Book Review: M Train by Patti Smith–like listening to an old friend

 

Punk-rock legend Patti Smith

Patti Smith (photo: MPR/Nate Ryan)

Reading Patti Smith is like listening to an old friend–but an old friend who is better read, better traveled and better experienced than you. And certainly wiser. And though she states several times at the beginning of M Train she has nothing to write about, her sense of nothing is quite different than mine.

As a means of remembering and reminiscing about her deceased husband–Fred “Sonic” Smith, who died in 1994–M Train begins by documenting a trip to French Guiana that the two of them took with the express purpose of gathering pebbles at an abandoned jail in Saint-Laurent-du-Maroni. It is a trip filled with obstacles and difficulties, but the three pebbles she has gathered are for placing on Jean Genet’s grave– the type of gesture of reverence and respect that Smith repeats throughout her account. And though her remembered moments with her husband anchor the memoir, more of it chronicles her life that continues on afterwards.

And what we find in that chronicle is an extraordinarily interested human being. (And generally, those who are most interested in the world around them are usually the most interesting themselves!) Smith is a voracious reader and much of her writing deals with what she is reading and the directions it sends her. (Here is a list of books–from Rimbaud to Susan Sontag–that Patti Smith once recommended.) The writer Maria Popova, in her wonderful blog BrainPickings, also has amassed a list of Smith’s literary references from M Train alone.

Her relationship with books goes well beyond the printed page. She engages with the authors and the characters and the places. (In actuality, she knew a good number of writers: Burroughs, Bowles, Ginsberg.) When she first reads Murakami, she reads nothing else, going from one novel to the next (though not in chronological order.) When she reads his The Wind Up Bird Chronicle, she immediately rereads it, fixating on a specific fountain that appears in the novel.

For Smith, the writers and artists who create the things she loves are very real–and she feels very close to them and their spirits. Thus, she visits Frieda Kahlo’s bedroom and Sylvia Plath’s grave, photographs Virginia Woolf’s walking stick, Beckett’s spectacles, Tolstoy’s bear. In Japan she makes pilgrimages to the graves of her most beloved writers and honors them reverently.  To her, the spirit of these creative individuals remains. Like her husband, they too are dead, but still inform her world.

And while she is an extraordinary reader and traveler, she is also very much an ordinary person: addicted to detective shows (The Killing, Law and Order, and the gamut of BBC detectives), sits on her front stoop to smoke a cigarette, feeds her cats, and hangs out in a favorite coffee shop. (A hilarious scene occurs when a woman takes her regular table while she’s in the bathroom and Smith fantasizes how the woman’s murdered body would be positioned in various detective shows.)

It is this ordinariness that is the most charming. We easily forget that she is more than an artist–is in some senses a celebrity. But one never meets the celebrity; instead we meet a woman who is at times gregarious and at other times meditative, who lives simply and cherishes the little moments of our lives, and who is still capable of being overpowered by  a book she has read or awed by a celebrity she has met. (She tells an amusing tale of running into the British actor, Robbie Coltrane, who starred in the rarely televised detective series Cracker.)

She reads with an artist’s eye and a writer’s ear; yet she writes like an old lost friend. And that is what has made both of her memoirs —Just Kids and M Train–such a joy to read.

Below is a lovely (6 minute) video of Patti Smith “giving advice to the young.” It is a good example of her wisdom, her kindness, and her hope.

 

Blogging, Beckett and a Seven-Year Old Boy

It was one year ago last week that I started blogging.  But I  quit before that anniversary came around.

Yes, I quit blogging in late November, because I could no longer do it.  I loved doing it. I had met some extraordinary people–Romanians in London, Americans in Ecuador, an art colony in Italy.  I enjoyed thinking about the books I read, the music I heard, the films I watched.  And I enjoyed trying to get those thoughts “down on paper.”

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Henry dressed as the “Holy Roman Emperor Saint Henry” for Halloween last October.

But then my life changed drastically and blogging found itself way down on my list of priorities.

I became responsible for a seven-year old boy.

Henry is a delightful young boy. He is creative, bright, and personable.  And it is my job, to a degree, to nurture and protect him. I shower him with love and I make sure that he knows he is loved. I try to pay attention to what he does and what he says and what he feels.

We play silly word games. We read together: I to him on the sofa; he to me on the steps, (where the game is that I must go up or down a step every time he turns a page.)  He is seven years old, but will still hold my hand when we walk places, at least for now.  We often take “adventures” together, and these are usually simple jaunts across the city on public transportation. We take a trolley and then a subway and then a train and then we reverse ourselves, adding in a bus on the return trip. He points out train yards and sidings, trolley tracks and subway couplers. We stay and wave to the drivers after we get off and they drive away. (He does LOVE his transportation!)

