by Jilliam Tamaki
How Susan Sontag Influenced Patti Smith’s Reading Life
September 5, 2019
“She advised me to read more German authors,” says the writer and singer, whose latest memoir is “Year of the Monkey.”
What books are on your nightstand?
There are four books on my bed table, three I’ve nearly finished. “St. Paul: A Screenplay” is the treatment Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote for an unrealized film, a modern take on St. Paul’s ministry. “The Ghost in the Shell: Five New Short Stories” is a collection of cool spinoffs inspired by the manga-anime series. Anthony Alofsin’s “Wright and New York” traces the transitive relationship of the architect and the city, as well as the genesis of the bohemian culture of the East Village. I’m about to go on tour, so the unread “Signs Preceding the End of the World,” by Yuri Herrera, will happily come with me on the road.
What’s the last great book you read?
Recently I was captured by two small, addictive works. “Kingdom Cons,” also by the Mexican author Yuri Herrera, floored me. His writing style is like nobody else’s, a unique turn of language, a kind of poetic slang. “Star,” by Yukio Mishima, is a startlingly modern, hypervisual jewel; it could be a really interesting movie. Both books were mesmerizing, seeming to fall in my hands from an alternative sky.
Describe your ideal reading experience (when, where, what, how).
I read all the time, anywhere — on my stoop, in a noisy cafe, at night in my tour bus bunk. The external circumstance is not the key, it’s the book itself. I’m like Gumby; I enter the world of a book and temporarily live there, shutting all else out. Unless I’m researching, I only finish books I love. I don’t date. I can pretty much tell right away if I’m going to commit. There are also books I know I will love someday. For instance, it took me years to tackle “The Magic Mountain,” but once I did I was transfixed, wholeheartedly enveloped in an atmosphere of convalescence. If I can’t figure out what to read, sometimes I stand before my shelves and feel which book is calling for me. I have a special technique for rereading masterpieces like “Frankenstein” or “The Glass Bead Game.” I keep the book by my bed and open it at random and read from there. I do that from a new spot for several nights until I feel I have experienced the book three-dimensionally, cubistically, from several angles.
What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
“Claire Lenoir,” termed on the half-title as “The Mysterious Case of the Discreet and Scientific Woman Claire Lenoir,” is a story of the possibility of reanimation through love. Written by Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, it was given to me by Tom Verlaine in 1974, and I have not met a single person since who has even heard of it, let alone read it. Literally nobody. My copy is very old, bound in gray boards, printed on a poor grade of crumbling paper. Decades ago I wrapped it in a cloth to protect it; sometimes I check on it, maybe reread it, but most often just stare at it, then set it away.
What book should everybody read before the age of 21?
I would suggest “Pinocchio,” by Carlo Collodi, for it contains the full arc of innocence and experience, encompassing love, betrayal, heartbreak, forgiveness, transformation and redemption. I still have my beloved and battered copy, which I received for my seventh birthday.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
I love books for themselves and revere the authors, but also am grateful for our great translators. Since I first picked up Rimbaud’s “A Season in Hell,” I was conscious that I could only read it because of the knowledgeable devotion of translators like Louise Varèse. Without them I could not dwell in the obscure streets of Patrick Modiano or follow the ascension of Joseph Knecht as the Magister Ludi in “The Glass Bead Game,” by Hermann Hesse. The active translators I love best are Natasha Wimmer, who translated Roberto Bolaño’s “2666”; Jay Rubin, who translated Haruki Murakami’s “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” and Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s “Rashomon and 17 Other Stories”; and Chris Andrews, who has decoded books by César Aira including “The Musical Brain” and “An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter.” All three enrich and expand our reading possibilities, a true blessing.
What book, if any, most influenced your artistic development as a writer?
“The Thief’s Journal,” by Jean Genet, presented a genre that most connected with my early aspirations, a kind of autobiographical fiction, his chronicle having its own inherent truth. After adhering to the bond of accuracy in writing “Just Kids,” I happily find myself back on the thief’s track, with Genet ever as my guide, melding life experience and imagination.
What moves you most in a work of literature?
To be taken to an abstract somewhere I had not yet imagined. To be told a story with unrelenting energy like “Wuthering Heights,” where one can feel the writer’s breath. To feel an unexpected kinship with the author, as if gazing into the same pool, seeming to share the same unspeakable language.
You’ve written about your love of crime dramas on TV. Does that translate to a love of crime novels? If not, which genres do you prefer?
I read mostly fiction, most often in translation. I do love detective stories. I prefer when the emphasis is on the unraveling of a dark puzzle, revealing how the detective’s mind works. When young I admired the cleverness of Nancy Drew, revered the deductive powers of Sherlock Holmes and the patience of Maigret, then gravitated toward the hard-boiled jargon of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer. In recent years I’ve read all the books by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo, who wrote “The Laughing Policeman,” and especially loved Henning Mankells’s Inspector Kurt Wallander, depicted with such depth and poignancy by Kenneth Branagh.
