Ali Smith is one of my favourite contemporary writers. She is one of those writers who, and I am hoping that we all feel this way about a few authors, I love reading even when occasionally something goes completely over my head or I am not quite sure what she means, another one of these I have is Nicola Barker. I have read quite a few of Ali’s novels and There But For The and Girl Meets Boy are two of my favourite books released in the last decade. That said I have to admit that her latest work Artful, being a mixture of fiction and four lectures she gave was one I was worried I wouldn’t ‘get’. So I chose it for the Hear…Read This! so that I could chat to Gav, Rob and Kate about it. Turns out though, despite the discussion being wonderful, I didn’t need the back up, I got exactly what Ali Smith was trying to do with this one… I think.
Imagine one day, not long after their death, your partner suddenly returns from the dead. Is this a figment of your imagination? Could it be that you are being haunted by a real ghost? Is it grief playing a cruel trick on you? Could you be going mad? This is one of the many themes which Artful looks at in one of its many strands as Artful is a book that has as many layers as it does ways you could take the story and read it.
You see Artful is a very unusual hybrid of a book, originally taken from four lectures that Ali Smith delivered in Oxford back in 2013. These lectures (On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer and on Reflection) look at books, words, language, pictures, poems, basically all forms of art and how we as people take them in, react to them or sometimes don’t. If it sounds like it is going to be dry it really isn’t, it is a warm narrative that will (if you are anything like me) often feel like Smith has the same thoughts as you, only you couldn’t quite put it into words before and need to go and have a think about it. It will make you rethink how you read, and maybe even how you treat, books. For example it has certainly left me wondering if I appreciate books enough and if I give them the time that they deserve and was one of the reasons I decided to slow down with all my reading this year.
Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time. Sometimes they take and demand more time than we’re ready or yet know how to grant them; they go at their own speed regardless of the cultural speed or slowness of their readers zeitgeists. Plus, they’re tangible pieces of time in our hands. We hold them for the time it takes to read them and we move through them and measure time passing by how far through them we’ve got, what the page-edge correlation (or percentage, if we’re using a digital reader) between the beginning and the end is. Also, they travel with us, they accompany through from our pasts into our futures, always with their present-tense ability, there as soon as they’re opened, for words to act like the notes heard in music do, marking from word to word the present moment always in reference to what went before, what’s on its way, in a phrase, a sentence, a paragraph, a section, a chapter.
What also stops the book from making your head explode from the cleverness of Smith (never smugly clever let me add) is the way the lectures are interwoven as we join an unnamed narrator after the death of their unnamed partner whose ghost suddenly turns up. The lectures we read, though in a few cases not the whole lecture which I thought was interesting, were written by the recently departed and have not long been found by the grieving one left behind (neither character is given a gender, I felt it was two women though I can’t say exactly why). What is also a ghost story is indeed a very intimate and often incredibly moving picture of grief.
It was you except for at the eyes. Where they’d been, a blue like no one else’s, there were now black spaces. It looked like your whole eyes had become a pupil. You stepped into the room like you were blind. Leaving a trail of rubbly stuff very like what I’d had in my hand when we all stood round and I threw the urnful of you up the Roman road in the wood on the path that’s lined with beech trees, you went through and stood in front of your old desk, all the papers piled on it pretty much the way you left them.
What is also a ghost story is indeed a very intimate and often incredibly moving picture of grief mixed up with a wonderful sense of being a love letter to that person and also Smith’s own love letter to all art forms, though there is a sense of words and language being at the very heart of this book.
Look at its curves, though, its lovely jerky slopes. Look at your y’s and your g’s. Look at the way you ran ing at the end of representing into a pencilled line with no discernable letters in it at all. No one had handwriting like it. It could only be your hand.
Artful is definitely a book for book lovers but, as Ali Smith seems to point out throughout, it is not a book that is designed to simply be read and forgotten about. There is work to do here and when you work at it the rewards, like all good things in life, are great. I started off trying to read it as a novel, then finding the lectures slowing everything down while my brain tried to process it all. That isn’t the way to read it, you need to re-read paragraphs here and there. You need to go off and look things up on the internet, grab the dictionary or reserve a few books in from the library. You need to have space from the intelligence and the questions it asks you, you need to have some space to contemplate the grief.
It is a book that requires time and yet makes you make time for it and around it. It is quite unlike anything I have read before and left me thinking, which is of course what I love most about all of Ali Smith’s work. I have also come away with so much more to read in the future, always the gift of a wonderful book. I only hope I have done it justice.