“The keys of knowledge are the gifts of divine love alone.” #Rimbaud #ASeasonInHell


As part of my recent binge of French reading, but in something of a contrast to my last post, today I want to share some thoughts on a classic of French poetry – “A Season in Hell” by Arthur Rimbaud. I have a big chunky volume of his complete writings on the shelf, but nevertheless was impelled to pick up this particular translation, by Louise Varese, thanks to Patti Smith! I follow Patti’s Substack, and she’s recently being doing a lot of posts on the poet, planning a Rimbaud month; she talked a lot about her favourite translation of “Season…” which is the one by Varese, and for this particular edition she provided the preface. Plus I love the cover art…. (shallow, moi???) So I confess I sent off for a copy and decided this would be the version I read.

If I’m honest, I can’t recall what and when I’ve read of Rimbaud in the past, although I’ve owned his work for decades. So in many ways I was coming to this new, which was an interesting way to approach his work. This edition is a bilingual one, with the French and English texts side by side; and this can create problems for me (more of which later…) However, let’s get on with the poetry itself.

“A Season in Hell” is a long prose poem, and it’s the only one he published himself. Written when he was just 19, it’s an emotional and perhaps enigmatic work; and it seems that it divides critics as to its meaning. So whether I am going to be able to add anything of substance to the discussion remains to be seen! Tracing its narrator’s damnation and journey through his personal hell, there are sections which discuss Rimbaud’s relationship with Verlaine in allegorical fashion as well as his theories of poetry. Rimbaud explores his past and his ancestors, and wallows in self-loathing. It’s a dramatic narrative, full of dark imagery, and one which certainly leaves you moved, if perhaps puzzled.

Appended to “A Season…” is one of Rimbaud’s best-known works, “The Drunken Boat“, a poem from 1871. Apparently inspired by Jules Verne’s “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea”, the verse tells of the sinking of a boat at sea. The poem is full of vivid imagery, and the first person narrative appears to be the voice of the boat itself, which is very striking. The boat describes its gradual sinking into the ocean in hallucinatory visions; and the mixture of beauty and horror which it witnesses is incredibly powerful and evocative.

So what, in the end, to say about Rimbaud and his works? Well, I can’t claim to always quite get what he’s trying to say; but some of the prose and poetry is quite beautiful (and having read a number of works by Patti Smith over the years, I can really see his influence on her writing!) The vivid visions, the hallicinatory prose and the imagery are quite stunning and I’d like to give the work another reading to see what I think on a second visit to his hell. I may actually consider reading the other translation I have for the sake of comparison; because as I hinted above, the fact that this is a dual language edition has left me with a few thoughts on this version…

Rimbaud in 1872 (by Étienne Carjat, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0&gt;, via Wikipedia Commons)

French is the only other language I have a (very!) little knowledge of, and my schoolgirl vocabulary doesn’t go that far. However, when the original text is sitting there on the left of the page, I *do* have a little gander, and I found the odd query popping up in my head. Yes, I *know* a literal translation is not a poetic one, but there differences in e.g. punctuation, and also points where Varese appeared to have altered that, and even added bits in. For example:

Qu’il vienne, qu’il vienne,
Le temps dont on s’eprenne

is rendered as:

Oh may it come, the time of love,
The time we’d be enamoured of.

Hmm. The literal translation from dear Google is:

Let it come, let it come,
The time we fall in love with.

I can’t say what a translator would do with the original, but the Varese version does lose the lovely repetition of the first line. And as I said, my French is fairly minimal nowadays, but I *am* able to recognise when the month of July in the original is changed to August in the translation… I’m not going to say any more, because it’s quite possible I’ll make a twit of myself, and I do recognise that translating poetry must be the hardest thing in the world. But I was left with the odd question…

In the end, I found reading “A Season in Hell” a fascinating experience, though I suspect I responded differently to it than I would have when I was younger. MarinaSofia commented on Twitter that Rimbaud WAS her teens and I suspect that I might well have become completely sunk in his self-absorbtion had I read him when I was a lot younger. As it is, I’m happy to have enjoyed some very beautiful, dark and sometimes surreal verse – and I’ll look forward to exploring further!

