Devotion (Why I Write)

Not every Patti Smith book can be a wonder. Her latest, Devotion, is actually worth missing completely. It seems to be comprised of three parts: her trip to Paris and pilgrimage to Simone Weil’s grave; the story that she wrote while in Paris; a visit to Camus’ house. This “book” seems to be built on the successful framework of M Train, but lacks any meat on its bones. Avoid.

M Train, a re-read

I gave M Train another read only a few months after I first read it, because I just got a copy of it on Tuesday when I saw Patti Smith at the Nourse, and because she was so damned inspiring in that conversation that I was dissatisfied with reading most other books last night. I read until the witching hour of midnight, then tumbled into bed freshly inspired by her routine, the daily walk across the street to cafe with pen, notebook, and book, to alternate between reading and writing.

This second reading seemed deeper to me, and I got a lot more book recommendations from it. She mentions having dropped breadcrumbs for at least fifty books in this when a stranger taps her on the shoulder asking her to recommend some books. My list now includes:

  • Mohammed Mrabet’s The Beach Café
  • Isabelle Eberhardt
  • Nicanor Parra’s After-Dinner Declarations
  • W.H. Auden’s Letters from Iceland
  • Jim Carroll’s The Petting Zoo
  • W.G. Sebald’s After Nature
  • Murakami’s A Wild Sheep Chase
  • Suspended Sentences
  • Wittgenstein’s Poker
  • Shantytown
  • Heart of a Dog
  • Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Akutagawa

“How could I have nothing to read? Perhaps it wasn’t a lack of a book but a lack of obsession.”

M Train

A dreamy work from Patti Smith, more enjoyable than Just Kids which garnered her the National Book Award. In M Train, she fully unleashes her poetic prose, willing a book to flow from her fingers by sheer habit of going to the same Village cafe to write every morning (which eventually closes, much to her dismay), flustered if anyone sits in “her” spot, a chair at a table somewhat hidden away from the rest of the cafe.

Once again she taps her past for stories, but these weren’t centered around Mapplethorpe, thank god. She tells of traveling with husband Fred to French Guiana to retrieve stones from the jail to be placed with Genet (who served time there and documented it in The Thief’s Journal, queued up for me because I’m also reading Papillon and wondering if any bits are ripped off from Genet) in France, enlisting the help of William Burroughs whom Patti knew since her early 20s.

Throughout the book she peppers photographs of objects of interest: Roberto Bolaño’s writing chair, Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Sylvia Plath’s headstone in winter, Tolstoy’s bear for calling cards, Frida Kahlo’s bed. Fred’s early death is also a constant ghost in this story, popping up to remind her as she ages, turns sixty-six.

Other tales range from giving a talk as the newest (and last, 23rd) member of the Continental Drift Club (CDC) in Berlin, plus the time she sang songs with Bobby Fischer, chess legend, all night in Reykjavik, Iceland. When a flight delay in London depresses her, she decides to stay on in the country for a few weeks, holed up in her hotel watching detective shows. Coffee drinking and the pursuit thereof is a favorite theme. She purchases a dilapidated house on Rockaway Beach a few months before Hurricane Sandy devastates the area (but leaves her house standing, just with tons of mold and rot). She gets transported by The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and makes her way to Japan to pay homage to some of the dead authors, see the post-earthquake reconstruction, and meet with her Japanese publisher.

Just Kids

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Great portrayal of life in the Chelsea Hotel, the back room at Max’s after Warhol got shot, life as a penniless kid in NYC in the late 60s and early 70s. Smith gives a lot of attention to Robert Mapplethorpe, her partner in crime during these years. She claims to have rebranded him “Robert” after he introduced himself as Bob. They begin as lovers and end as friends, she supporting him as the breadwinner so he can focus on his art, nursing him back to health when he’s near death with trench mouth (?!), high fever and gonorrhea. Mapplethorpe encouraged Smith to let people her her voice, just as she encouraged him to take his own photos instead of using others’ work for his collages. She says that she learned to focus and concentrate on her work during marathon drawing sessions the two of them would do. After one snide comment about her hair, Smith goes home and snips away, creating her signature style and immediately getting different attention from the back room crowd at Max’s. Mapplethorpe eventually settles in with the super-rich Sam Wagstaff who funds his art, but he admits, “Patti, you got famous before me.”