Second readings

Artful, by Ali Smith, Hamish Hamilton, RRP£20, 256 pages

In recent years, several books have merged fictional narrative with literary criticism – from Nicholson Baker’s The Anthologist (2009), in which a failed poet attempts to select the material for the perfect anthology, to this year’s Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner, in which a young American in Spain tries to free himself from the influence of his family and the poet John Ashbery. Artful, the latest work by Scottish fiction and essay writer Ali Smith, is a similarly hybrid work that sheds light on the ways literature can shape our lives and relationships.

Originally delivered as a series of lectures by Smith at St Anne’s College, Oxford, Artful is structured around a fictional conceit that – as the title might suggest – is both stylish and a little tricksy. The writer, we learn, has died, leaving behind her notes for a series of lectures on literature: “On time”, “On form”, “On edge”, and “On offer and on reflection”. Her bereft lover – the narrator of this work – finds these notes as she is attempting to piece her own life together a year after her lover’s death; the narrative of Artful, then, alternates segments of the lectures with the more immediate, visceral observations of the narrator. The result is a moving dialogue between people and genres. (“It was like we were reading the same book,” the narrator writes of her sense of communion with her lover, via the notes, “like you were just ahead of me in the reading.”)

Smith’s fictional characters tend to share a common interest in words – the lyrics of Ira Gershwin, the names of characters in Greek mythology, homonyms and puns. Her stories, which take simple, allegorical ideas to extremes, are sexy, witty and full of satirical details; her Booker-nominated novel The Accidental (2005) featured an otherworldly stranger who, uninvited, becomes the house guest of a bourgeois family for weeks; There But For The (2011), about a dinner party attendee who locks himself in his hosts’ spare room, explored the notion of foreignness, as well as the literary potential of “knock knock” jokes.

Artful also combines the scholarly and the strange; the book opens as the narrator, settling down to re-read Dickens’s Oliver Twist, is paid a visit by the ghost of her lover who, dressed in a waistcoat and covered in dust, has acquired the habit of pocketing others’ possessions in the manner of the Artful Dodger – one of the many literary characters to haunt the pages of this work. The point of this ghost story is, perhaps, ultimately to dramatise Smith’s literary analysis, translating theory into the realm of human emotion; the lecturer’s exploration of importance of chronological action in novels (as opposed to short stories), for instance, follows the narrator’s own confession that, since her lover’s death, days have proceeded one after the other in a kind of tedium, “nose to tail like paint-peeling wooden horses on an old carousel”.

Much of the pleasure of Artful comes from the beautifully picked excerpts by often-overlooked writers such as Shirley Hazzard, Clarice Lispector and Katherine Mansfield, which Smith unravels in idiosyncratic, layered ways. As the lecturer observes, people wouldn’t expect to understand a piece of music on one listen, but tend to believe they’ve read a book after reading it only once; Smith’s own re-reading is evident here, such as her lovely exegesis of Wallace Stevens’ poem “Anecdote of the Jar” (1919), a work she describes as “jarring” in many ways.

Artful will be best enjoyed by those who don’t mind what Smith, in her last novel, called “cleverism,” but part of this book’s charm is also its self-knowing artifice – as when the narrator mocks her lover’s penchant for the kind of punning essay titles often used by academics. Such moments make it fun to imagine Smith reading these lectures aloud to a solemn theatre-full of Oxford scholars, confounding the expectations of her listeners with audacious, acrobatic prose that somehow also manages to be heartbreaking.

Like the Artful Dodger’s hat, which was “always so unsafe on the top of his head but still stayed there anyway”, Artful is a charming balancing act.

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