M Train

by Patti Smith

A fascinating exercise in ‘writing about nothing’.

M Train

M Train is a strange, astonishingly entertaining book: a mixture of travelogue, memoir, dream sequences, musings on art and detective shows, photographic pilgrimages, and visits to coffee shops. It opens with a dream in which a cowpoke informs Smith: ‘It's not so easy writing about nothing’. Her plan seems to have been to write a book without knowing what it was going to be about. If that's the case, perhaps more people should write books in this way.

About a quarter of the way into M Train, I suddenly realised what it reminded me of: the writings of W.G. Sebald, of whom I'm a huge fan. Although Smith's free-flowing writing contrasts with Sebald's precise prose, there is something very Sebaldian about the way she segues from scene to scene, goes off on unexpected tangents, makes pilgrimages, and slips photographs in amongst the text.

My suspicion that Smith had been heavily influenced by Sebald seemed to be confirmed when, a short while after I noticed the similarity, she went off on a tangent about her admiration for Sebald. At which point, I gave myself a mighty pat on the back, congratulating myself for spotting the connection. But in a New York Public Library podcast interview promoting the book, Smith, while acknowledging an admiration for Sebald, and a great love for his poetry, denied that his prose had been much of an influence on M Train—a statement that I find utterly astonishing. I don't doubt for one second that Smith meant what she said in the interview—she always seems more than happy to acknowledge her influences—but I do wonder whether she has realised how much Sebald has influenced her work. Or so it seems to this Sebald groupie.

M Train is an extremely honest, personal, and well-written book, offering us insights into the mind of a unique, talented artist. It's also very funny at times. I already know it's a book, like Sebald's books, that I shall return to again and again.

A fantastic read.

See also my review of Threads: the Delicate Life of John Craske by Julia Blackburn.