Isn’t it amazing how you can read yourself in everything around you? The flawed journeys of others, the melodies of a song, the words on a page, they each correlate and cohere around you, resonating and repeating your own life story back to you. You’re never really learning the stories of others, just your own story, your own essence, deepening and growing richer through time.
At least, that’s how Patti Smith’s latest novel, M Train, felt to me.
Filled with allusions to authors I had only recently journeyed with, and accompanied by a deep malaise that could only have been my own filtered back to me, Smith’s work felt like a reflection of my own grief and limitations.
A study in absence, M Train articulates what is not present, what is lost, and what is in-between. The spaces in-between then inform the work and become its foundations. When Smith writes about the mundane – feeding her cats, writing at her usual café, packing her things for a trip – the everyday habits and trials that form and flourish in between when life actually occurs quickly cohered with my own everyday reality. Watering my plants, writing at my desk, the last remnants of unpacking into a new home. These in-between spaces, seemingly unique and personal, become universal in our daily rituals and practices.
These processes then come alive, in their own mundane way, to the point that the book feels both substantial and yet lacking. Enjoyable but inherently emptied. Smith mourns throughout for her husband, her brother, parts of her life that she has outlived, as well as famous authors so close to her heart they feel like extensions of her past. Mourning is also universally known and felt and Smith inflicts upon the reader the grief she herself feels, or maybe I was quick to channel it into myself, as self-reflective as the condition feels. I too felt these deep-seated resonances. Not only for family members, but for numerous lives outlived of myself and of others close to me. Lives imbued with a quickening nostalgia and yet a desire to never be re-lived.
Literature, too, forms the centre of the novel. As Smith says, ‘no fewer than fifty’ books are cited here. How incredible it is, then, that she should hold Mikhail Bulgakov so dear when I have just finished The Master and Margarita, and Haruki Murakami when I had only just read Kafka on the Shore based on a friend’s recommendation before that. Life becomes steeped in these coincidences. As Smith extrapolates via Wittgenstein, ‘The world is everything that is the case’. You read yourself in the world around you because you are but a reflection of that same world.
The only other constant for Smith is coffee, which seems to keep her going as much as literature and reflection put together. Sometimes sipped in incredible quantities, coffee also becomes so much more than a drug or a warm beverage, it becomes an anchor. Implicit in this is dependability. What we hold on to that we are unable to leave behind. For Smith, this is Nescafé, as mentioned continuously throughout the book. For me it is tea, a homecooked meal, a record, a favourite part of the world. These are what give us meaning. We realise ourselves through what we consume and in doing so with comfort, it’s just that little bit easier to go on.
And so as the book comes to a mystical and softly-spoken end, the spaces in-between flourish as mundane tasks are undertaken and activities are completed. Writing a list of necessary travel items, cataloguing and giving away her books, fixing up her new home in the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Sandy: these little acts beget life in between moments of really living. Finishing M Train awoke me to the perspective that it’s all living – every little task is alive and waiting to be given energy and nurturing to be accomplished. We are not the total of our hardships, but of the gentler, everyday strivings as well. We are everything we do, all the time.