It’s not so easy writing about nothing. So says the cowpoke that visits Patti Smith during a dream in the opening pages of her enthralling new memoir, M Train (2015).
A book about nothing. What could it mean for an author to describe her own words in such daring terms?
In her essay The Aesthetics of Silence (1969), Susan Sontag argued that it was impossible for any artist to literally represent nothing.
John Cage’s notorious 1952 composition 4’33” is sometimes misconstrued as consisting of four minutes and 33 seconds of “silence”, when in fact there are always ambient noises attending its performance. In truth, the artist can only aspire to evoke a sense of emptiness by withdrawing from established conventions or principles.
Wagering a similar act of defiance, Smith’s claim that she is writing about nothing is really her way of renouncing any expectation that her memoir should be anchored by a readily defined plot. This isn’t a story in which a lot of things happen.
The M Train of the title doesn’t refer to the famous New York City subway line, but rather to the wandering train of thought her mind is prone to travel, usually while drinking countless cups of coffee at her most cherished Greenwich Village café.
When she does reflect on her voyages out into the world, Smith’s focus tends to linger not on what “happened”, but on what was abandoned or left unfinished. She recalls the literary homage to coffee she had planned to write during a trip to Mexico, but never completed.
Once, while staying at a hotel in Tokyo, she carried out a strange regimen that consisted of writing down the name of a Japanese author, Osamu Dazai, nearly a hundred times. The experiment, she says, “amounted to nothing”.
Perhaps to the surprise of some, Smith’s disavowal of plot makes for an utterly tantalising read. The meandering narrative structure and its portrait of transient endeavours conspire to deliver a profound meditation on the spectre of absence resting at the centre of all performances of remembrance (not least of which: the memoir itself).
Smith is more interested in the impossible promise of reminiscence than in any event it professes to bring to life. She explores and contemplates a vast array of relics, souvenirs and landscapes of ruin. At times, her susceptibility to their allure is breathtakingly intense.
An eccentric example: while hovering over the grave of Sylvia Plath, she confesses an uncontrollable urge to urinate, so that the dead poet might feel some “proximate human warmth”. One can only speculate on whether or not Plath would appreciate the gesture.
Reading of Smith’s attraction to such tombs, I was reminded of Susan Stewart’s exquisite book On Longing (1992), in which she masterfully delineates the nostalgic impulse. The past can only ever exist as a story we tell ourselves. Certain objects and environments might appear to offer contact with a bygone era, but their intoxicating effect actually lies in the fact that they always deny us that contact.
Smith’s narration of her own consciousness is saturated with fleeting images of loss. A great deal of these encounters manifest as phantom visions of her beloved late husband and brother. But the nostalgic sensibility she personifies is also intricately tethered to her identity as an artist.
She dances incessantly on the precipice between the ephemeral stream of lived experience and its aesthetic framing, which is inherently reductive and fragmentary (and therefore tinged with absence).
This romantic liaison with the past shouldn’t be mistaken for a condition of unrelenting grief. In fact, it ushers the author into plenty of comical, if not weird, scenarios. She finds herself, for example, joining an obscure international society committed to honouring the memory of a scientific pioneer, Alfred Wagner.
Smith eventually scandalises the group by delivering a speech that proffers a dramatic imagination of the geologist’s final moments, the precise details of which cannot be confirmed. This is the sort of slippery and murky territory the nostalgic is wont to inhabit.
Although that episode testifies to the trappings of commemoration, Smith still remains seduced by its spell. She longs for the past even as she recognises that she is inventing it.
Her expression of this unquenchable desire holds a special resonance with the medium that contains it. The memoir, as scholars such as Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson remind us in Reading Autobiography (2001), is never a transparent record of an author’s life. The experiences it conceives to anthologise have already been modulated by the selective processes of the writer’s memory and then by the craft of writing itself.
There is a passage in M Train that sees Smith gazing at her bookshelf after reading some prose by WG Sebald. She then offers the following rumination:
Writers and their process. Writers and their books. I cannot assume the reader will be familiar with them all, but in the end is the reader familiar with me?
We are familiar with Smith only to the extent that she is a character recounting the story presented before us, which is not the same thing as being acquainted with the person herself.
Hence, the book contrives yet another evocation of absence. Only this time, we are the ones who are teased and cajoled by its rapture.
M Train by Patti Smith is published by Bloomsbury Publishing.
Sebastian Sharp does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.
Authors: The Conversation Contributor