Just Kids by Patti Smith


Just Kids is about the friendship/relationship of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; and about the way the two of them became artists; and about how it felt being a young artist in New York at the end of the 1960s and in the 1970s.

Let’s start with the question of how someone becomes an artist. I know very little about this process (though I have some hunches), but the way Patti Smith describes her first relevant memories already makes it clear that she had the desire to create something from very early on in her life. Her first memory is this: she describes how once as a very little girl she was walking with her mother and suddenly saw a swan. She had never seen a swan before but she immediately got excited, and her mother – sensing the little girl’s wonder and excitement – told her: this is a swan. But Patti felt this word is not good enough, not precise enough, and she felt a great desire to say something about the swan, to find the best way to express what she sees and what she feels about it.

It took several years for her to find her very own ways of expression, yet it feels to me that  from her earliest years she carried the possibility in herself to become an artist. But becoming an artist wasn’t fast and painless, and she herself often doubted whether she possessed the necessary talent and persistence.

Patti Smith arrived in New York in 1967, without a dollar to her name, with only the conviction that she didn’t want to be a factory worker at home. For a while she lived on the streets, then she found a job, and soon after she met Robert Mapplethorpe. The two of them immediately formed a life-long friendship and moved in together right away. Mapplethorpe was still invisible at that time, but as opposed to Smith, he never had the slightest doubt about the quality of his work, and he was tremendously self-confident. Smith and Mapplethorpe then went on to create art together, they continuously supported and inspired each other, and slowly they found their place in the art world of New York, and finally found success, too.

However, Just Kids is not your classic American success story following on the theme of poor-but-talented country kids working hard and thus becoming successful. This is too personal, intimate, and honest a book for that, and by the way – Patti Smith never underestimates the role of luck and coincidences in achieving success. By luck and coincidence I don’t mean that you have to be at the right place at the right time, you have to build networks, or anything like that – I mean simply how life-changing it can be for someone to receive the words, the inspiration, the support, the belief she desperately needs in a tough moment – in a moment of indecision, in a moment when she doesn’t know whether her work matters at all, in a moment of crisis.

Another reason why this is not a typical success story is that Smith for a long time couldn’t even figure out what would constitute success for her, and where her true calling lies. It also took some time for Robert Mapplethorpe to start to concentrate on photography, but for Patti Smith the road to becoming a musician was even longer and more tangled. Following the milestones of this road is a greatly interesting read – I read with fascination how she figured out the things she could and wanted to do, and the things she couldn’t or didn’t want to do.

For instance, she had a couple of roles in different plays, and finally drew the conclusion from her forays into acting that she liked being onstage, but she didn’t like being someone else onstage – she didn’t like separating her real and artistic personality, so she promptly decided that the next time she’d only stand on a stage if she could be herself there.

Besides the difficulties of becoming an artist – and perhaps I should have started with this – the other main theme of this book is the relationship between Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is a memorial to their two-decade friendship, and it was written in the first place because before his death, Mapplethorpe made Smith promise that one day she’d write their story. And the way Smith wrote their story is deeply touching and beautiful. The whole book is very delicate, but the sections dealing with Smith’s relationship with Mapplethorpe are especially pure, sublime, and gentle. I won’t even go into more details about this – my words for this could never be as good as the words of Patti Smith.

And there’s still more to this book. Patti Smith didn’t only concentrate on her art and on Robert Mapplethorpe during the 60s and 70s: even though she was quite awkward in bigger groups of people, she still managed to learn about all the iconic places (such as the Chelsea Hotel, which was home to many artists, or Max’s bar, which was where Andy Warhol and his group used to hang out) and get to know lots of iconic figures (Allen Ginsberg, Jim Carroll, Gregory Corso, Sam Shepard, William S. Burroughs, and so on) of the New York art scene. Her recollections about these artists, and in general her stories about life in New York in those decades are sometimes funny, sometimes deeply sad – but they are always vivid and riveting. So it’s clear from reading Just Kids that being a young artist just then, just there must truly have been a unique experience.

Patti Smith writes wonderfully – about everything; she’s emotional, sober and transcendent at once. And Just Kids is a beautiful book, completely devoid of any sentimentality – it’s a delight to read.

Counterpoint by Anna Enquist

counterpointAnna Enquist’s novel is based on music – or, more precisely, on Bach’s Goldberg Variations. The narrator of the book is an unnamed pianist, a mother who lost her adult daughter in a tragic accident. After her daughter’s death, she decides to learn (or rather: re-learn) to play the Goldberg Variations, which she used to find very difficult to master when she was younger, and which she and her daughter equally loved and admired. Re-learning the variations is not at all easy, and while she dedicates herself to Bach’s pieces, the narrator struggles both with the physical difficulties of playing the music, and with her memories of her daughter’s life – which the music brings back to her vividly. But music doesn’t only make her remember – it also helps her to sort through and bring some order to her jumbled and painful memories.

