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Artful by Ali Smith

Artful (original 2012; edition 2013)

by Ali Smith

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125796,356 (4.02)5
Authors:Ali Smith
Info:Penguin Press HC, The (2013), Hardcover, 256 pages
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Artful by Ali Smith (2012)



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Jan/Feb 2015. [4.5]

(Truly Madly Deeply x The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas) + fragments of essays on literature = Artful

Just lovely! I got it because it was my favouritest book cover I’d seen in ages (as said elsewhere, I don’t like many recent covers). The content wasn’t what I expected, but was, if anything, even nicer.

I daresay some friends have also had the experience that if something external makes you miserable whilst you’re reading a particular book, it often isn’t the right book any more. But this was.
Not least because I find lost love, particularly if it occurred without any hurtful remarks, to be a displacement or refuge from harsher, less picturesque concerns; it contains the sense of having been cared about and a continuing gratefulness that someone inadvertently provided this comfort, whilst not requiring a 180 emotional turn.

Artful's narrator is the widowed partner of an author much like Ali Smith, who died a year earlier in the middle of writing a series of talks (which in reality were completed and delivered; parts of them are interpolated in the text). Related to the thought of the extreme procrastinator: ‘If I died now, I wouldn’t have to finish this’? It isn’t quite Gertrude writing in the person of Alice, for the narrator’s work sounds like monitoring trees for a local council, whilst Smith’s real-life partner is a filmmaker.

[Thank you to MJN’s review for pointing out in the first few lines that the narrator is the partner. The exuberance and deceptively simple language of Ali Smith’s writing makes me speed over pages fast as if I was reading trash, prone to missing things more than usual in something of this complexity. A few months ago in How to Be Both, I nearly didn’t realise that Francesco’s narrative might have been the product of George’s imagination. I re-read the fiction sections of part 1 of Artful, ‘On time’ after I’d finished the rest, to see how they sounded with this knowledge. I don’t re-read much, but the first, reflexive, speed-reading of these two Ali Smith books seems to demand it.]

When I started writing this post, I hadn’t set out to ape the talk/essay sections of the original with their headings, but finding I wanted to say ‘look! look!’ at dozens of quotes, I had to organise them…
Mostly I want to say how wonderfully Artful expresses things.

Loss & Grief

I hadn’t read anything, I hadn’t been able to, for well over a twelvemonth and a day.

how unfair that a chair we saw online and bought on a credit card and had delivered in a van would, could, did, last longer than us).

I’m okay. I’ve moved a really heavy chair. I’ve changed things. And I’ve read sixteen lines in a novel and I’ve thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase ‘item of mortality’ and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds.

That’s as far as you got. That was it over. I’d read all of you, now.


As in Alice B. Toklas, the voice is still noticeably the author-partner’s. But here it’s so lovely, primarily expressive rather than egotistical, that there isn’t the same questioning of the psychological dynamics of the project. (Also Smith must be riffing on Stein, which gives the story further ironic distance - and its tone is very endearing.)

The rugs, all skewy now, looked like creatures, a mess of dogs asleep in random places on the floor. I quite liked that. I liked the thought that the room was full of new and unexpected sleeping dogs.

The top piece of paper on the abandoned writings is suncurled. It's as if there's always been a gap in the language waiting for that word.


The exuberance of Smith’s writing is there in the IRL version of this writer. How often is ‘literary fiction’ this likeable?

you rushing out of the garden and into the kitchen a couple of summers ago with the book open going, look! look at this! it’s probably a hundred years old, a hundred-year-old greenfly, it could literally be a hundred years since anyone’s opened this, look at its wings! you can actually see the veins, you can actually still see the green of it, think, a hundred years ago this greenfly could’ve been visiting hundred-year-ago roses

It’s kind of a novelty to hear about secure couples in literature, especially when they aren’t (in this context they can’t be) cloying.

Like the nodding De Chirico heads in Sylvia Plath’s The Disquieting Muses, you said from your seat at the desk. If you say so, I said, whatever they are when they’re at home.
Not that I can imagine living with someone who didn't get most of my – and I their - references, as more than a temporary flatmate. But many people do.

It was me who liked cinema, not you. We’d had a lot of arguments about it. And the thing about the Powell Pressburger target was something I’d actually once said to you. In fact, I’d said a lot of those things to you, about Chaplin and Hitchcock, and it was me who’d made you sit down with me and watch them both. I couldn’t believe that what I’d said had got into your writing. It was thrilling.

Because when I think about what it was like to live with you, it was like all these things. It was like living in a poem or a picture, a story, a piece of music, when I think of it now. It was wonderful.

There's just so much love, not aggrandisement, in the way such things are said, all this feels as if it's probably rooted in the way she feels about her partner, not so much in the puffed-up ego of imagining people saying nice things about her in her absence.

From one of the talks:
Offering and sacrifice are at one level a direct request for dialogue, and at another ask the existential question – not so much do You exist, as do I?

