A Wild Ride on the Mind Train


M Train by Patti Smith

Back in 2005, my brother and I went to see Patti Smith perform her seminal album “Horses” at the Royal Festival Hall for its 30th anniversary (supported by John Cale – that was some night!) I was one of the people entitled to wear the “Horses changed my life” t-shirts they were selling, as indeed it did. I purchased a copy from the Virgin shop at Marble Arch in 1975 on its release (as the little town I lived in didn’t have anywhere that would sell such things); and I’d never heard anything like it. Music and poetry fused in a way like never before, and it was truly mind-blowing.

patti books

My original Patti collection

Smith has been one of the constants in my life; I bought all her records, tracked down her rare poetry pamphlets and books, have seen her live several times (usually with my brother in tow!) and I think I’ll always listen to her music. However, it’s worth recalling that she started her career as a visual artist and a poet, only stumbling into music by accident, and I’ve read her books with pleasure over the years. So the announcement of a new work by her last year, “M Train” was occasion for great celebration.

xmas patti

Christmas Patti books!

The book has gone on to be lauded and win awards, so it went straight onto my Christmas wishlist, and duly arrived, along with her Collected Lyrics. I decided I needed a little change after all the Europeans recently, and so Patti seemed the one to pick up.

The book takes its title from one of the trains which actually runs through Smith’s home city, New York; however, in an interview I saw on YouTube, she stated that the title actually refers more to her memory train of thought (and I’ve also seen her describe it as a Mind Train that you can get off at any stop you want). The book is indeed a rich collage of dreams, memories and events from her current life, liberally illustrated with her trademark Polaroids, and it’s a real joy to read.


I’ve always felt an affinity with Smith; I recognise in her my tendency to obsession with writers and musicians and artists, my love of simple everyday rituals and my need for some solitude and space. And the book weaves in and out of Smith’s life, as she sits in her favourite Cafe ‘Ino, drinking coffee, eating brown toast and olive oil, and musing. She recalls different events and people from her past, tells of her travels round the world and mourns the losses she’s suffered. The parts of the book where Smith tells of her married life and the loss of her husband Fred are almost unbearably poignant and I found them hard to read.

I had read it some time ago but was so completely immersed that I retained nothing. This has been an intermittent, lifelong enigma. Through early adolescence I sat and read for hours in a small grove of weed trees near the railroad track in Germantown… I would enter a book wholeheartedly and sometimes venture so deeply it was as if I were living within it. I finished many books in such a manner there, closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home. This disturbed me but I kept this strange affliction to myself. I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember.

But so much of the book covers the art of creation, and writing in particular. Smith’s literary passions are wide-ranging, stretching from the Beats and Jean Genet to encompass writers like Bruno Schulz, Hermann Hesse, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and Yukio Mishima. In fact, one of the dangers of reading any book that mentions other books is the effect on your TBR, having you rush off to search out copies of interesting sounding works. With Smith it’s different; as so many of the books she reads and loves are ones which I read and love too, much time was spent rushing off to pull beloved volumes off the shelf, and in fact I managed to get through M Train and only make two purchases!


Much of her life nowadays is spent roaming the globe in search of talismans to photograph – the grave of Sylvia Plath; the typewriter of Hermann Hesse; the walking stick of Virginia Woolf; the bear of Leo Tolstoy. These items are invested with a significance for Smith, representing something of the spirit of the authors she loves. In particular, she feels a strong bond with artist Frida Kahlo and, when taken ill while visiting her home, rests on her bed and communes with her spirit. However she also has a rather unlikely addiction for TV crime shows, ranging from “Midsomer Murders” to more modern shows like “The Killing” – which I wouldn’t have expected!

Lost things. They claw through the membranes, attempting to summon our attention through an indecipherable mayday. Words tumble in helpless disorder. The dead speak. We have forgotten how to listen.

Patti Smith is an inspirational artist and never a dull writer; in fact, I loved this book so much I never wanted it to end. Her life has not been an easy one, with the loss of her husband, brother Todd and old flame Robert Mapplethorpe informing much of the narrative. Yet she’s resilient, always bouncing back and remaining optimistic. She has the misfortune to buy a small property on Rockaway Beach just before it’s hit by Hurricane Sandy; but despite this, the book ends on a positive note with her watching the gradual rebuilding of the house which will become a home for this wonderful woman.

I’m doing well with my reading this year; in fact, several are already jockeying for the number one position, and this book will be one of them. I reached the end of my exhilarating and emotional ride on Patti’s M(emory) Train rather breathless and completely inspired. In fact, I’m quite keen to go back to her earlier works to start dipping in and rediscovering….


