Artful – Ali Smith

[This is a journal in four sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I never knew what was coming next.]

1 December 2014
1 – On time
This book is based on lectures Ali Smith gave in Oxford earlier in the year of publication, 2012. This first section has a framing device that puts Smith’s meditations on time inside a kind of fiction. As the narrator thinks about the passing of time since her lover’s death, she – I’m assuming it’s a she – notices that reading the first 14 lines of Oliver Twist has allowed her, unusually, not to think about her lover for ten whole minutes. It’s at this point that she hears somebody knocking, and the dead lover appears at the door soon after. This fits almost seamlessly into the headlong rush of ideas that the narrator is having about the nature of time. The story being told is in the past tense, whilst things that happened in their shared past are recounted in the present. But that’s Ali Smith for you. In the context of reflecting on the many games that authors have played with the notion of the passage of time in literature, she plays games of her own.

The citations might be literary, but they are often rooted in the certainty of mortality. There’s Michelangelo’s exhortation to his assistant to ‘draw, Antonio, draw – don’t waste time.’ There are snippets of time references from Shakespeare’s sonnets, ending with the devastating truth that ‘Time will come and take my love away.’ Smith draws to our notice ‘the thud of monosyllable after monosyllable eight times before the word away.’

But art is something else. There are references to works in which a work of art or piece of writing offers a kind of immortality, but Smith is not satisfied with easy Ars longa, vita brevis clichés. Sometimes there has to be an act of creation on the part of the viewer or reader, as in a wonderful poem by Edwin Morgan about a fragment of a picture. The poet reconstitutes it so that it becomes itself in spite of the losses: ‘There she is though!’ There’s another, by Rilke, of the glorious head and look that can be imagined from the broken torso of a classical statue of Apollo: ‘like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low, / gleams in all its power.’

And she celebrates the creativity of different writers as they wrestle with the necessity of placing their narratives in some kind of chronological framework. Short story writers can be cavalier, but novelists, as explained in a quotation by Jose Saramago, have to write in a linear way, word following word, however much they might disrupt the time-line. (He puts it far more elegantly, obviously.) Another author has his narrator fretting that whilst fictions easily cover the past and future, they never reveal the present as it happens. He’ll just have to find it out for himself.

In the framing story about the return of the dead lover, Smith isn’t only playing games. The narrator knows that she has imagined this, is proud to have created the sound, smell and feel of this person who cannot really be there. But that is what fictions are always about, creating something out of nothing in a time-frame that the reader has to recreate while reading. The lover herself seems to have no past at first, or no memory of it. All that this newly recreated being seems to have is words which, as Smith has reminded us several times, are the building-blocks of any narrative. Smith plays with words all the time, and the returned lover’s opening line is a punning reminder of her mortality: ‘I’m late.’ But she has no memory of the phrase that always used to go with it in their shared past. ‘I’m later than – Than –’ ‘You’re later than a rabbit in Alice.’ And we’re back to the dominance of time. But this is early on. Later, there does seem to be the vestige of a memory, regarding a tattoo the narrator has. But piecing the past back together is clearly going to take some time.

8 December
2 – On form
The plays on words of the chapter titles are typical Ali Smith. In this section, not satisfied with merely covering every possible meaning of ‘form’, she has (occasional) subtitles that pull the word apart or find it inside others: ‘Putting The For In Form’, ‘Putting The Form In Transformation’. (This is no surprise from an author whose novel the previous year consisted of four sections given the subtitles There, but, for, the.) There’s even a riff on the use of those capital letters, because by now these meditations (or whatever they are) are presented as based on notes for lectures prepared – and now obsessively being reworked – by the dead lover. It becomes another opportunity for Ali Smith to explore the idea of form: the dead ‘you’ of the framing narrative is the creator of this…. And, by using this second-person form of address we have even been prevented from knowing the gender of the lover. All we are told, some way into this second section, is that they had been married. Which, in these days, tells us nothing. Inevitably, there has been a consideration of gender in writing – which is why the non-specified gender of the participants has become an issue for consideration.

