Monday, November 6, 2017

Book Review - Devotion by Patti Smith

In Devotion, Patti Smith invites readers to peek behind the curtain of her creative process.  The short work is made up of three parts - "How the Mind Works", "Devotion", and "A Dream is Not a Dream" and together they form the culmination of a creative writing project from inspiration to writing, to the finished project and beyond.  It's a fascinating look at how art and life intermingle and mutually influence each other.

In "How the Mind Works", Smith takes us along on a stream of consciousness journey.  It begins with her happening upon a film called Risttuules, about the mass deportation of Estonians to Siberia during Stalin's regime.  It's a haunting film, shot in black and white with a mixture of live-action and tableau.  The camera moves through the scene while all the actors stay immobile, giving the impression of time both moving and standing still.  There are desolate forests of birch trees in winter, Soviets rounding up villagers into train cars, and crudely dug graves.  From these images, Smith visualizes a scene of a small clapboard house next to a lake in a forest, something that was entirely her creation but would have fit neatly into the movie.  As it was late night/early morning, she fell back asleep dreaming of the movie and her created scene.

When she awoke, she was still haunted by the movie, and felt compelled to head to her favorite neighborhood cafe for breakfast and to write.  However, there was so much street construction nearby that she couldn't concentrate on her writing and headed home.  She was supposed to fly to Paris that evening, but her flight was cancelled and she had to hurry to make a sooner flight.  The purpose of the trip was to talk to journalists and writers about her experiences with the craft of writing, and she muses on the fact that she's a writer who is currently having trouble coming up with an idea to write about.  In her hurry to pack, she grabs a book about French philosopher and activist Simone Weil, and the memoir of French writer and Nobel laureate Patrick Modiano. 

When she arrives in Paris, she finds herself reliving a trip she and her sister took to Paris when they were young women.  The park bench near Picasso's bust of Apollinaire, the hotels and cafes, the youthful exuberance with which they took on the city.  Back in her hotel, she falls asleep reading the biography of Simone Weil, wakes and reads a different section of the book, turns on the TV, nods off, and wakes up to an ice skating competition.  The last skater to take the ice is a Russian teenager, and despite her drowsiness Smith can't take her eyes off the young woman; her skill and grace on the ice were that compelling. 

When Patti Smith meets with her French publishers, she finds that her editor's office is the same one that Albert Camus occupied.  Some of his books still sit on the shelves, including books written by Simone Weil, whom Camus published posthumously.  After their meeting, she spends time wandering around Paris before finding herself at 37 Boulevard Saint-Michel, the longtime home of Simone Weil and her family.  Camus made the same journey here, many years prior, upon publishing her late works. 

She then moves on to the south of France for another leg of her book presentations.  After a lunch in a Mediterranean cafe with her French handler, they wander to a nearby cemetery and spend time looking at the graves.  One in particular catches Smith's attention, for a young girl named Fanny who loved horses, and a much older headstone with the word "Devouement" carved into it.  When she asked her friend what the word meant, she was told "Devotion". 

The next day, before heading to the next leg of her journey, Smith wanders through a botanical garden and had such a strong feeling of excitement that she took out her pen and notebook and began to write.  She continues writing during her train journey back to Paris, and through the Chunnel into London.  She uses part of this trip to seek out Simone Weil's grave, in Bybrook Cemetery.  She notes that the date is the birthday of her late brother, who had a daughter named Simone.  When she finally locates the headstone, she left an offering, snapped a picture, and felt at peace.  In the final pages of "How the Mind Works", Smith talks about fate and its role in the creative process.  Specifically, how she began writing the story that would ultimately become the next section, and the title of the entire work, "Devotion". 

"Devotion" is a short story, about 45 pages, that features a young Estonian girl named Eugenia.  She was sent away to live with her sister and her husband, because her parents feared their fate under Stalin.  Eugenia was a precocious and wildly intelligent girl, becoming fluent in many languages and scoring some of the highest marks in school.  However, her one true passion was ice skating.  She leaves school for good, and focuses only her skill and proficiency as a skater on the little pond near the house she lives at in the woods.  After she is abandoned by her sister, a wealthy man happens upon her and becomes infatuated and obsessed.  He buys her whatever she wants and provides her with a dedicated skating coach.  He only asks that she devote herself to him above all else.  When the skating coach encourages Eugenia to travel with her for competitions, it creates a deep and life-altering conflict for her and her devotion to her art. 

The final section, called "A Dream Is Not a Dream", explores what role dreams, both sleeping and "the dream" of creating great work, play in art and craft.  Channeling future events, incorporating imagined pasts, all these things serve to add depth and richness to what one is writing.  She finishes the section with a reminiscence of a side trip she took, when in France, to visit the home of Albert Camus, an estate purchased with his Nobel prize money and where his descendants still live.  She met his daughter Catherine, and was able to spend time with an unpublished manuscript of his, THE FIRST MAN, which he had been intending to publish when he was killed in a car crash.  She writes that the power of this encounter was like a call to action, and that is what great writing often is. 

It's interesting to know that this work was created as an expansion of the keynote lecture she gave to the Windham-Campbell Book Festival at Yale University, and published by their in-house press.  It is the first installment in the Why I Write series, delivered during the Festival.  Karl Ove Knausgaard's lecture will be next in the series, because he delivered the keynote address to this year's festival.  These lectures feature prominent and highly creative writers discussing the craft and art of their writing, in particular the creative process.  Smith essentially provides the background information the lead to her story "Devotion", and the story itself, so that readers can bear witness to her method.  I can certainly imagine a creative writing course that might include Devotion as a tool for reflection and discussion about the nature of inspiration and creativity. 

Patti Smith is one of the most prolific and interesting creative forces in our time.  From music to art, memoir and poetry, she is highly respected and regarded.   That's why it was such a thrill to be able to take a small step into her world, even for just a few pages.  Devotion works to demystify how artistic work can happen, and the roles that observation and reflection pay in inspiration.  That's not to say that, after reading this book, you're going to be able to go out and create something that would be equal to what Smith does - her life and experiences are her own - but it gives hope to those of us who fear that artistry might be the domain of a select, chosen few.  This deeply insightful book could be the gateway for the rest of us to take on a creative project, whether it's writing or a craft of some other ilk.  And for that, and Smith's devotion, we are grateful.

Librorum annis,