File under ‘pensees’…no, please don’t. So much baggage with a word that carries all that full-throttled European-ness, philosophising, existentialism, even Poetry with a capital ‘P’. The British have an allergic reaction to this kind of stuff, as a rule, and it is their/our loss, frankly.
It is a light book that is a heavyweight, or a heavy book that is lightweight. It is no more than a couple of hours reading – the central part of which is a beguiling short story about a young girl who only wants to ice skate without an audience. In its entirety it is Smith’s response to the question ‘Why I Write’, asked by the Windham-Campbell Lectures series (Yale University).
Before going on I should declare that I am a paid up fan of Smith the rock star in the androgynous B&W photo telling us that Jesus died for somebody’s sins…And while nothing ever burned so brightly for her since, she is still a jaw dropping powerhouse live performer: the way she rabble rouses, she is one of the few people I would consider following into battle.
Anyway, she has broken this book/lecture down into four distinct parts: How the Mind Works; Devotion; A Dream is Not a Dream; and Written on a Train. The last part being little more than a few B&W photos of handwritten pages of the short story told in section two, plus a couple of snaps of gravestones and from a train window.
Smith opens by walking through her streams of consciousness, noticing things, being distracted, taking value from those digressions and also from the way these things connect with long stored memories. There’s no centre, no route map, just wandering, beautiful productive wandering that takes in an Estonian film called ‘Risttuules’, Patrick Modiano’s ‘Paris Nocturne’, Simone Weil, the Deux Magots and general, physical wandering through Parisian streets. She remembers an early teenage visit with her sister, she goes to see the grave of Paul Valery in Sete where her eye is caught by an older headstone on which only the word ‘devouement’ – devotion – is legible.
It is all the story that she has wrapped around the writing of the story ‘Devotion’. I was captivated, others may not be. I guess. When Smith says poet you can hear how she capitalises the word, in the way others capitalise King or Queen when they speak the word.
A couple of so-so poems fill the gaps between sections.
The final section of note, tells of her visit to the family home of Albert Camus, in Lourmarin, still owned and lived in by his daughter. She is star struck and acknowledges it. She is shown into his study and allowed – having first carefully washed her hands – to read the original manuscript of his final work ‘The First Man’. The text had been retrieved from Camus’ valise that had landed clear of the car crash that killed him. Over a hundred pages of clear precise thought and revision.
Leaving the house to wander the town at evening, she is almost lost in reverie, trying to find an answer to the question asked of her. She reaches for a few vague half thoughts, including to prove ‘God exists’, which admittedly sounds like mis-step to me, before concluding:
‘What is the dream? To write something fine, that would be better than I am…Why do we write? A chorus erupts. Because we cannot simply live.’