If this sounds exhausting, it isn’t. Most of the chapter, like the first, is taken up with examples of how writers manipulate form. Shakespeare is in there again, with one of his sonnets about the immortality to be gained through words. And there’s Wallace Stevens, who writes what Smith presents as a kind of reply, a poem whose own form breaks up as we read it. Of course, the breaking up is appropriate, matching, or creating – ‘forming’ – one aspect of the content. And now my own sentences are breaking up. And Smith is off again, with Edwin Morgan – again – replying more explicitly to Stevens. The first half-line repeats that of Stevens’ poem, but goes back to Shakespeare and the Ovid tale that inspired it. How many layers do you want?

There are other layers, of course. How about layers of simile and metaphor? Smith covers these in a playful anecdote of her early classroom experiences of the concepts, taught as worksheets so she didn’t know how to pronounce them. Simile rhymed with smile, the first two syllables of metaphor were those of metabolism… so she can play with ideas of how imagery welcomes or transforms before your eyes. Or ears. But soon she’s off with the heavyweights, citing Flaubert’s argument against metaphorical writing and W G Sebald, breaking a self-imposed rule against simile that seems to prepare the way for his description of a cynical simulacrum of welfare in a concentration camp.

And framing it all are the increasingly bizarre experiences the fictional narrator is having to live with. The lover, now fully compos mentis, seems to be decomposing before the narrator’s eyes and the neighbours’ noses. The narrator regrets that her (if it is her) imagination is good enough to create this figment, but not to have it in the form of a charming light, hygienically odour-free. This imaginary being – at least, the narrator assumes that it’s imaginary – is beginning to remove useful things, first from the flat and then from shops in Brighton where they have both gone while the narrator has a week’s sick leave that the boss considers appropriate. Is the lover real? It’s a question that can’t be answered, when the narrator is clearly fictional anyway.

There’s much more going on, obviously, but there are other chapters to read.

10 December
3 – On edge
This is one of my favourite sections so far. Perhaps they’re all my favourites. There’s a moment near the end, after the narrator has brought us to the borderline between life and death, the edgiest ‘edge’ of all, when we’re in a cave. As always, it’s a reference that has got us here, this time to the recent Werner Herzog film of prehistoric cave paintings, and the narrator imagines ‘walking through the inside of a skull…’. Whose skull is it? The narrator’s? The dead lover’s? Ali Smith’s?

All of them, obviously, and the reader’s as well. The whole book has been like that story in which a spark lands in a box of fireworks, then all the boxes of fireworks in the shop go off until the place is full of hotly hissing roman candles and spinning Catherine wheels. This book does that to you. The ideas fizz, and judgments are put on hold as they set something off in your own head. Did Ali Smith see that Herzog film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge where I go? Is she thinking of Cocteau’s Orphée when she makes a reference both to that myth and to the way Alice passes through the mirror, famously recreated in that movie? Could she have known that the story by James Kelman she refers to, of the son falling into a vat of something that will instantly destroy his body (one she knows to be ‘a joke… apocryphal’), was told as the truth in the steel city I grew up in? The story, appropriately, is squeezed into the margin of some other writer’s novel, and… and what? It’s a demonstration of how things creep in around the edges in this chapter.

This book has been doing something else for me. Usually what I do is read, then, as systematically as I can, write about whatever it is I’ve been reading. With a conventional novel or piece of non-fiction it’s easy. If I put in the work, I can recreate for my own satisfaction an impression of what it was like to read it. It doesn’t work for this book, obviously. When every page takes the reader to places that are so unfamiliar, when Ali Smith makes connections between poems – many of them by Edwin Morgan, and many more that I haven’t read – I feel… what? That a cursory summary just won’t do. You’ll have to read this one for yourself.

Meanwhile, in novel-land, there’s still a story going on. It’s becoming clearer that this is a serious meditation on death but, very specifically, on the death of a lover. I don’t go for biography, so I’m not going to speculate as to whether Ali Smith really had lost a lover in the recent past. She writes convincingly enough for it to seem so urgently real that either she really has experienced it or she’s very good at evoking the pain of the loss through her own powers of writing. The latter, I suspect. But the former too, maybe. The jokiness of the first two chapters has been left behind – there’s a lot of leaving behind in this section – as the narrator remembers the former closeness to the lover, not only physical. Eurydice is in there, of course, and Orpheus’ pain of disappointment – but so are unrelenting replies from Morgan and Rilke about the impossibility of any return. We finally get the even colder truth from Sylvia Plath, in a poem I know but have never read in this way before.