Sure, there are time when I must get him to do things that he doesn’t want to: to try foods he does not like (that comprises everything that isn’t pizza) or to stop talking and listen when others are speaking or to slow down with his homework, with his handwriting. I try to teach him, and I try to do so with patience, with gentleness and with love.

For the most part, when I am not at work, I am with him, or I am asleep. And when I am at work, I am thinking about him and worrying about him.

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Henry and I on the R5

Having a seven-year old in your 30s is one thing; having a seven-year old in your late 50s is something else altogether.  I haven’t read a book in I can’t say how long. My film-going is greatly constricted.  And my television viewing is completely limited to Phineas and Ferb (don’t ask!) and America’s Funniest Home Videos.  And yet his enjoyment of both of these shows is genuine and sweet. He laughs with purity and with delight. And that, I wouldn’t trade  for anything.

♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦     ♦

I went out last Thursday night with my wife and some friends to see a play: Endgame by Samuel Beckett.  I had read it many times, but had never seen it performed, and so we made definite plans to get there.

Endgame is the second of the four major plays that Beckett wrote following World War II. (Waiting For Godot, Endgame, Krapps Last Tape and HappyDay.) Situated firmly in the Theater of the Absurd, Endgame presents Hamm, a blind, crippled man who sits in a make-shift wheel-chair in a single, disheveled room. He is tended to by Clov, who, conversely, is unable to sit.  In the room are also two trash bins.  In the one is Hamm’s legless father, Nagg, and in the other, his legless mother, Nell. Hamm pontificates on the bleakness of  life, on the attraction of story-telling, on the uncertainty of a future.  It is one of my favorite plays.

In one piece of dialogue that I particularly love, Hamm asks Clov to open the trash bin to see what his father is doing:

          HAMM (letting go his toque)
                What’s he doing?
               (Clov raises lid of Nagg’s bin, stoops, look into it. Pause.)

            CLOV
               
He’s crying.
                  (He closes lid, striaghtens up.)

          HAMM
                Then he’s living.

I love this. How simple, how poignant, how piercing. It perfectly captures Beckett’s–and to a large degree, my own–world view.  For better or worse, my personal philosophy has long been greatly informed by Beckett’s.  Or else, I had already formed it and because of that I found Beckett. But, for one reason or another, I am drawn to his bleakness and  emptiness–and to the black humor that attends it.

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Nancy Boykin and Dan Kern as Nell and Nagg in Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

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Scott Greer and James iJames as Hamm and Clov in the Arden Theater’s production of Endgame. Philadelphia, February 28, 2013.
© Photos by Mark Garvin

As I said, I have long enjoyed and embraced Beckett’s dire existentialism.  But now, I can no longer afford it, can no longer afford to wallow in such bleakness, to delight in such barren absurdity.  I have to try to tamp it down. For I have Henry now to take care of, and that is very much the purpose of my life.

Nothing, nothingness, and the world: a book review of Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt

I am reading about nothing.  Literally, about nothing.  I am reading about the concept of nothingness, and it’s a pretty difficult thing to get one’s head around.

Philosophers, theologians, mathematicians, and physicists have been puzzling the concept for a very long time, and it is quite a hot button in philosophical and scientific circles today.

In the West the concept of nothing is relatively new. 

In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-14th century that the idea of “zero” came to the West. And then, it came to us through accounting.  Something had to stand between asset and debit.

The East, however, had long dealt with nothingness not only in their mathematics but in their spirituality as well. For after all, attaining “nirvana” was equal to attaining nothingness, to achieving “emptiness.”

The Hindu word for this nothingness was sunya, which became in Arabic sefir, which came to Europe in the Middle Ages and is the root of our word “zero” and “cipher.”  And when it came to Europe, it came along with the rest of the Arabic numerals that we use today.

And yet what is nothing? There are many who say that no such thing exists.

The philosopher Henri Bergson tried to imagine nothingness. He simply kept subtracting all that he knew existed. However, when he reached the end he felt there was still something–his inner self which was doing all this subtracting. (An enlightened Buddhist would perhaps be able to extinguish that entity, but most of us cannot.) He concluded that imagining absolute nothingness is impossible.

Another philospher, Bede Rendell, saw that the failure in imagining nothingness is that after one had subtracted everything that was in the universe, one still had the space where those things once existed–a universe skin collapsed on itself.

