“I dreamed of having a book of my own, of writing one that I could put on a shelf”
– Patti Smith
I haven’t read many autobiographies. In terms of reading about people I’ve read more biographies, but even that’s a slim selection. I read Heavier than Heaven when I was thirteen and obsessed with Nirvana. I wanted to follow it up with Courtney Love’s biography but my mum said I was too young. “You can listen to her music, that’s fine, but her personal life is inappropriate.” Plus, apparently it’s really trashy.
Generally I don’t really trust biographies and I’m also pretty disinterested in people’s personal lives, unless they’re severely troubled and consequently vaguely interesting in a ‘I shouldn’t be enjoying this as much as I am’ kind of way. However Charles R. Cross had written Heavier than Heaven and as a music journalist and biographer he has my respect and consequently trust (although that may just be due to BBC Four featuring him in various music documentaries). The same applies to Victor Brockis, biographer of Patti Smith, Lou Reed, Blondie, William S. Burroughs and Andy Warhol just to name an impressive select few. Maybe I just find him easy to trust because he has a massively decent music taste and worked at Andy Warhol’s infamous ‘Factory’, what is there to question?
That’s another biography I sped through with keen obsession, Brockis’ Patti Smith. I enjoyed it, it was interesting but perhaps that’s because she’s an astonishing subject. It was full of interviews and lots of things Patti Smith had actually said, so maybe that’s what made it so good, she has a particular way with words. However, I had already read Just Kids, Patti Smith’s autobiography and consequently didn’t really learn anything new from Brockis. I think I was just attempting to fuel my obsession further.
Just Kids took me a day to read. That may have been something to do with reading it whilst on holiday and having nothing else to do but I don’t think that’s the case. This is my first example of a really successful autobiography. I was incapable of putting it to rest or focus my mind on anything else, even in the slightly unbearable heat of the Turkish sun.
“Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy. It serves as a salute to New York City during the late sixties and seventies, and to its rich and poor, its hustlers and hellions. A true fable, it is a portrait of two young artists’ ascent, a prelude to fame.”
– ‘Just Kids’, 2010
I may be biased here, due to my complete adoration for Patti Smith, but the blurb seems to hold a complete extent of emotion; “Just Kids begins as a love story and ends as an elegy”. It’s true, it really does. I won’t give it away, as I highly recommend reading it, even if you haven’t heard of Patti Smith, but the amount of emotion you experience on each page really does demonstrate the amount of love she had for this guy, which is extended into the elegy. The book does not simply focus on New York and the sixties and seventies but also on Smith’s early life; pre New York, pre Robert Mapplethorpe. Just Kids is written as a story, I think that’s partly why it works so well. Smith tells the story of her own life as opposed to just relaying the facts and ‘what happened.’ There is an elegance to her writing, just as there is an elegance to her poetry. Perhaps that’s why this story is so successful, the author is just that, an author. She has spent her life writing poems and producing art, surrounded by creativity. She understands how it is words work and what they’re capable of producing and is in herself well read and cultured. This is not someone who doesn’t know how to write thinking they can write a book (think most celebrity autobiographies).
Plus she has something to say. Published in 2010, Smith was sixty four and has arguably lived a life. This book has substance, sixty four years worth to be precise. It’s not some absolute nonsense spewed about by a member of One Direction, who let’s face it even put together have less life experience than a dead cat, it is a documentation of a life well lived. The content is interesting, Smith met and stayed with some of the most outrageous, intelligent and creative people to grace New York and particularly the Chelsea Hotel in the seventies, think Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Bob Dylan. It tells of her trips to Paris, sleeping rough in Central Park and eventually her rise (and disappearance) from fame. It is a really good story, made even better by the fact it’s true.
This week I have read Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? This is the second autobiography I have managed to fully read and again, finished it in a day. Jeanette Winterson is a prize winning author so it’s no real surprise that her autobiography would be a success in my eyes. I remember reading Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit two years ago and I was unable to put it down; finished in a day. Oranges is semi autobiographical in that the main character is based on herself as is the family situation and it is a book about adoption. However it is fiction meaning there is an allowance for exaggeration and grandeur, an allowance for story telling.
Winterson writes in a very straightforward manner. The reader seems to be able to grasp the entire extent and possibility of a situation through a single sentence when reading her work and this was evident in her autobiography. Her short description of sixties, industrial Manchester provides the reader with an entire landscape of what it was like, unlike Morrissey who goes on for pages and pages and yet I’m still no closer to knowing or feeling anything other than he lived in a small terrace. Again, this is an author writing a book, it is refined, clear, intelligent and practical; it does exactly what it intends to. However it is also exciting, gripping, at times tense and (my Uncle used the word) harrowing. Again, this book has substance and a narrative, the author is telling us the story of her life. It draws you into her passions and interests, particularly her interests in literature and what it is reading and writing can achieve (which as an author she has gone on to achieve at great levels). It has a drive behind it, the narrative being based around her adoption and eventually seeking her birth mother. There is a structure and a goal and the reader is completely gripped by the concept of her achieving it.
Both these books were fascinating to me. They are both written beautifully. They even look beautiful, the way each different author has chosen to present their work on the page makes it appealing and comfortable to read. Font and layout always seem to make a massive difference. Both authors have had tantalisingly exciting lives, from start to present and they relay them in a way that mystifies it, makes it almost myth or legend.
Autobiographies always seem a bit self centred to me but the story telling in these two make the author seem humble and honest. I always feel a bit sad after finishing any book, knowing that the story’s over, but finishing these definitely left me feeling empty, I’d completely immersed myself in their worlds. I cried and cried at the end of Just Kids (with my sunglasses on so no one round the pool could see) and at the end of Why Be Normal When You Could Be Happy? I felt a strange sense of optimism that it seemed the author had possessed all the way through. These are the books I enjoy the most, the ones you don’t simply read but the ones you feel and get caught up in and remember for years and years after, until you can’t and then you read them again.