Trees and nature

Even after the worst storm damage, a tree, so long as there’s some green in the break, can be healed and mended and carry on growing. Unless, that is, the heart was like one of the literally thousands of kinds of apple tree that have disappeared from the British Isles in reasonably recent history because of the way the supermarkets only really like to sell about five kinds of apple.
That would be something: to have a heart whose tree produced a fruit that had otherwise died out.

one day
[Cezanne] threw something he was working on, a study of apples, out of the window of the top floor of his house and it landed in the branches of a fruit tree below, and he left it for weeks, till the day he looked up, saw it again and called to his son to go and get the ladder because it had ripened enough for him to work on it a bit more.

And much talk of evenings getting lighter... this is a spring book.

Quoting / about other people in the talks

Kusama: ‘By continuously reproducing the forms of things that terrify me, I am able to suppress the fear.’

Edwin Morgan – Orpheus - this sounds just lovely. Would like to read the whole thing.

e e cummings. As a kid I'd found him not as exciting and funny as the childish lowercase promised. Recently I've seen several of his poems or bits of and they're lovely. Should perhaps look again.

EM Forster, though, saw it a little more even-handedly: ‘when human beings love they try to get something. They also try to give something, and this double aim makes love more complicated than food or sleep. It is selfish and altruistic at the same time, and no amount of specialization in one direction quite atrophies the other.’

Here’s to the ‘wreathed trellis of a working brain’: that’s what Keats called it in Ode to Psyche. George Mackay Brown said about how he spent his days: ‘I assure you, there are few jobs in life like the leafing and blossoming of the imagination.’

how Ovid, metamorphosing into Ted Hughes - I love this way of putting it.

Josephine Baker and her use of comic mask - again, want to know more, but so many things!

Horrible things probably worth knowing more about:
His French swimming instructor befriends him. The friendship is as illegal as inviting an illegal immigrant into your home is, in Calais, in the year 2009. We are living in times where, very close to home, hospitality is punishable by law.

The nature of the ghost

You were wearing that black waistcoat with the white stitching that went out of fashion in 1995, the one we gave to Oxfam. Ha. I'd almost forgotten about early 90s waistcoats! They were everywhere. Mostly unnecessary and in the way, but I had one long fitted denim one which both suited me and was surprisingly warm.

If only I’d reimagined you without your snoring. But then it wouldn’t have been true, would it? It wouldn’t have been you.

Not that I wasn’t glad you were back, coming and going like you did over the weeks, the same you only slightly more ragged-looking every time, and every time coming in like I wasn’t even there and going straight over and sitting at the study desk, pulling your hair out over those talks you had been going to give about books and art.

When I got back I found you’d clearly been right behind me and had lifted a couple of books from the charity bookshop whose stock I’d had a passing look at. I began to worry. You were a figment of my imagination. That meant I must have taken those things.
The mixture of magic realism and realism-in-self-awareness in these sections is great.

(I don't understand why the narrator makes herself sound so much worse than she is when talking to the doctor though. And all this results in is getting sent to a bland and generic counsellor who doesn't connect with her, whom there's no opportunity to choose based on whether they suit one another. Though she does provide information that strings the book together.)

Aliki Vougiouklaki (her on the cover)

who played ALL FOUR in her time, Antigone, Evita, that mad pure Julie Andrews nun with the guitar, and the gorgeous debauched Sally Bowles – as well as Shirley Valentine and Shaw’s Pygmalion and Aristophanes’s Lysistrata and the leads in My Fair Lady and in Tennessee Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, and dressed up as a boy in a Greek film musical version of Romeo and Juliet, and more.

The film scenes described (still not using YouTube so have not seen) sound wonderful and exuberant. I love 60s cinema but have never seen any from Greece.

Aliki by the way is Greek for Alice I love that she cares about this and knows this and thinks we would care too; I'm not sure how she manages to make little things like this never sound patronising – which is very easy: assuming your audience knows and/or can look things up is usually the best way not to – but she has a knack. ( )
  antonomasia | Feb 5, 2015 |
I found I enjoyed this book more in the morning when I was fresh enough to meet its challenges as Smith does expect a fair bit of her readers in this transposition of her four lectures on art and literature, a subject right up her street with the way she likes to fuse different forms.

So, sometimes I found myself nodding my head pleased that she was asserting something that I have felt too such as the need to read a book more than once to be able to appreciate it. I also found myself in agreement when she talked about the way some books and films use withholding knowledge in order to create suspense, something that has always struck me as a poor device. Often, though, I had to reread and think about what Smith was saying and not always was I successful. Clearly, although I was actually rereading chunks of the book as I went, I’ll have to reread again.