The entire conversation is both intriguing and maddening, puzzling and wondrous.  (Sort of like in Alice in Wonderland when the Red King concludes that since nobody passed the messenger on the road, then nobody should have arrived first.)

I am having this “conversation” with myself because of the book Why Does the World Exist?–An Existential Deterctive Story by Jim Holt.  Holt’s book, which is somewhat addressed to the lay reader (I can only imagine what a technical book on this subject might be like), springs from the question “Why is there Something rather than Nothing?” 

This question, I have learned, is one that has puzzled philosophers for aeons.

And when you get to the question of “something” and “nothing” you are led to the question of what “existed” in the universe before the “Big Bang” created the universe. The theologians have their answer. The scientists are not all that sure.  But they have their theories.

And both try to define or dismiss “nothing.”

All of which makes for fascinating reading.  Even the mathematical equations (which Holt has to explain to me or which I run to my resident philosopher/mathematician) are fascinating. For instance, his mathematical equation for absolute nothingness is

(X) ˜ (x=x)

and now seems to makes some sense to me. But it took a while for me to get to. (The equation means that X [the empty universe] is not where x = x [where something is something.]) He explains it much better and is  much more entertaining.

I am no philosopher or mathematician. My sense of the void, of nothingness–aside from my own existential angst and probings seeemingly hardwired in my soul–comes from Satre, Camus and Beckett.  And Holt brings these into the mix as well. (The cover of the book features a photograph of the Café de Flore, a favorite haunt of Sartre’s.) The book, in many ways,  is almost a primer of thinkers, ancient and new, and a wonderful introduction to the confluence of metaphysics, philosophy, literature and science.

And what  they ask is:  Why is there something rather than nothing?  Why is there a world?  A universe?

These are pretty big questions to roll around with and Holt’s book makes it a entertaining and informative  ride.

But to be truthful, I still don’t know the answer.

Midnight on Revolutionary Road in Paris, County Cork

I am reading a book, The Night Swimmer by Matt Bondurant, where early in the novel, a young, successful couple have these yearnings to chuck it all and to move to Ireland.  They are intelligent and aware of the commonness of this trope–they intentionally nickname their street “Revolutionary Road” after the Richard Yates’ novel.  Earlier, before the dream of starting afresh in Ireland, the couple had wished to live in the time period when the novel Revolutionary Road takes place–a Cheever-esque world where pitchers of martinis and pyramids of cigarettes punctuated each evening. That glamorous “Mad-Men” world had not work out for them, but the dream of emigrating does: the husband wins a pub in County Cork, Ireland.  Needless to say, the paradise/excitement/vigor of the new life they imagined in this other world does not pan out they way it had in their dreams.  And like in Richard Yates’ novel, the marriage suffers more than greatly.

What is it about us that makes us often wish we were in some other place, some other time?  In Midnight in Paris,  Woody Allen wrestles with this question. The protagonist wishes he lived in 1920s Paris, but the 1920s woman he meets wishes she lived in the Paris of the 1890s?  And in fact, the life he is already experiencing in 2011 turns out to be full of promise. Why is this nostalgia for a world other than our own,  for an imagined place and an imagined time, so strong?  Is it  general among everyone?  Or only with a certain type of person?

I walked out to get a coffee today and on my walk home I cut down an alley.  Looking around me, I realized that I could have been walking in any foreign city with any foreign adventure around the corner.  I could have been in Paris, in Cork, but I was merely a short stroll from my own house. I took a picture with my phone.  The concept of a more exotic, romantic other place is just a whiff of smoke–it is always around us if we keep our eyes open.

Now it is often said that one doesn’t appreciated one’s home until one is separated from it. Joyce gave us a loving, photographic picture of Dublin, but only when he was writing in Switzerland and Paris.  Beckett too gives us an unnamed but undoubtedly Irish landscape in his novels and several of his plays and he too was across the sea.  But that is different than romanticizing a place one wishes for, a place that does not exist.  What Joyce and Beckett do is understand what they had left, see it without the distortion of being so close within. This is not the same as dream-manufacturing, as imagining a better world through the kaleidoscope of nostalgia and generalities.

Nevertheless, there are still many days when I wish I was somewhere else, when I don’t appreciate the vitality of the world around me. But in these daydreams, it seems that I am never working, that there is no concern about putting food on the table or where the next dollar is coming from–who wouldn’t find that attractive. And that’s what makes it all somewhat of a sham.

The difficulty of thinking…the ease of not.

