From the renowned musician and author Patti Smith, a slim exploration of the nature of creative invention in the form of a novella bookended by by a pair of personal reflections. Part of the "Why I Write" series, based on the Windham-Campbell lectures delivered annually at Yale University.
What makes M Train so vivid is its quality of serendipity, of unfolding in the present; reading it feels like accompanying Smith on a journey, both exterior and interior, physical and emotional, in which neither she nor we are sure where we’ll end up. The first part of Devotion has a similar quality, beginning with a description of a film about the 1941 forced deportation of Estonians by the Soviets, then offering a few lines, a few brief sequences, in response ... this is what is so astonishing about her career and what motivates Devotion — the way that, as she has gotten older, Smith’s vision has expanded, framing her self-awareness not as self-absorption but rather a deep dive into everything, the exhilaration and the terror and the transcendence that we all share ... That is the point of Devotion, and its message also: art making as inspirational act. Such inspiration is less a search for a starting point than a mechanism for connection, a desire to communicate. 'Why do we write?' Smith asks, and the answer comes encoded in the question, as of course it must. 'A chorus erupts . . . Because we cannot simply live.'
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.
...equal parts exasperating and inspiring. . Whatever its merits, it’s safe to say that her admirers — who are legion — will receive it worshipfully, while her skeptics — if there even is such a thing — will find it slight, precious and unconvincing. The opening sequence describes what we are meant to assume is a typical week or so in the life of Patti Smith, and is followed by a short story titled 'Devotion' and a brief postscript. Unfortunately, this first section veers — unintentionally, one hopes — toward a parody of the kind of high-toned aspirational lifestyle hokum that one sees in magazines aimed at a certain demographic ... 'Devotion,' the story, is weak sauce, too: folktale claptrap about an orphan for whom ice skating 'is pure feeling' and who has a tempestuous affair with a Svengali-like older man ... What gives the story a ghostly resonance is the way that it picks up on elements that Smith scatters desultorily through the preceding essay: a snatch of an Estonian film, a memory of her father at an ice-skating event, a visit to a French cemetery. Operating in tandem, the two sections provide an organic illustration of how a creative mind transforms impressions and thoughts into art, itself a rare accomplishment, even if the end product is humdrum.