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

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

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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

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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.

02-patti-smith-m-train

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!

smith

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

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

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