Devotion by Patti Smith

I try, as a rule, not to splurge *too* much on brand new books, although that’s been going a little out of the window recently. I picked up “Devotion” at the same times “Bergeners”, as I’d missed getting a copy when it came out for some reason, and I tend to want to own anything Patti Smith publishes. “Devotion” is part of a series entitled ‘Why I Write’ and mixes memoir, fiction and discussion of the whole process of composition – which in the hands of Smith is always going to be intriguing.

This is one of those books you can read in a single sitting, yet contains much to think about and much which lingers in the mind. Smith’s latest work has at its heart a short fiction entitled “Devotion” and this is bookended by two pieces where she relates her travels, her motivations and the triggers that caused the composition of the story. These two pieces are fascinating; she journeys around Europe, searching for the grave of Simone Weil (one of the inspirations for the story) and visits the house of Albert Camus (also one of her touchstones here). Whilst travelling, she meditates on what makes an author write, the compulsion which causes the need to stop doing everything else and pick up a pen – it’s clear that Smith is driven to constantly be creating. Illustrated by her photography, this is a rare and engaging insight into the way her mind works.

Smith also brings memoir into her work, in particular when visiting Paris and returning to places she previously explored in 1969 on a trip to the city with her sister. The writing is evocative and atmospheric, capturing place and time, so immediate that you almost feel that you’re travelling alongside the author. As she travels, elements lodge in her mind, leading to the genesis of the story which is central to the book.

So, the short story… “Devotion” is a work that deals with obsession; specifically the differing obsessions of the two central characters. Eugenia is a 16-year-old orphaned exile from Estonia; Alexander is in his late thirties, and a solitary collector. When their two worlds collide, her obsessive need to skate and his obsessive need to collect her will lead inevitably to tragedy. It’s a dark tale, full of betrayal, absence and death and leaves disturbing echoes in the mind.

As I mentioned when I posted about the arrival of “Devotion”, I own pretty much everything Smith’s published; I started getting hold of her slim poetry books in the late 1970s when I could track them down (not so easy in those days) and I’ve kept up with what she’s published over the years. A high point was when her collection “Babel” came out in 1978; and in many ways this story reminds me of the fictions featured in that volume. I was entranced with them at the time; but if I’m honest I perhaps have slight reservations about them now. “Devotions” would easily slot in amongst the “Babel” stories, and they’re works that would perhaps move you more when read at a younger age than I am now. The characters in the story never developed enough for me; they were symbols rather than real people, and it *is* possible to bring a character to life in a short work (as the many short stories I’ve read prove). There was some beautiful imagery in the story, and up to a certain point it worked well. However, at the point the couple travelled off into the desert (or whatever it was) the story did tend to lose focus. As a tale of the unholy collision of two driven individuals, it works well enough, but maybe nowadays I’m looking for a little more. Additionally, there is an ambiguity and unpleasantness in the relationship between the 16-year-old and the much older man which made me very uncomfortable; although there was revenge, I wondered what motivated the storyline in the first place.

By Daigo Oliva from São Paulo (Originally posted to Flickr) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

However, the ‘bookends’ are marvellous; Smith is an excellent chronicler of her own life, her thoughts, her rituals and her quests for the remnants of her heroes. “M. Train” and “Just Kids” proved just how good she is at that kind of writing, and I found myself wishing that we had had more of Smith’s journals and maybe less of her fictions! That may sound a little harsh; nevertheless, this book has plenty to recommend it, not least Smith’s record of her visits to her French publisher Gallimard, who murmurs that he knew her hero Jean Genet; and the trip to the Camus residence, which proved such an inspiration. Smith is not afraid to wear her heart on her sleeve when it comes to her idols, and that’s refreshing.

So “Devotion” was a bit of a mixed bag: the sections about writing, travelling, revisiting her past were prime Patti, compelling and beautiful; the story that forms the book’s centrepiece much more problematic. Nevertheless, I’m glad to have read “Devotion” and it will no doubt sit on my shelves alongside the rest of her work. An online review of the book I read mentioned hoping for an “M. Train 2” and I have to concur – *that’s* a book I’d love to read!

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