And society is impinging. It already has been, almost drolly, in the earlier chapters as the neighbours complain about the smell and the boss imposes a period of sick leave on half-pay. Now we get the therapist and her clunky mind-pictures of imaginary journeys that some of them go for. The narrator’s response is as facetious as we might expect… until something happens, not at all to do with what the therapist is trying to do, and the narrator really does go to a place that had previously been unexplored. Reading this chapter, we’re wisely nodding: the idea has got in round the edge, in spite of the narrator’s unwillingness to play the game.

And there’s a mystery. In the second chapter, the dead lover had said some things that sound like invented words. But the therapist – something unexpected creeping in around the edge again – thinks they might be Greek. She has left an answer-phone message explaining that they really are Greek, and she gives translations. Not only that: they are from songs associated with one Greek actress. Ok. The narrator, previously, has made it clear that anything the lover says is really from her (or his) own imagination. So, what is being remembered here? What has crept in round the edges of her own consciousness? Whatever it is, the narrator is able, apparently for the first time, to go to bed and not think of one side of it as belonging to the lover. ‘I moved my whole self to the middle of the mattress, actually the best place in the bed for a good night’s sleep. / I closed my eyes. / Patience.’ And that’s how this chapter ends, with only one remaining.

11 December
4 – On offer and on reflection
Ali Smith is good at having her cake and eating it. She has written an unclassifiable book – my library copy has a Dewey number on the spine telling me it’s non-fiction, but what do librarians know? – and yet she’s made sure that we get the satisfactions only to be derived from novels. And there are the necessary resolutions of difficult questions that give readers what they want. Was the kleptomaniac revenant a figment of the narrator’s imagination? Yes – or, at least, that’s how the narrator writes of it now, so that in references to those thefts of books in Brighton, it’s the first person ‘I’ who took them. Is the narrator fully over the grief of the lover’s death? Seems to be. And what about those snippets of Greek? These are accounted for in a plot-heavy explanatory section which also serves to fulfil the oldest wish of all: what will remain of us is love.

However, she’s still Ali Smith, so there are unanswered questions if we look for them. The neighbours complaining of the smell? Those Greek words that are all from the films the lover had been storing up for the narrator, and bequeaths as a kind of legacy? How has the narrator heard them before now, if not from the ghost? In other words, Smith likes to remind us that she doesn’t do realism, even as a kind of joke. However, again… there really is a very satisfying ending to the framing story. The lover, pretending that the narrator’s suggestions had always been too low-culture for inclusion in the talks, has actually included some of them in this final one. And better still, s/he hadn’t always been at work on the talks: ‘I was trawling the net for things you’d love.’ There isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Ok. But can I remember what else is covered in this chapter? And how much do I need to tell you anyway? On offer is, among about a dozen other things, about the motives and underlying meanings that might be implicit in the act of giving. The examples and citations are as wide-ranging as ever, and there’s the bonus of the whole question setting up that final act of generosity in the framing story. Meanwhile, or later (or whenever), there’s On reflection. We’ve had the mirrors in Orphée and Alice already, both echoed when the name of the Greek actress who stars in those films is called Aliki, the Greek form of Alice. But these last pages are given over to that other sort of reflection. The narrator can think about the lover with some degree of equanimity now and, finally, can begin to make plans for the future. Which, of course, can be much more than a reflection of the past.

One last thing. Throughout, the narrator has been reading Oliver Twist and, in this final section, watching Oliver!. In Ali Smith’s democratic take on culture, the narrator has been able to persuade the lover that both have things to teach us, so that Nancy’s song and the big musical number in which Artful Dodger slyly welcomes Oliver into Fagin’s crooked set-up are as capable of offering a commentary on giving or reflection as Dickens’ original. Which brings me to the title of this not-novel. How artful can you get? How full of art can you make a novel that isn’t quite a novel? And if Ali Smith considers herself, so to speak, an Artful for our times, what dodgy territories is she taking us to?

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