Each chapter of the novel is based on a particular Goldberg variation, and in each chapter we learn something about the piece itself (what technical difficulties need to be overcome while playing it; what kind of melodies and intervals it contains and what these mean; etc.), and while the narrator slowly learns how best to render and interpret the music, we also learn what moment of her daughter’s life the actual variation reminds her of. Her memories relate to all kinds of events, big and small, and they are only fragments in themselves (about family holidays; about the day her daughter moved to her own flat from her childhood home; or about the day when a doctor told her daughter that her vocal chords are not strong enough for her to become a professional singer). Moreover, they don’t necessarily come in chronological order. Still, reading through these fragments, we slowly get a vivid picture of the narrator’s daughter, and we learn a lot about an enthusiastic, warm-hearted, often insecure girl – a girl who was the most amazing person in the world for the narrator.

Like I said, the novel is based on the Goldberg Variations, and music here is not only a backdrop or an atmospheric element – it’s vitally important. While learning them, the narrator meticulously deconstructs and interprets the pieces, and she uses such terminology while doing this that it was sometimes difficult for me to understand what exactly she’s saying about a particular piece, because – apart from loving to listen to it – I have no knowledge about music. Therefore I sat down in front of YouTube, searched for the variations, and I read the first several chapters in a way that I simultaneously listened to the corresponding piece as well (sometimes in more than one interpretation). Reading Counterpoint this way was a unique experience – listening to the music the narrator is playing, to the music which makes her remember. Because even if a certain variation sounds different in, say, Glenn Gould’s interpretation than in the interpretation I imagine based on the narrator’s words, listening to the music she plays still makes me understand what she’s saying when she talks about technicalities, and I can easily fathom why and how any given Bach piece reminds her of a certain moment of her daughter’s life.

So I’d recommend that you read the book while listening to the music, because reading it like that almost feels as if you really entered into the narrator’s mind and learned her innermost thoughts and emotions. The novel might also be read and understood without the musical accompaniment (I read the second half this way and had no serious problems understanding it), but I’d still say – read it with the music if possible, because it will bring you closer to the book; it won’t necessarily make you understand it better, but it will definitely make you feel it better.

High Fidelity by Nick Hornby

I used to be a fan of Nick Hornby but after his novel How to Be Good I stopped reading without discrimination everything he published because the didactic quality of his writings started to annoy me big-time. Starting from then, I usually read one out of every two of his books, but with each new novel I get more and more irritated by the way he spoon-feeds me so I lay him aside again for another couple of years.

And after being a Hornby fan for several years, I would hazard the opinion that he managed to create his pop-philosophical masterpiece right with his first novel, High Fidelity, and he didn’t produce any other book as good as this one. But High Fidelity is such an excellent novel that I’ve been re-reading it for more than ten years now, and even though my taste in literature has undergone a couple of changes in this period, I enjoy this novel just as much as I enjoyed it for the first time. (Or wait a minute: I guess I’m enjoying it more and more with each re-reading.)

The story is fairly well-known I guess, but I happen to love speaking about this book, so I also provide you with a brief plot summary. The protagonist of the novel is Rob Fleming, a thirty-five year old record shop owner whose whole life revolves around pop music: at work he compiles top five lists of the best side one, track one songs of all time or the best sitar solos appearing on side two of the world music albums released in 1991 (okay, he doesn’t do the second list – but I could well imagine him doing it); at home he manages his collection of several thousand records; and in the meantime he contemplates such questions as the relation between a love for pop music and the tendency to become a self-pitying, melancholy sort of person. Apart from a large record collection, Rob also has a girlfriend, Laura, who just happens to split up with Rob at the beginning of the story. After the split-up Rob becomes seriously depressed and he decides to contact his ex-girlfriends in order to find out why all his girlfriends had left him. The novel is partly the story of this quest and partly the story of Rob’s and Laura’s life after the break-up.

Instead of my usual long and meandering ruminations, right now I only want to say that this is a very very good book. It’s as „typically” English as it gets, it features a whole array of memorable characters, and it’s funny and melancholy at the same time – and Hornby mixes the fun and the melancholy in such an eerie, clever way that I can’t help smiling even while reading the saddest episodes or Rob’s most depressed musings.

Probably I’m not the first person to point this parallel out, but this novel is very much like the male version of Bridget Jones’s Diary. The only (but major) difference is that I find Bridget Jones’s hysterical ways rather exaggerated and tiresome even as a woman (so – even though I don’t consider Fielding’s novel a typical chic lit book – I wouldn’t try to convince all my male acquaintances to have a go with it), but I don’t have any problems with Rob Fleming’s male hysterics because it’s very life-like and can easily be understood by everyone regardless of gender without being annoyingly tiresome.

What’s more, High Fidelity is full of very entertaining pieces of (pop) philosophy, and I remembered from my earlier re-reading that this was one of those books from which you can quote dozens of funny and self-ironic observations. However, now I found that it’s not that easy to quote from this novel after all because most of the sad-funny pop-wisdom works best in the context of several pages or the whole story. And actually I don’t mind this because this implies that Rob’s jokes and observations are not just some stand-alone good sentences but they sit well in the story-telling parts of the book. So the best you can do is to sit down and read this novel. And then re-read it again later – because High Fidelity is a hugely entertaining and likeable novel even for the umpteenth time.