Devotion by Patti Smith — fever dreams
In popular culture Patti Smith will always be the brooding androgyne memorably captured by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, the rock icon who intoned “Horses” and inspired a generation. She followed Just Kids (2010), the prizewinning memoir of her time with Mapplethorpe in the late 1960s and 1970s, with another bestseller, M Train (2015), the record of her everyday life as spiritual seeker and artistic survivor. It showed how, having outlived partners and an entire cultural epoch, she is forging a new path, restless, solitary but not self-absorbed.
In Just Kids, she recorded her youthful worries about the futility of her chosen path. “In my low periods, I wondered what was the point of creating art. For whom? . . . what was the ultimate goal? To have one’s work caged in art’s great zoos — the Modern, the Met, the Louvre?” In Devotion, commissioned as the first in a series entitled “Why I Write”, she returns to the problem. “What is the task? To compose a work that communicates on several levels, as in a parable, devoid of the stain of cleverness.” This slim volume contains a short story, bookended by reflections on how it came to be written. For fans of M Train, there are more cherishable glimpses of Smith’s life of quiet intensity.
The story, “Devotion”, concerns a young girl who finds intense fulfilment in ice-skating on a frozen pond, hidden from prying eyes. But how valid is an art form without an audience? An older man, drawn by her unconventional looks, soon discovers her secret, and his generosity promises to elevate her art while simultaneously constraining her being — for of course the sponsorship comes at a price. The usual price, you might say.
The framing essays reveal how the story came to be written — “feverishly”, on a train from Paris to the south of France, and back again. Smith travels light; there’s a delicious glimpse of the contents of her bag: “Notebook, [monograph on] Simone [Weil], underwear, socks, toothbrush, a folded shirt, camera, my pen and dark glasses. Everything I need.” As M Train also made clear, she’s a devoted visitor to writers’ graves, turning up in Ashford, Kent, Weil’s unexpected final resting place. Seeking Paul Valéry’s grave in Sète, she finds the title of her short story in the word “DEVOUEMENT” she spies on a nearby headstone.
The story, simple enough but haunting, proves to be an alchemical mix of current and recurring obsessions and motifs. A 16-year-old Russian ice-skater seen on TV mysteriously fuses with Simone Weil to form Eugenia, her protagonist. Totems include a Fabergé egg and a disassembled gun that once belonged to Rimbaud, Smith’s greatest literary hero. Questions over the merchantability of art arise in the figure of Aleksandr, Eugenia’s mentor, who is a dealer in artefacts: “The valuable he delivered to museums; the exquisite he kept for himself.” Better to be in a “zoo” than a private plaything. The story is told with authorial detachment, yet unmaterialistic Smith is clear about the failings of Aleksandr, whose possessions bring only pain because “someone else will have them when I am dead”. What does the creator owe the purchaser, and vice versa?
Following on from the story, the last piece, “A Dream is not a Dream”, records a visit to Albert Camus’ home in Lourmarin, where Smith is allowed to stay in his room, and to read the manuscript he was writing when he was killed in a car accident. This too is part of the genesis of “Devotion”, for his unfinished pages stir something deep in Smith: the nagging need to write. “That is the decisive power of a singular work: a call to action. And I, time and again, am overcome with the hubris to believe I can answer that call.”
Devotion is short enough to devour at one enjoyable sitting and thought-provoking enough to deserve re-reading. As with her previous books, it is interspersed with Smith’s own monochrome photographs: of Camus’ and Weil’s graves, and sites of personal significance in Paris — including one of young Patti leaping for joy in a favourite street. The story comes full circle as she returns to her desk in New York, complete with notebook filled with exquisite handwriting. It’s a privilege to spend any time with Patti Smith, however brief.
Devotion, by Patti Smith, Yale University Press, RRP£12.99/$18, RRP112 pages