…a dream within a dream… #NovNov22 #germanlitmonth #baronbagge


I’m continuing my run of shorter works today with a book which not only fits into Novellas in November, but also works for German Lit Month (I love it when I can hit two events with one book!!) This is another book which only arrived recently; I somehow stumbled across it (I think on Twitter) and it had several things going for it. The book is “Baron Bagge” by Alexander Lernet-Holenia; the author’s appeared on the Ramblings before when I covered his “I Was Jack Mortimer“, which I did enjoy. However, “Baron Bagge” had much to immediately commend itself: it comes with an introduction by Patti Smith, and also letters between the author and Stefan Zweig! Needless to say, as soon as I found out about the book, I ordered a copy from Blackwells pronto!!

Lernet-Holenia was, as I said in my review of “Jack Mortimer…”, “Viennese, fighting for Austria-Hungary in the First World War, and going on to become a protegé of the poet Rilke. He was quite a prolific author, taking in novels, poetry and plays (writing one of the latter with Stefan Zweig)…” “BB…” was first published in 1955, and the lovely Penguin Classics edition here was translated into English by Richard and Clara Winston. Set during the First World War, the book follows the story of the titular Baron, a Cavalry Officer fighting in the Carpathian Mountains. Nerves are frayed, his commanding office is on a short fuse and behaving erratically, and Bagge has his doubts when the man in charge orders his forces to ride into battle with Russian artillery. However, as the cavalry charge over a bridge, it appears that they have swept to victory, with the Russians completely routed and Bagge’s comrades unscathed. But as they pass on through the suddenly calm land, it becomes clear that all cannot be as it seems…

Forgive me — I’m growing forgetful. That’s what happens to us when we grow old; we become forgetful and confuse everything, times and women. Luckily, by the time old age overtakes us, we no longer have wives; otherwise, they would be angry with us all the time. For truth to tell, we are no longer sure who is still alive and who is already dead; we’re no longer even sure about ourselves.

For a start, Bagge’s comrades in arms are behaving uncharacteristically; there is no sign of opposing troops anywhere; and when the group arrive at the small town of Nagy Mihaly they are astonished to find it packed with merrymakers, all acting as if there is no conflict. Sentries are set up, but see no hostile forces; and then Bagge discovers that old family friends are still living nearby, including the daughter of the house, Charlotte, a young woman to whom Bagge’s mother had often wished he would get married. The attraction between the pair is instant, and it’s clear that they are completely in love. However, the course of true love never did run smooth, and the cryptic remarks of his fellow officers combined with the lack of any enemy troops creates tensions and confusion – how will the lovers fare in such an uncertain world?

Perhaps I would even have conceived of you in dreams if you had never been. Isn’t it said that we always dream only of beings who do not exist? So I might have been disappointed when I saw you at last. But true feeling cannot be disappointed by anything, for it is self-engendered and has little to do with the object. You have simply become for me the person of whom I dreamed. You have become that by chance, if there is such a thing as chance.

I have to say that I found “Baron Bagge” to be a dream of a novella in more ways than one! For a start it really is beautifully written; having fought in the First World War himself, it’s to be imagined that Lernet-Holenia knew what he was talking about when it came to the action and military aspects of the story. However, the nature of the story he was telling required more than accuracy, and it’s the wonderful capturing of atmosphere and conjuring of setting which really stood out for me here. As the Baron and his troops stumble through the misty mountainous landscape, the narrative becomes remarkably unsettling, and the haunting dreamlike quality of the prose has the reader wondering with the Baron whether they are still in the real world or some strange other realm between worlds. The end can perhaps be guessed by the astute reader, but it’s no less heartbreaking for that; and despite the final conclusion, there is definitely the sense that love conquers all and will endure.

As I mentioned, appended to the novella is a letter from Stefan Zweig to Lernet-Holenia, and two from the latter back to Zweig. It’s clear that Zweig thought very highly of “Baron Bagge”, and I can see why. It’s a hypnotic tale of a strange and impossible love, one that’s impossible for different reasons to the last novella I read; yet despite that, those loves seem stronger than the things which defeat them. It’s a beautiful and unforgettable story, the landscapes of which are quite haunting; and this is another novella which is going to stay with me.