Just in case anyone was wondering which books it was I was impelled to buy, here they are! 🙂

astragal artaud

Coming to a blog near you….



hesse revised

When Caroline at Beauty is a Sleeping Cat suggested the idea of a Hermann Hesse Reading Week (back during the German Literature Month last November), I jumped at the idea, delighted to co-host. Hesse is an author with whom I have a long history; I first read his work in my 20s, and I was absolutely absorbed by his books, with their vivid ideas and fascinating tales.

Hesse was a Nobel prize-winner, with an illustrious writing career: his first novel “Peter Camenzind” was published in 1904, and his final one “The Glass Bead Game” in 1943. It was this latter, widely considered his masterpiece, which was cited in particular when he receive the prize; but his works are wide-ranging, from the earlier, more pastoral and evocative tales, to the later novels dealing in high concepts of morals, ethics and meanings.

hesse covers

Hermann Hesse’s works were very fashionable in the late 20th century, in particular works like “Demian” and “Steppenwolf” which drew on lifestyles and beliefs being adopted by the counter-culture. They also reflected his anti-war views which of course were much in vogue, and his spiritual side typified by his love of Buddhism. However, I do feel that he may have slipped out of sight of modern readers, so I’m really happy to be involved in any kind of initiative which brings his works to potential readers!

In recent years I’ve read his “Knulp” for the first time and revisited “Siddhartha”. However, I’d like to go back to at least one of his later and more substantial works for this reading week; there are plenty to choose from and so actually deciding which book(s) will be the hardest thing!

What’s surprising is how scattered Hesse’s work is in translation; a few books are available as Penguin Classics, but some of the earlier ones only appear to be in older, out of print versions. Surely he’s an author that needs to be brought to modern readers in a nice new edition of his complete works!

hesse spines

So what Hesse to read? Well, as far as I know, not all of his works have been translated into English, but here is a partial list of possible titles, based on what I could see online and what I have on my shelves. I imagine Caroline may well be reading in the original language but alas, I will have to stick with the versions other people have kindly rendered understandable for me…

Peter Camenzind (1904)
Beneath the Wheel (also published as The Prodigy)(1906)
Gertrude (1910)
Rosshalde (1914)
Knulp (1915)
Strange News from Another Star (1919)
Demian (1919)
Klingsor’s Last Summer (1920)
Wandering (1920)
Siddhartha (1922)
Steppenwolf (1927)
Narziss and Goldmund (1930) (yes, I know it’s now translated as “Narcissus” but I’m sticking with my original Penguin!)
Journey to the East (1932)
The Glass Bead Game (1943)

If the War Goes On (collected 1978)
Stories of Five Decades (collected 1954)

There is also poetry, which I may try to track down, and plenty of autobiography and essays. For me, I think I shall definitely revisit “Steppenwolf” but apart from that I’m not sure. “The Glass Bead Game” is calling too and also “Narziss and Goldmund. However, I appear not to own “Peter Camenzind” so there’s another possibility.



So please do join in if you fancy exploring the work of this wonderful German writer; I may well put up a separate page and please leave any comments and links to reviews, thoughts on Hesse or anything else relevant. Check out Caroline’s blog where she’ll be posting and linking too. Hermann Hesse Reading Week promises to be a great experience and we’ll look forward very much to a joint rediscovery of this great German author!

… in which Philip Trent makes a grand return!


Trent’s Own Case by E.C. Bentley and H. Warner Allen

One of the joys of my Christmas bookish gifts this year was a complete set of the Trent books by E.C. Bentley – not that that’s a huge collection, as he only wrote three! I reviewed the first, the seminal and very wonderful, “Trent’s Last Case”, here, and I loved this so much that I didn’t think it would be long till I got onto the second…

trents own

Fascinatingly enough, there’s quite a long gap between the first and the second of Trent’s adventures – “Last” was published in 1913 and “Own” didn’t appear until 1936. Bearing in mind the success of Bentley’s initial foray into detective fiction it *is* a little odd that he didn’t do more – but maybe he was just happy with the ones he wrote!

We are some years on from the events of “Last”, although the timing is kept vague and to be honest, there’s no real hint of the world being in the complex decade of the 1930s, with all that was going on in Europe at the time. Philip Trent is now married to Mabel, his beloved from the first book, and they have a small son. Conveniently, his family is away at his home in the Cotswolds and Trent is up in town doing a portrait of James Randolph, a rich philanthropist. Unfortunately, the millionaire is discovered murdered, and one of Trent’s friends is on the run as a suspect. However, the case is not so straightforward as it seems; and Inspector Bligh of the Yard, an old friend of Trent’s, is bothered by some peculiar aspects. Mix in a missing actress, an unpleasant playwright, a dodgy manservant, tons of blackmail, lots of red herrings and a mysterious champagne cork, and you have the ingredients for a cracking murder mystery!

