• Ali Smith
  • The Penguin Press
  • 256 pp.

How art, especially literature, illuminates life and love.

“Every writer I’ve ever read, living or dead, has in one way or another helped and inspired,” Ali Smith said in a recent interview with The Daily Beast. She celebrates the reciprocal relationships between writers and readers in Artful, originally delivered as four lectures for the Weidenfeld Institute for Strategic Dialogue at Oxford. One pictures her at the lectern: thoughtful, exuberant and irreverent; shouting out to her personal pantheon of artists living and dead, ancient and modern, as she bombards the audience with eclectic references and orchestrates a virtual conference call across genres and time. 

Smith is a challenging and provocative writer, with her own backstory. Born in 1962, she grew up in council housing in Scotland, learning to read from the labels on her siblings’ records. She wrote her dissertation at Cambridge University on William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens and James Joyce. When illness interrupted her early teaching career, she began to write fiction. Free Love and Other Stories (1995) won the Saltire Society First Book of the Year Award. Subsequent novels and story collections have been shortlisted for awards including the Man Booker and the Orange prizes; The Accidental won the 2005 Whitbread Novel Award. She is a member of the Royal Society of Literature.

The short-story form always concerns life, death and the afterlife, Smith told The Daily Beast. In the aptly titled Artful she explores how art — especially literature — illuminates life and love; sustaining and connecting beyond death. Smith links these essays with a conceit: a fictional narrator reads the unfinished lecture notes of her deceased beloved. The narrator’s grief, puzzlement, memories and yearning animate and interrupt the essays. Through this framing device, Smith creates conversational and dramatic tension on the page; achieving “the place where reality and imagination meet.” Cleverly and artfully, Smith constructs a book within a book: her narrator reads the lecture notes; we read over her narrator’s shoulder.

This craftiness evokes another Oxford lecturer, Charles Dodgson/Lewis Carroll. And indeed the narrator, watching old movies, comments, “I can just see you watching these. It gives me such pleasure to imagine it. & to imagine you imagining me here in the evenings, deep in some piano concerto, and me actually watching bits of old Greek musical from the 1960s ha ha! that gives me even more pleasure. Like we’ve swapped sides of the mirror. Aliki by the way is Greek for Alice.” Here and throughout the book Smith juxtaposes the profound and the playful.

The work progresses in four incremental sections: “On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge” and “On Offer and Reflection.”Smith introduces each with an epigraph — a ballad; a mosaic of fragments from Stevens, Plath, Dickinson; Bishop’s One Art; Dylan Thomas’s In My Craft and Sullen Art. Each lecture explores its specific aspect of the book’s themes through an abundance of observations on literature, visual art, film and music. References and cross-references abound; Smith revels in “the handshake between sources”and demonstrates remarkable breadth and range — citing Cummings, Greek myth and Michelangelo in one paragraph, Colette in the next, and then Pasternak and Forster. 

Artful risks becoming a sophisticated, encyclopedic compendium of favorite quotations or a parlor game of allusions and comparisons. I often wanted to interrupt the relentless, brilliant, audacious narrator/author to request she go slower, go deeper. Although it was doubtless a theatrical experience to hear Smith deliver these lectures, the reader’s advantage is the opportunity to stop and reflect; read and reread. Ultimately this short volume rewards, but not as a quick or easy read. Smith overwhelms with a surfeit of rich fragmentary references and allusions, yet her scattershot ultimately succeeds. As she says, “Broken things become pattern in reflection. The way a kaleidoscope works is to allow fragmentary or disconnected things to become their own harmony.” 

Smith concludes with an answer to the narrator’s recurring rhetorical question: “Who am I talking to?” and one final reference to The Artful Dodger, who darts across the pages of the book as a leitmotif. Her narrator observes, “You know what I really like? I said out loud in the empty room. It’s how Dickens, when he sums up near the very end of the book what’s happened to all the people in the gang … he never directly mentions the Dodger. It’s like the Dodger’s given not just the story the slip, but given Dickens the slip too. / Who did I think I was talking to? / You).”And so Smith herself winks at the reader one last time, and artfully dodges away, leaving us inspired to return to our own favorite sources.

Ellen Prentiss Campbell’s fiction has appeared in journals including Iron Horse and The Massachusetts Review. Recipient of an MFA from Bennington and fellowships from VCCA, Campbell is presently at work on a novel set on the grounds of a psychiatric hospital.

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