Again, “Baron Bagge” could easily be read in one sitting, and I pretty much did that with it, only pausing for a while because I wanted what I’d read to sink in a bit. And while I was reading it, I had a real panic because I thought I’d donated “Jack Mortimer…” during a recent purge… Well, I had put it in a box to go, but fortunately it hadn’t gone yet, so the book is rescued. “Baron Bagge” is a brilliant and memorable novella, and I may have to go off and explore more Lertnet-Holenia… 😉🙄

“The borders of reality had reconfigured…” #yearofthemonkey #pattismith


The Year of the Monkey by Patti Smith

As I’ve said before on the Ramblings, one of my lifelong inspirations has been the creative force that is Patti Smith; ever since I first encountered her music in 1975 I’ve been hooked, and her writings over the years have become just as important as her music. I featured my original Patti book collection some years back when I read her bestselling “M-Train”; I found it a wonderful read and an essential addition to my Patti shelves. Her most recent book, “Year of the Monkey” came out in the autumn of last year and I don’t quite know why it’s taken me so long to pick it up. Nevertheless, I did so during January, and it was a wild and fascinating read.

The recent Chinese Year of the Monkey ran from 8th February, 2016 until 27th January, 2017 and Smith’s book covers that period in her life, a period where many changes were taking place. As I mentioned in my review of “M-Train”, Smith’s life has been scattered with tragedy; the early loss of her husband and brother, the death of her long-time associate Robert Mapplethorpe; and this year saw significant changes too. The book opens with Smith visiting old friend Sandy Pearlman in hospital, where he’s in a coma following a brain haemorrhage; old friend Lenny Kaye is on hand. This sets off a chain of wanderings across the country (and indeed the globe) as Smith negotiates a world undertaking catastrophic changes. Another old friend and former partner, San Shepard, is bedbound and nearing his life’s end; Smith spends time with him acting as an amanuensis. She contemplates the horrors of American politics, encounters (or hallucinates) a fellow Bolano-obsessive called Ernest; and converses with a snarky Dream Motel sign on the West Coast. It’s pure Smith.

‘Hallucinatory’ is probably the crucial word here, as the book (much more so than her more recent works) is a heady blend of the real and the imagined, actual experience and perceived experience. Smith has always been prone to sensing signs,symbols and portents, and that tendency is very prevalent here. It adds up to a beautiful and absorbing piece of work that not only lets you have a peep into Smith’s real world (the leaky skylight of her New York flat, the scrubby garden of her Rockaway Beach retreat) but also the world of her imagination; the visions, the obsessions, the fantasies and the journeys of the mind.

Marcus Aurelius asks us to note the passing of time with open eyes. Ten thousand years or ten thousand days, nothing can stop time, or change the fact that I would be turning seventy in the year of the monkey. Seventy. Merely a number but one indicating the passing of a significant percentage of the allotted sand in an egg timer, with oneself the darn egg. The grains pour and I find myself missing the dead more than usual. I noticed that I cry more when watching television, triggered by romance, a retiring detective shot in the back while staring into the sea, a weary father lifting his infant from the crib. I notice that my own tears burn my eyes, that I am no longer a fast runner and that my sense of time seems to be accelerating.

Again, as with “M-Train”, there is an attempt to reckon with mortality, and also with ageing. As she writes, Smith is approaching her 70th birthday and taking stock of herself. Although I’m a way off that myself, I empathised with her awareness of time running out and the strong need to grasp every moment. But despite her moments of doubt, she is in the end optimistic; and able to hope that despite the horrors of the way her country is headed, the world will sort itself out.

Lenny and I ate our congee and drank oolong tea in silent gratitude, still alive; born three days apart, seventy and silver haired, bowing to fate.

“Year…” is illustrated with Smith’s signature polaroid images which add to the beauty of the whole experience of reading it. And of course, whenever I read Smith there are always striking resonances; she references authors and artists I love (Gogol, Bruno Schulz, Cocteau et al), and I’m reminded that there are people out there who still love the creators that I love too.

Some of my Patti books…

Needless to say, I devoured “Year of the Monkey” in huge gulps, revelling in Smith’s prose, which veers from the factual to the fanciful, often breathlessly. She’s a wonderful writer, with a singular voice which is recognisable whichever medium she’s working in. “Year…” is a poetic, absorbing, entertaining and beautiful book which reminded me just how much I love Patti Smith – as well as sending me off to dig out her music, and drive Mr. Kaggsy crazy! Highly recommended! (The book, that is – not driving poor Mr. Kaggsy crazy! 😀 )

#1965Club – on the run in 1960s France #astragal


My second read for the #1965Club is very different from yesterday’s short story, and it’s a book I’ve had knocking about on the TBR pile for some time – “Astragal” by Albertine Sarrazin, translated by Patsy Southgate. I picked it up in the LRB Bookshop a while back simply on the strength of the fact that it had an introduction by Patti Smith; this is usually recommendation enough, but I liked the sound of the story anyway, and a quick flip revealed that the author herself (pictured on the cover) had a colourful, exciting and ultimately tragic life.

