Poet and punk rocker Patti Smith’s Devotion is an odd little book, a rather precious affair that is hard to classify and, for me at least, hard to love or even like.
I did love her first memoir, Just Kids, her account of her relationship with the late artist Robert Mapplethorpe, which won the National Book Award in 2010. I was less moved by 2015’s M Train but I still liked it.
Devotion is a bit harder to warm up to. It was supposed to have been the second book in Yale University Press’s Why I Write series, which are in turn meant to be taken from the Wyndham-Campbell Literature Prize Lectures at Yale.
(The first, by New Yorker writer Hilton Als, was supposed to have come out last year but never materialized for some reason.)
Devotion is a slender volume, less than 100 pages, consisting of three sections. The first is a journal-style account of Smith’s trip to France to promote the French editions of her books which are published by the prestigious firm Gallimard.
Smith’s account is far from the grit of Just Kids. Everything seems almost comically rarified. Here she meets the publisher:
“Mr. Gallimard greets me in his office. On the mantle is the clock that SaintExupéry had presented to his grandfather. We descend worn marble stairs, pass through the blue salon, and enter the garden where Yukio Mishima was photographed sitting in a white rattan chair. We stand for several moments silently admiring the garden’s geometric simplicity.”
Then a propos nothing: “–I knew Genet, Mr. Gallimard says softly, looking away so as not to appear immodest.”
The third part is a later trip to visit Albert Camus’s home. Here, Smith’s diction becomes oddly stilted. This paragraph could almost have been written by the wife of a colonial officer in the British raj:
“When I was yet in Paris I received an invitation from Albert Camus’s daughter Catherine, to visit the Camus family home in Lourmarin. I seldom visit people’s homes, for despite the hospitality offered I often suffer a feeling of confinement or imagined pressure. Almost always I prefer the comfortable anonymity of a hotel. But in this case I accepted; the honor was mine.”
I tried hard to get past the stylistic quirks of the bracketing sections, which are, in a word, devotional. But, I did understand Smith’s intensity of feeling and deep love of writing. She picks out some lovely details on her trips but her over-writing muffles them.
The middle section is a short story, called “Devotion,” about a young Estonian ice skater who is stalked and ultimately destroyed by an older man. It is not terribly illuminating and somewhat melodramatic.
I have enjoyed Smith’s recent prose, but Devotion seems intended only for the truly devoted.
Devotion by Patti Smith, Yale University Press, 112pp.