‘It’s not easy writing about nothing’
That’s how Patti Smith starts her book. The words uttered by a cowpoke in her dream. A kind of challenge that she accepts.
Before I proceed with the review bit, I need to make a small disclaimer. I have seen Patti Smith live on All Points East in 2018, she was performing before Nick Cave. The gig was awesome. But listening to her records is not my thing. I think it’s just generational. So while not a big fan I do admire her. A weird combination. I read her book in April, in the middle of the lockdown.
Now on to the book. I was curious if I’d relate to her writing more than her singing. And I definitely did. It is a great book. For me, it was also a good fit for the lockdown. Because Patti takes her time. She thinks, reminisces, reads, writes, walks, rambles, and generally ponders on life, change, loss and hope. In a way, it is a diary of the time around hurricane Sandy, the year before and year after.
She takes us with her to her favorite cafes, so we can it and think and write with her. We get to experience the cafe as a semi-public space, as she makes it her own. She shares the memories from her travels, as well as the grief and loss she still feels about the death of her husband. She tells us about the great times they had but is also not afraid of admitting the pain and emptiness she feels now. It somehow brought to my mind The Year of Magical Thinking, only Smith shows us that the grief and sadness never fully leaves, it has a way of getting back under our skin and hitting hard when we least expect it.
Patti Smith is definitively addicted to coffee and a lot of the book revolves around her visiting various cafes and drinking coffee. Just passing time very often, but also remaining open for new experiences. She is very human in her writing. The scene when someone took her table at Cafe ‘Ino made me laugh, but also I totally sympathized with her annoyance.
Another thing she does freely in this book is sharing her dreams with us, in both senses of the word. She tells us about the cowpoke she dreamt up, and he reappears several times to visit. As if he is her muse, and as we know from Stephen King’s On Writing the muse can take all shapes and forms. But she also shares the dream of once owning a café. And she even helps to co-found one. Then going to Rockaway Beach to visit the new café she falls in love with the place and finds a bungalow she buys, in her mind’s eye already seeing it as the perfect writing home, Alamo.
And then the hurricane hits and everything is blown to pieces. The familiar cafes gone, the Rockaway Beach destroyed. But there’s the glimmer of hope, the Alamo is still standing, it needed work, to begin with so in the second part of the book we chart the progress of the renovation, as well as the rebirth of Rockaway Beach.
Another very human and lovely touch was Smith’s obsession with crime series. She watched them all, The Killing, Luther, Law & Order, Midsomer Murders, just name one, she mentions it. In a lovely detour when she’s traveling back from Berlin to New York and her flight in London is delayed she decides to spend a day in the city to watch crime series. It’s delicious! Allowing oneself a detour for leisure is rarely done in our mad rushing times. And that’s where Smith’s book is special. She’s never rushing, she walks through life slowly, making sure she registers it and experiences to the full. No matter how small or down to earth the pleasures are, they deserve attention. Living our life deserves attention.
At one point she does also come across the reader’s dilemma – the bookshelves are full but there’s nothing to read. Nothing to fit your current mood. Smith writes a lot about her reading. With Wittgenstein and Bolaño her past heroes and Murakami enchanting her in the present. With Mankell as her favorite crime writer.
I’ve been mentioning synchronicity in my previous posts and we have it here too. As I mentioned Smith walks through life, and a lot of her walking takes place in the city, which reminded me of Happy City and the chapter on cities in Wanderlust, Smith puts those theories to practice. She also mentions Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, which my mum mentioned to me just a week earlier during our conversation. I finally decided to buy it, the book seems to crop up left, right and center, so let me finally read it.
While writing about her trip to Japan she mentions Yukio Mishima, whose book I read a few months ago (and did not fall completely in love with his writing) and still have two others on my shelf. Another Japanese writer she mentions is Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, whose Life of a Stupid Man I read two months ago, just before the lockdown kicked in. Similar story with Sylvia Plath and The Bell Jar.
On the lighter side of synchronicity, she also mentions George Maharis, which caught my attention as, together with the Bigger Half, we were rewatching Arrested Development for the umpteenth time. She also drinks lemon, honey, ginger which has become mine and my mum’s drink of choice since last year. Only she adds cayenne to it, which I still don’t dare to do.
All in all, the world is small. Things come and go. We gain, we lose. But what I got from Smith’s book, is that there’s always hope. There is always something to relish in life. We just have to pay attention and make time for it.