Sarrazin was French-Algerian and dropped out of formal education early to take up a life of crime and prostitution. She spent time in and out of jail, on the run from the authorities, and died startlingly young, from complications during an operation. Sarrazin left behind her a few works; and as far as I can see, “Astragal” (which was written while she was in prison) is the only one to have been translated into English. The passionate introduction by Patti Smith makes it clear that this is one of the inspirational, lynchpin books in Smith’s life, a kind of touchstone always with her; she mentions Sarrazin being described as a female Genet but that’s maybe a slightly simplistic way to describe her. Certainly, although she shares perhaps a similar outlook and view on life to Genet, her writing I would say is very different.

However – on to “Astragal” itself. The book opens with its protagonist, Anne, jumping from a wall to escape prison and breaking her ankle; she’s rescued by a passing motorist and then whisked off on the back of a motorcycle by Julien, who will become her lover, soul-mate and occasional companion. On the run from the authorities, the young woman is shunted from safe house to safe house, trying to mend her ankle (the broken talus bone is known as astragale in French) and keep Julien close. The latter, however, has his own issues with the law and so contact is often fleeting. Eventually, an operation is needed to stop Anne from losing her foot, although even getting her admitted to hospital comes with its own risks. Will Anne’s ankle be mended? Will she escape the law? Will she and Julien be together? Will the fact that she dabbles in prostitution and he has at least one other woman get in the way? Frankly, I’m not telling you – you’ll have to read it yourself. However, you can probably work some of it out if you look up Sarrazin’s short life, because this book draws heavily on her biography. Anne is obviously a stand-in for the author who indeed had similar experiences with broken ankles and running from the law. And Julien was his real name….

In that life, you were never carried off, petted, saved; you stood up straight, in the dark cages of the paddy wagon, or sat up on the hard wooden slats. But in that life, all the same, you could get your kicks in secret in the certainty of each day’s routine. My new freedom imprisons me and paralyzes me.

Initially, I wasn’t sure quite what I felt about “Astragal” and I expected to love it more, and love it immediately, particularly after the laudatory introduction. However, despite some beautiful writing, I didn’t actually warm to Anne. She was young, yes, and selfish too, which doesn’t mean she should be intrinsically uninteresting. However, the episodic nature of the story threw me a little, with Anne simply being shunted from one place to the next, being a bit sulky and difficult, and waiting for her lover to turn up. I wondered whether it was the fact that I’m frankly a bit too old to really relate to the book, and that it might have meant an awful lot more to me if I’d read it in my teens.

And yet…. The more I let the book, its characters and its author linger in my mind, the more they seemed to affect me. As I thought about it, I realised that there was an underlying theme of imprisonment; whether during her rotten childhood, her school days or her time in prison or her enforced confinement whilst her ankle is damaged, Anne is always constrained and held back. Her ultimate need is for freedom and she fights for that, even returning to prostitution to maintain her independence, rather than simply relying on someone she loves. Instead, she’ll take advantage of men’s needs and make her money that way, showing her contempt for a world which tries to hem her in.

…what does it matter where I was or what I was doing yesterday, yesterday is dead and we are alive; tomorrow, the limbo of the future, after all…

“Astragal” is a book which cannot be separated from the life of its author, which might by why in the end it stays in the mind; simply because it’s so painfully autobiographical (there is a very moving picture of Albertine with Julien just before she enters a hospital for her last, botched, operation). That somehow makes the events and the story hit home more, knowing she was drawing on her life and fictionalising it, recording her love for Julien, her need for freedom and her disdain for authority. I thought I wasn’t going to love the book, but somehow it’s got its hooks into me and if any more of her writings were available in translation I’d read them. I really ought to brush up on my very rusty schoolgirl French…

“Paris is a city one can read without a map”


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!

Some booky and arty digressions! (or; drowning in books….)


