How Susan Sontag Influenced Patti Smith’s Reading Life

How Susan Sontag Influenced Patti Smith’s Reading Life

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.

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