What is hailed as original in this book is its melding of the story of a woman talking to her dead partner who’s reappeared shedding rubble and smelling increasingly with her thoughts on aspects of literature. I think this is reasonably effective although I felt I needed more explanation at times. It also seemed odd to be combining intellectually challenging ideas with some pretty awful puns but then this wouldn’t be an Ali Smith book without them.

I enjoyed all her references to other novelists (giving me a few ideas for further reading) and I strongly concur that Katherine Mansfield’s short stories (some of which I’ve reread many times!) don’t have the recognition that they deserve. Overall, though, I’m not too sure about how successful this book is for me, partly because the connections between one point and the next, especially when Smith lists the different meanings of words, aren’t clear to me – once again, I suppose, supporting Smith’s contention that rereading is necessary. ( )
  evening | Nov 18, 2014 |
As part of a Visiting Professorship at the University of Oxford in 2012, Ali Smith presented four lectures on aspects of fiction, specifically “On time,” “On form,” “On edge,” and “On offer and on reflection.” Presented here “pretty much as they were delivered”, the lectures must have garnered much comment and a few divided opinions, due for the most part not to the arguments presented or the views expounded but rather to the manner of their presentation. Smith envelopes her lectures in a superstructure of narrative, ostensibly exploring the grief of a spouse whose academic partner has died and left a series of incomplete lectures on aspects of fiction. Smith is an accomplished writer, so it is hardly surprising that her narrative superstructure is both compelling and charged with emotion. No doubt it made for wonderful theatre for those in attendance. But does it contribute in any way to her overall thesis? I suspect that opinions in Oxford must have divided on this point and that more than a few high table dinners must have been enlivened by the ensuing debate.

For my own part, I don’t have a particular problem with Smith’s playfully artful technique. It surely serves some purpose in the mixology of forms as academic essay is blended and stirred with narrative drive. If that’s the kind of thing you like, then it works very well. Regrettably, it can also serve as a distraction from the more focused argumentative points being made in the non-narrative parts of the lectures. And there are many points here worth considering and reflecting upon. But I’m uncertain as to whether Smith herself is anxious about the points she is making. Is the narrative component a means of deflecting straightforward engagement? Is this why she places these ‘arguments’ in the voice of a dead companion? Is she disowning her theses even as she presents them?

Perhaps. Perhaps there is more going on here than I’m willing on a single reading to discern. But I think clear and thoughtful argument is rather hard to come by. Indeed, even amongst those who don’t take on narrative blending techniques, the making plain of something that is subtle and possibly important is rarely achieved. So I rather regret techniques that make the already difficult task more opaque. And so I cannot recommend this collection of essays. An interesting read, but not a thoughtful consideration on aspects of fiction that adds to our understanding. ( )
  RandyMetcalfe | Oct 18, 2014 |
This is a very good fit for an artist who loves literature who is processing the loss of a loved one. It's fragmented narrative fits the confusion of months following loss. It is also presents a good framework for thinking about time, form, edges and reflection ( )
  objectplace | Jun 7, 2014 |
Smith is a genius and her essays/talks on time, on form, on edge, on offer and on reflection but also a love story sent me immediately to buy the book as I handed in my library copy. Starting right off, she quotes Dickens from an old orange Penguin edition of Oliver Twist, then the myth of Achilles, Alice in Wonderland,The Golden Bowl, Jane Austen from an obscure title Jack & Alice. Ozi e vizi a Pammydiddle which I can only find on here in Italian, Walter Benjamin,Joseph Conrad,José Saramago. I can't stop. I'm scurrying all over the house looking for copies of every book mentioned, placing library orders,expanding my swollen To Read list like the crazy bibliophile and avid poetry reader I answer to. Who is Gordon Mackay Brown? GR doesn't know but I must find out. And I haven't even touched on her exquisite prose and wonderful mind, linking literature, art, movies, music. It is all here. ( )
  featherbooks | Mar 8, 2014 |
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And maybe in the end that's what the book really is: a seductive and compelling case for the power of the imagination. Or – to go back to Dickens – a gorgeous and artfully dodging work of "shifting possibility". Or, in the words of Katherine Mansfield who, on finishing DH Lawrence's Aaron's Rod, compared it to a tree "firmly planted, deep thrusting, outspread, growing grandly, alive in every twig. All the time I read this book I felt it was feeding me." Back to trees, then, a perfect leitmotif for the unstoppable nourishment of literature. And there is food and substance in this wonderful, deeply original book.
Artful is a gift from Ali Smith to her reader. It's a book no one else could have written, or would have. Smith has a critic's eye, but fills her book with the novelist's art, and the novelist's heart. Time to read it again now.
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Don't try to hold on to the wave
That's breaking against your foot: so long as
You stand in the stream of fresh waves
will always keep breaking against it

Bertolt Brecht
translated by Gerhard Nelhaus
for Xandra Bingley
Emma Wilson
and Sarah Wood
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Presents a meditative collection of writings on the nature of art and storytelling and incorporates tribute elements to iconic writers and artists throughout history.

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