How do you organize your books?
Once Susan Sontag showed me her library. She was really organized. Rows and rows of books by country, containing their authors in alphabetical order. I could never do that.
I have some sense where most books are, but not through applicable logic, though I do have a proximity caste system. My most precious volumes are in a small bookcase across from my bed where I can see them — books that were my mother’s, childhood books and signed ones including “The Children’s Crusade,” by Marcel Schwob. In another are books I most often reread. The rest are in another room with many shelves, and some randomly scattered, including in the bathroom. I don’t like being in a room where there is nothing to read. Although I never adopted Susan’s system, she also advised me to read more German authors, which led me to Hermann Broch’s “The Death of Virgil,” now a favorite book, always close at hand, a musical infinity of words.
What’s the best book you’ve ever received as a gift?
There are many, but two come to mind, one for the book itself and the other for what it spawned. I will always cherish the copy of Sylvia Plath’s “Ariel” that Robert Mapplethorpe gave me shortly after we first met in 1967. The other came to me in 2008, in an unusual fashion. I was preparing an exhibition of visual work at the Cartier Foundation in Paris and, needing an old Ethiopian blanket for an installation, I sent a message to my friend Milos. He sent the perfect one; hiding in its humble folds was a copy of “The Master and Margarita” with a message saying READ THIS BOOK, as if a command from the pages of “Alice in Wonderland.” From the first page I was immediately beguiled, leading me to my year of reading Bulgakov, drawing me to venture to Moscow to seek out the landmarks in the book, and the author’s grave, which is steps away from the grave of Gogol. Then I entered my months of Gogol, in Bulgakov’s honor, which led me to read Nabokov’s “Gogol,” which led me to another favorite book, “Nabokov’s Butterflies.” All of that mental and physical energy stemming from one paperback novel wrapped in a blanket with a sincere and urgent command.
Who is your favorite fictional hero or heroine? Your favorite antihero or villain?
I like Katharina Blum, the person of interest in “The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum,” by Heinrich Böll. I can’t say why but she fascinates me, having read this book at least seven times and still can’t pin her down. But I often find myself wondering about her. She is her own person. An ordinary girl one might easily dismiss when passing on the street, yet completely operating admirably on her own, with a will of her own, loving who she will love, and shooting the despicable fellow who harassed and demeaned her, in cold blood, without a shred of remorse.
What kind of reader were you as a child? Which childhood books and authors stick with you most?
I have always loved books. Even before I learned to read I’d place books under my pillow hoping to divine them in my sleep. My mother taught me to read before I started school. I was a sickly child and had the privilege to read for days on end while recuperating, often reading through the night with a pocket flashlight. Wondrous books that magnified or mirrored the imagination. I still have many of those same books. “Peter Pan,” “A Dog of Flanders,” “Uncle Wiggily,” “The Arabian Nights,” “The Happy Prince.” I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, Hans Christian Andersen, Lewis Carroll and L. Frank Baum. I read them over and over and still read them now.
Has a book ever brought you closer to another person, or come between you?
My mother and I did not always see eye to eye, but a common love of books helped to mend difficult patches. In the course of my moves my childhood copy of “The Little Lame Prince” was lost. I mourned it deeply, and it was impossible to find another. In the midst of a difficult standoff, she sent me a package crudely wrapped in plain brown paper with an abundance of Scotch tape. Within was a 1929 edition of “The Little Lame Prince” with the inscription: “We need no words — Mother.” We never suffered estrangement again.
You’re organizing a literary dinner party. Which three writers, dead or alive, do you invite?
I could never organize a party. I’d wind up spending half the time hiding in the bathroom. Instead I’d have a staggered private party in three parts. I would invite Roberto Bolaño over in the morning. I’d put on Glenn Gould playing “The Goldberg Variations” low on the record player. We’d drink coffee and talk about his daily practice, or whatever he wanted to talk about. Then I’d ask him the literary question of the 21st century: How would “2666” have played out if he had lived long enough to keep it going? In early evening I would welcome Sylvia Plath, pour her a nice tawny port, say a 40-year-old Taylor, and invite her to watch Pawel Pawlikowski’s film “Cold War” with me; I think she would like it. Much later I would slip Ryunosuke Akutagawa through a secret entrance and we’d drink sake and improvise spinning tales deep into the night until he willfully disappeared.
What do you plan to read next?
I’m fortunate to have a first edition of “Finnegans Wake,” bound in red cloth and signed by Joyce in green ink. I bought it from a London bookseller with money I earned lecturing. It’s wrapped in a very old piece of heavy red silk; I plan to unwrap it and read it. Well, at least look at it, the whole of it, in slow motion, every single page.