In one of the more memorable passages of Ali Smith’s Artful, the narrator notes how “surprisingly lightly” we treat books “in contemporary culture. We’d never expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but we tend to believe we’ve read a book after reading it just once.” As I wound my way for the first time through Smith’s latest book, I kept returning to that remark. I couldn’t figure out what to make of it; It had intrigued me, confused me and bored me, delighted me and exasperated me, almost in equal measure. Then I wondered if my roller coaster reading experience was my own darned fault. “Books,” as the narrator explains, “need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought.” Maybe Smith was right: I just needed to be a little more patient. In the end, I decided to give Artful a second go. What the hell.
A compilation of the Weidenfeld Lectures in European Comparative Literature Smith delivered in 2012 at St. Anne’s College, Oxford, Artful offers an uncommon vision of what literary criticism can be: personal, imaginative, tentative, even whimsical. Throughout, Smith uses clever storytelling and witty, probing style which characterizes her fiction, creating a genre-bending work of criticism at least as indebted to Nabokov’s Pale Fire as it is to E.M. Forster’s classic Aspects of the Novel
Rather than dryly doling out a series of literary imperatives, Smith presents her literary-critical content in a strange, but always compelling, fictional narrative frame. Each of the book’s four chapters—“On Time”; “On Form”; “On Edge”; and “On offer and on reflection”—proceeds along a fairly predictable pattern, the lecture’s literary-critical content sandwiched between the more impressionistic musings of Artful’s narrator. This nameless, genderless narrator, as we come to learn, is literally haunted by the memory of her dead, book-loving lover—the writer of the critical content we read: she sees her, she talks to her, she even accuses her of stealing. As Artful progresses, the reader learns more and more about its narrator-protagonist’s relationship to the deceased, and simultaneously, of the complex relationship between literature and life.
Although we never discover the precise circumstances behind the lover’s death, the great impact of her loss on the narrator is apparent from the book’s opening lines. A year after her death, “I was still at a loss. If anything I was more at a loss.” The narrator’s decides to begin re-reading Oliver Twist. But at this point reading serves a mostly defensive purpose; she takes pride in managing “a whole ten minutes there without thinking of you once.” It’s only later that the narrator begins to make connections between literature and life; in the third chapter, after reading a section the lover had penned on the myth of Orpheus, for instance, s/he notes how “If I had a chance to fetch you from the underworld, to go down and persuade them and fetch you home, I’d never go back.” Literature becoming a mirror to the self.
The trouble with Artful, the reason it can be such an aggravating read, is that the book makes a point of fogging up that mirror whenever it can. Not only does the narrator have a tendency to think around the issues brought up in her lover’s critical writings, often lapsing into less than diverting anecdotes, but the critical writings themselves have a lost-in-the-woods quality about them, meandering arbitrarily from one insight to the next. In the chapter “On Time,” for instance, we go from the relationship between sequence and time, to Gilgamesh and immortality, to songs about time, to the internal clock of the novel, to the difficulty of conveying simultaneity in fiction. In the middle of all of this, there is a great little passage on the role of the imagination: “It’s the act of making [things] up, from the combination of what we have and what we haven’t, that makes the human, makes the art…possible.” But both here and in other places, Smith’s insights, though often compelling—and I hesitate to say this—are weakened by their presentation.
I hesitate because, from another angle, Artful’s presentation is nothing less than its greatest achievement. What I came to appreciate about the book, reading it through for the second time, is the way it manages, through its jerky rhythms and uncomfortable absences, to include the reader in its narrator’s own thought process, subjecting the reader to its narrator’s uncertainties. For a book that continuously stresses the critical role the imagination plays, both in the comprehension of literature and life, Artful does a terrific job, in this way, of encouraging the reader to practice the imaginative mode on his/her own—to complement Artful’s text with his/her own experiences, ideas, and beliefs. Unfortunately, this encouragement can sometimes feel like a mandate, and readers looking to Artful for a more direct, self-enclosed, James Wood-esque literary primer are bound to be disappointed. But for everyone else. . .here’s to a challenge!