently throwaway details of everyday life and find in them universal truths and occasionally devastating beauty. Joan Didion is one master of the form, Phillip Lopate, another. Even Walter Benjamin worked in this vein through his examinations of Paris detritus, and of how his library mapped out his life.
It is their tradition in which Patrick Madden writes: “During my first extended encounters with the essay, I was struck (dumbstruck, moonstruck) by those authors who wrote from seemingly insignificant, overlooked, transient things, experiences, and ideas, who were able to find within their everyday, unexceptional lives inspiration for essaying” (2).
Quotidiana is about everyday things. In his essays, Madden examines love, family, fruit, garlic, physics, spirituality, foreignness, music, writing, sickness, teaching and raising children. My favourites are “Laughter” (that starts with a description of his baby daughter’s giggle at dancing sunlight) and “Ego Vici Mundum” that, using a visit to Buenos Aires’ Cathedral, ends up taking the reader almost accidentally through the history of Argentinean repression, the disappeared and the untiring activism of victims’ grandmothers. It’s a very, very good essay.
Themes that return again and again are the band Rush (whose music drifted up from my brother’s basement while I was growing up), life in Uruguay, the name Patrick and how it repeats itself and multiplies in Madden’s family, and (a current obsession of mine) Mormonism — Madden is a Mormon convert, and writes frankly and openly about the two years he spent as a missionary in South America.
Every essay in the book thinks about what the essay is and what the essay does, and the ways it can be simultaneously big and small, lyrical and mathematical.
When I read that while still a student, this author had been warned by a professor to switch from essays to fiction, since he would soon run out of material to write about, I scoffed (as apparently did Madden).
Truth is, anyone who lives life every day will always have something to write about. You just have to pay attention.
That’s the point of the essay.
And that’s the point of Quotidiana.
You can learn more about Patrick Madden at his site (whose URL acquisition he writes about in his book) at http://quotidiana.org/.
[Photo: Elizabeth Anne Photography]