One of the things I loved about Bentley’s books is the cleverness of the writing and plotting; this is a convoluted and complex story, with a number of different strands, false paths and twisty turns. Yet it reads brilliantly and it all comes together brilliantly at the end, making perfect sense. With “Last” I had no idea until the very end who had done it; but I have to confess that with this one I *did* work out who and how (but not quite why) fairly early in.

bentley drawing

However, this didn’t spoil the enjoyment of reading the book; because it’s not only an excellent mystery, it’s also an excellent novel. Trent is a wonderfully engaging character, and the supporting cast are brilliantly portrayed too. Bentley is very good at letting a person’s true nature be gradually revealed, until we find out they’re really not the nice type we thought they were.

It happened in the courses of a long tramp in France with which Trent was refreshing his spirit after a long spell of work extending through a breathless London summer. It was now mid-September, and for a fortnight he had carried his nap sack through Lorraine and Burgundy, keeping up our national reputation for lunacy by marching long distances without being compelled to do so, avoiding cities, and halting for food and sleep at small country inns where an Englishman was as unfamiliar a sight as a crocodile.

Another lovely element is the range of the story; Bentley doesn’t just stick to one location (e.g. London), but instead has his characters roaming wide and free, from France to the Cotswolds, the boat train to the continent and back again. The denouement was very satisfying and Trent’s method of trapping his murdered was ingenious.

All in all, “Trent’s Own Case” was a great Golden-Age read, and I’d highly recommend it for any fan of the genre. As for why it’s the detective’s ‘own’ case? Well, that would be giving away too much – you’ll just have to read it for yourself to find out…. 🙂


As an intriguing aside, it’s interesting to note that H. Warner Allen wrote detective stories of his own, featuring a wine-expert-sleuth called Mr. Clerihew, apparently named for his friend Edmund Clerihew Bentley – and that wine expert makes an appearance in “Trent’s Own Case” to advise on the subject of champagne! 🙂

Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 2


Messages from a Lost World by Stefan Zweig

To accompany their rather lovely edition of “Summer Before the Dark” (which I reviewed here), Pushkin Press have brought out a collection of Stefan Zweig’s essays. Subtitled “Europe on the Brink” they touch upon one of Zweig’s lasting obsessions (and in fact the one that would probably bring about his death) – the loss of the Europe of the mind, the civilised world of arts and culture which he saw being buried by barbarism.


In fact, Zweig witnessed this twice: firstly, with the First World War, which was cataclysmic but in some ways less apocalyptic; and with the lead up to WW2, where he saw culture being trampled under the Nazi boot. He came out of the first conflict desperate to see civilization rebuilt and the birth of a truly united Europe; however, the rise of Nazism was to put a stop to this dream.

I have to confess that up until now I’d only read Zweig’s fiction. However, as translator Will Stone points out, the majority of Zweig’s work is actually in essay form, so it’s about time these started to appear in English too! Stone has already translated a collection of Zweig’s travel writings, “Journeys” (Hesperus Press) and here he also provides an erudite and invigorating introduction which throws much light on Zweig’s eventual fate in Petropolis in 1942.

The pieces in “Messages” have been collected together for their commonality, sharing the running theme of the need for humanity to get past the divisive effects of the Tower of Babel (an image he uses repeatedly) and work together. Zweig had a vision of Europe as a cultural and spiritual whole, taking the Vienna he loved and recalled as its model, and the essays are a clarion call for peace and unity. Far ahead of his time, he envisaged a union of European countries where there were no borders and people from all nations could mix freely and exchange ideas, in a celebration of European culture and its possibilities.

And it’s culture that is the watchword here; for Zweig was not interested in the economic unit we’ve become nowadays, but in the union of the mind. Pre-WW1 Vienna was his image of perfection, a cultural state he lauds at several points during the book, and he hearkens back to this age repeatedly. His essays are informed by his yearning for this lost Europe and his great wish for it to be reborn.


The cynical amongst you might wonder what relevance this can possibly have nowadays, but in a world where civilisations are crumbling, intolerance is once more on the rise and culture is under threat, Zweig’s plea for us to understand one another is remarkably timely. Europe itself is struggling with all kinds of crises which are exacerbated by suspicion and mistrust, and it is only if humans can get past this that we’ll progress.

There is no longer any pacifist organisation to speak of and barely any will to form one. Even the artists and intellectuals are weary of signing manifestos, for they know well enough how absurd it is to wave a scrap of paper at an onrushing locomotive.