Bertrand Russell once said that people would do almost anything to avoid having to think. And we do. Consider how we go through most of our days.  Rise, commute, work, commute, dine, sleep. Certainly there are vacillating degrees of how purposefully we interact with our own lives, but mostly, I would say, we do things by rote.  For the most part, the majority of us do not “live our lives deliberately” as Thoreau advised us to–we would make ourselves mad if we did–but what are we sacrificing?

Samuel Beckett wrote that the routine, the habit, the treadmill of our lives is a way of deadening the pain of existence (how wonderfully Beckettian!); breaking out of the routine, the habit, the treadmill is exciting and might mask the pain, but it is temporary and not without risks.  To think deliberately is indeed difficult. But it is what makes us who we are. Our thinking is what separates us from others, what individualizes us.  There is a second kind of truth in the Cartesian “I think therefore I am.”  It is not simply a statement of existence, but one of uniqueness as well, an emphasis on the “I.”  And if we choose not to think, are we waiving our individuality to become simply a part of the herd?

In politics, for example, do we think or do we react? Do we consider the world around us or do we merely accept what we have been trained to accept? Are we so entrenched in our “camps” that we allow their ideas to immediately become ours without the trouble of thinking? Do we even have a personal philosophy?  How many of us could state what it is?  What do we believe in?  When have we last THOUGHT about what we believe?

The avoidance of thinking is hardly a 21st-century phenomenon–it just seems easier to do these days.  The opportunities for distraction, the ease in which we can fill our lives with noise, makes it all too easy to avoid stopping to think.  And like most habits, once we have learned to “not think,” it becomes a very hard habit to break.

But again, what are we sacrificing?

I’m not sure, but I’ll think about it.

Letter-writing, letters, Beckett and love

About five years ago, I traveled to Durban, South Africa.  I flew direct from Washington, D.C. to Johannesburg and then a short flight from Johannesburg to Durban. It is a grueling flight–19 hours in the air and plenty more in airports.  But during the flight, I read volume one of The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1929-1940.  I must admit I was enthralled–and may be the only person to have read the nearly 900-page collection in one sitting. Nevertheless, three years later I am now reading volume two ( The Letters of Samuel Beckett, 1941-1956).  Certainly there is a touch of the voyeur in reading another’s letters, and, for me, not a little hero-worship in reading the letters of Beckett as he casually mentions Jack Yeats, Sartre, de Beauvoir, Nora Joyce, etc.  (The first letter in this collection is a postcard that he had sent to Joyce, a pre-printed, government regulated correspondence limited to family news because of the war.  Beckett sent the postcard from Paris to the Joyces in Switzerland, saying that he and Suzanne were all right.  He wrote it on January 12, 1941 and it arrived in Switzerland on the 17th. Joyce never received it, however, having died on the 13th, the day after Beckett wrote it. )

Anyway besides the snoopiness and the adolescent-like hero worship, the letters have me thinking of correspondence in general.  Except for writing thank-you notes –a good habit I learned from my father and my uncle–most of my correspondence now is through e-mail. Even the majority of my manuscript submissions are done electronically with the cover letter included in the submission.  Yet there is something about letter writing I miss.

A love letter, or any kind of letter for that matter, is so much more intriguing to receive–and more fulfilling to write–than a text or an e-mail. During a 10-day trip to Paris, I once wrote fourteen letters back home to the love of my life. I can still see the thin hotel stationery, the blue, white and red airmail envelopes, the soft lobby light in the ragged hotel under which I poured out my soul. Today, those letters probably mean more to me than to the person that received them. They capture a unique moment in my life, an amber-encased slice of who I once was.

In that sense,  I take pleasure  in reading  letters that I have written or received in the past–they transport me to where and who I was at the time they were written.

(Perhaps  the most beautiful love story I have ever read is by an Irish novelist named Niall Williams entitled Four Letters of Love.  It is a wonderful novel that revolves around letter writing–as well as around painting, fishing, the Aran Islands, death, heartbreak and redemptive love.)

What about you? Have you  given up on snail-mail completely? I worry about the impermanence of all our correspondence, of the ephemeral nature of e-mail and texting. True, they say that every stroke of your keyboard can ultimately be retrieved and that nothing in cyberspace really disappears, but are the biographers and historians of the future going to have access to these? Is the estate of a future Samuel Beckett going to allow some academic to sift through the computer files –deleted and saved–of the person whose name is entrusted to them?  I cannot say. But I do know the thrill of opening an envelope, of slipping out a hard-stock card, sheets of creamy stationery, or ripped pages of loose-leaf.  Am I simply missing some golden-hazed memory or have we truly lost something special?

E-mail me what you think.  Hah!