Those of you who follow me on Twitter might have picked up that I’ve been having a bit of a clear out recently – the pile of books on the landing, known locally as Death Row, has been severely pruned and there are now boxes in the hallway waiting for a local charity shop to collect. Unfortunately, the pruning process wasn’t as rigorous as I might have wished, as I ended up reprieving a fair number of books – but at least the landing is now passable without danger of falling over a pile of volumes…

Needless to say, however, this somehow spurred on a burst of buying (and I’ve managed to pick up a couple of things locally). So in the spirit of sharing gratuitous book pictures with those who love them, here are some lovelies! 🙂

They come from a variety of sources, new and used, and are all tempting me to pick them up straight away to read…

First up, a couple of finds in the local Samaritans Book Cave – and as I mentioned when I posted images of them on social media, I had only popped in to ask about donating…. But the Wharton is one I’ve never seen before and it sounds fascinating. I do of course have the Colette already, but it’s a very old, small Penguin with browning crumbly pages which I’m a bit scared to read again. And I *do* want to re-read the Cheri books, so of course want to start reading both of these at once.

These two are brand new, pay-day treats from an online source (ahem). I basically couldn’t resist Bergeners as I’ve heard such good things about it (and as I posted excitedly on Twitter, I now own a Seagull Books book!) The Patti Smith was essential, as I have just about everything else ever published by her (including old and rare poetry pamphlets from the 1970s). I just discovered she has an Instagram account you can follow – how exciting is that????

Finally in the new arrivals, a recent post by Liz reminded me that I had always wanted to own a book issued by the Left Book Club. A quick online search revealed that Orwells are prohibitively expensive; but I rather liked the look of this one about Rosa Luxemburg and so it was soon winging its way to me.

I could of course start reading any of these straight away (but which one?); though I am rather suffering from lots of books calling for my attention at once. There’s the lovely pile of British Library Crime Classics I featured a photo of recently, as well as other review books. Then there is this enticing pile featuring some books I’m keen on getting to soon:

I’ve already started the Chateaubriand and it’s excellent; long and full of beautiful prose. I want to read more RLS, and I’m very drawn to New Arabian Nights. Then there is poetry – perhaps I should have a couple of weeks of reading only verse???

Finally, here’s an author who’s been getting a lot of online love recently:

I was pretty sure that I’d read Jane Bowles, and I thought it was “Two Serious Ladies” that I’d read – but apparently not… The pretty Virago above is a fairly recently acquisition; the short story collection is a book I’ve had for decades (it has an old book-plate I used to use); and so I’ve obviously never read Bowles’ only novel. So tempting.

And there is, of course, this rather daunting volume – Dr. Richard Clay’s book on “Iconoclasm in revolutionary Paris”, which is currently sitting on my shelf glaring at me as if to say “Well, you went through all that angst to get me, so damn well read me!”

Here it is on the aforesaid shelf, and as you can see it has a new heavyweight companion…

The new arrival is another Big Book on iconoclasm which has just come out in paperback. It’s obvious I need to give up work and find some kind of employment that will pay me just to read…

So, I’m really not quite sure where to commit my reading energies at the moment: do I read review books or follow my whim? Or let myself by swayed by other people’s suggestions or go for a re-read? Or go for Difficult but Fascinating? Decisions, decisions…

The Arty Bit

This post is getting a bit long, but anyway. Ramblings readers will probably have picked up that I love a good art exhibition, but I pretty much always end up travelling to London for them as not much seems to happen locally. However, OH (that great enabler) noticed that the nearest Big Town had an art gallery and it was showing a collection of contemporary Chinese art, so I popped over during the recent half term break.

I confess that I know little about Chinese art (probably more about Japanese art, tbh) but this was fascinating. The works are remarkable varied, some drawing on traditional Chinese methods and others embracing more Western techniques. I took quick snaps of a few favourites (I’m never sure if you’re allowed to take photos in galleries, though phone cameras seem to be acceptable).

It really is an eye-opener of an exhibition, and even had free postcards!

What was disappointing, however, was how quiet the gallery was in the middle of a half term week. I do feel that perhaps they need to give themselves a higher profile; I wasn’t sure I even knew there was a gallery there, although I now find myself questioning that because of a very strange incident. I was on my up the stairs in the gallery to the upper mezzanine level, and halfway up there is a big list on the wall of supporters and past volunteers. I was a bit surprised to notice, therefore, that Middle Child’s name was featured…. Especially as when I quizzed her about it she claimed to have no idea why it’s up there!

She is, however, the arty one of the family, and I suspect may have been involved in something there when she was at college doing art. But obviously having a bad memory run in the family.

Well. I’m sorry – this is a really long post (but then I do like to live up to my name and ramble….) Now I just need to focus and decide what to read next…

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

Patti Smith – Gloria



Simply because she was, and always will be, inspirational.

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