The presentation of the essays in chronological order makes for a fascinating read, as we watch the evolution of Zweig’s thought, his gradually diminishing hope for a successful future for Europe and his poignant evocation of the Vienna he recalls. Despair finally gripped the author in South America, when the resolution of the War looked hopeless and he could see no future for himself in the world that would follow.

“Messages” is an essential and timely book from Pushkin; a reminder of what a wonderfully talented and varied writer Stefan Zweig was, and also an opportune look at how the hopes and dreams of the past have not come to fruition. Zweig was a humane and thoughtful writer and thank goodness his work is now back in favour!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for kindly providing a review copy)

Evoking a Lost Europe – Part 1


Summer Before the Dark by Volker Weidermann

There are many things we have to thank Pushkin Press for (Gaito Gazdanov, Teffi, gorgeously produced books, to name just a few); but one of their major achievements is their part in the rediscovery and championing of Stefan Zweig, making available so many of his works in English.

Zweig probably needs very little introduction here as I’ve written about him before; his writings, once so popular, slipped into decline but have now come back into vogue, and there is a large selection available from Pushkin. He’s often bracketed with Joseph Roth, a slightly younger author from the same era (and whom I’ve also covered) and so when I saw that Pushkin were bringing out a beautiful-looking volume dealing with their ‘last summer’ in 1936 at Ostend, it was a must!


This lovely little hardback (and the cover image is gorgeous) tells the stories of not only Zweig and Roth, but also their friends and colleagues in exile; from Egon Erwin Kisch and Herman Kesten to Romain Rolland and Arthur Koestler, as well as several others, some of whom I’d heard of and others who were new to me. The book also loops back to the past to cover Emile Verhaeren, Zweig’s early inspiration, and his second-wife-to-be Lotte is prominent in the narrative.

“Summer” is initially a difficult work to categorise as in some ways it almost reads like fiction. At first, the writing seems a little simplistic, but as the book progresses you find yourself gradually being drawn into the world of Zweig, Roth and co. The atmosphere of the times is brilliantly brought to life, and I found as I read on that I was visualising the seaside setting, the little cafes, the group of emigres eating, drinking, arguing and loving. Zweig and Roth really come alive as characters of course, but their friends are also brilliantly portrayed. Weidermann really captures the petty rivalries, the loves, the despair and the desperation that consume them.

… The more I thought about it, the more I realised that our spiritual world is made up of millions of atoms of single impressions, whose minimum number stems solely from what we see and what we experience – while everything else, the existential interwoven world, we owe to books, to what is read, transmitted, learned.

Central to the book is the relationship between Roth and Irmgard Keun (whom I’ve written about before). Their short, intense affair was pretty much the last love of Roth’s life, although the much younger Keun went on to have a long and fascinating existence, managing somehow to survive the war living in Germany.

circa 1940: Stefan Zweig (1881 - 1942) the writer, poet and translator of Ben Johnson. He was born in Austria but became a British citizen in 1940. He died by his own hand. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

What’s fascinating is seeing how the emigres completely understand the threat of Germany and Nazism; the pain of having to leave their homeland or lose their lives is palpable, and it’s quite incredible looking back to realise that large sections of the world just ignored the rise of Hitler and his cronies, despite their despicable behaviour throughout the 1930s.

At one point, the author describes a photo of Zweig and Roth which was taken at the time by Keun, going into detail about the pose and what it says about the two writers, making you long to see it. It turns out to be a kicker of an image which appears on the last page and really hits you in the gut. The two men were obviously very different in background and temperament, and it shows, but they still managed to retain a connection and a fragile friendship based on their intellectual lives.


Weidermann quotes a variety of sources at points through the book, from letters and biographies, and it’s clear he’s done much research to enable him to paint such a wonderful, impressionistic picture of this exotic group of people. I was mildly puzzled, therefore, by the lack of any notes or references at the end of the book; it’s the kind of thing I would have expected, to enable me to go on and explore further if nothing else, but there are none at all, meaning that the reader does have to trust Weidermann’s interpretations and accuracy.

However, this is a minor quibble, and what the book gives is a rich, moving and entertaining portrait of a wonderful group of artists in transit. At the end, we find out the eventual fate of each character, and in most cases it’s not pretty. It’s all to easy to forget how hopeless things must have seemed at some points during the conflict, and how it appeared that civilisation was going to hell in a handcart.

Alas, the world that was theirs has gone; Ostend apparently looks completely different, and I doubt any of the group of emigres would be happy with the direction we have gone in since. But this book takes you back to 1936 and lets you live through the times of Zweig, Roth and their friends alongside them. Another winner from Pushkin!

(Many thanks to Pushkin Press for very kindly providing a review copy)

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