Artful by Ali Smith

Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, Hardback, 240 pages,
ISBN: 978-0241145401, £20

Luke Davies

‘It’s the act of making it up’, writes Ali Smith, ‘from the combination of what we’ve got and what we haven’t, that makes the human, makes the art, makes the transformation possible’.

This act of ‘making it up’ is a unifying theme in this hybrid essay-novel: four undelivered lectures, pieced together by the partner of their deceased, fictional author. Bereavement itself is shown to be a process of fabrication. The re-imagining of the departed in this way parallels and illustrates the book’s central concern with self invention and artistic invention.

We might begin with the apparition-like intrusions, familiar from Smith’s other work: Amber in The Accidental or Sara in Hotel World. The gentle, disruptive weirdness of these visitors brings to mind Edward Gorey’s illustrated book The Doubtful Guest, in which a bird-like creature unsettles an Edwardian household with its silent incomprehensibility. There is also something of Tove Jansson and Haruki Murakami in these depictions: we sense always the everydayness of the supernatural. 

This preternatural close-to-home-ness seems implicitly to suggest the possibility of change. Following this line of thought, Smith establishes a connection between how identities are constituted and how artworks are formed. She shows how the flux of life is mimicked in art. She quotes the poet Czeslaw Milosz: ‘The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person’. In the second section of Artful, entitled ‘On Form’, she writes: ‘In its apparent fixity, form is all about change. In its fixity, form is all about the relationship of change to continuance, even when the continuance is itself precarious’.

Comparable to Keats’ negative capability and Wilde’s imaginative sympathy, this idea of the artist conveying difference has a long and rich history. Art, for Smith, is reflective of a human (as well as a natural) quality of non-fixity. Reflecting on art theory and antiquity, she writes:

Quicksilver is another word for Mercury, is another word for a planet that looks like a grey boulder in space, is another word for an element which is both fluid and solid, can change its shape yet still holds form, is another word for Hermes, Greek god of art, artfulness, thievery, changeability, swiftness of thought and of communication, language, the alphabet, speechmaking, emails, texts, tweets.

Smith suggests that the elusiveness of identity and experience reflected in art impacts upon the processes of reading and writing. In Oliver Twist, the last we hear of the Artful Dodger (after whom Artful is named) is when he leaves the courtroom ‘establishing for himself a glorious reputation’. The last few words of Artful are given over to a reflection on the paradoxical nature of this remark when considered alongside Dickens’ failure to mention the Dodger at the end of the novel: ‘It’s like the Dodger’s given not just the story the slip, but given Dickens the slip too’. Smith is clearly compelled by this elusiveness – as she is by Aliki Vougiouklaki, a Greek actress famous for the range of her roles, whose portrait appears on the cover of Artful.

It might be argued that this elusiveness is restricting and intimidating. We are reminded of the famous passage from Flaubert’s Madam Bovary: ‘none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity’. And yet, ultimately, Smith relishes this; ambiguity is the germ of possibility. In Girl Meets Boy this was a point in sexual politics: as in Woolf’s Orlando, the rejection of heteronormativity is presented as enlightening and wisdom-conferring, suggested by the memorable opening: ‘Let me tell you about when I was a girl, our grandfather says’. In Artful, Smith’s interest in transmutability is developed into a philosophy and an artistic manifesto: a celebration of multiplicity.

In many ways this book can be seen as a response to Italo Calvino’s remark, quoted in the section ‘On Form’: ‘Think what it would be to have a work conceived from outside the self, a work that would let us escape the limited perspective of the individual ego’. Smith’s argument is that all artworks essentially do this, for both reader and writer. With real craft, she both states and demonstrates this.

Artful is perhaps Smith at her most polemic. It is also more self-reflective than previous works. This is a book about reading, about writing, and about the spaces in between. Smith’s subject, modestly enough, is the dynamism of art and of being itself.

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