Image of Artful
Release Date: 
January 24, 2013
Penguin Press HC
Reviewed by: 

“. . . difficult to sum up.”

A few pages into Artful, the new memoir-cum-literary-screed by novelist Ali Smith, the reader comes to the conclusion that the book was not written on a computer but, instead, was produced on an ancient Underwood, as the author’s fingers flew clickety-clack over the keys.

The reader holds this belief for two reasons:

The first has to do with the author herself, who in the inner workings of her text reveals herself rather reveling in a cup-of-tea-in-the-book-lined-room kind of life in what may-or-may-not be the English countryside and given her reverence for “all authors great and small” might well be a technophobe.

The second has to do with the book itself and with the fact that somehow somewhere Ms. Smith seems to have lost her access to her fair share of quotation marks.

Surely this is simply the product of a broken typewriter key.

And so the reader struggles. Tries to decide just who’s saying what and when and what it all means. In fact, in reading Artful the reader is surprised to realize myriad uses for those humble quotations marks just when they’ve gone missing.

Then there’s this, the opening bit, which comes out at you out of the blue:

“The twelvemonth and a day being up, I was still at a loss. If anything I was more at a loss.”

The reader agrees. The use of “twelvemonth and a day” indeed leaves him at a loss.

Is our author simply being twee or is she shooting off a fireworks display of literary knowledge right from the get go?

Google helps us a bit where the author lets us down. There are songs with that “twelvemonth and a day” in the title and a novel of that name by a Scot named Christopher Rush.

But not until page 18 does our author reveal her particular intent in verse:

“The twelvemonth and a day being up,
The dead began to speak:
‘Oh, who sits weeping on my grave,
And will not let me sleep?’”

It goes on from there but that much standing alone explains the haunting that Ms. Smith has undergone in the previous 17 pages and the phantom of her dead husband, who is being used as a somewhat crabby and bewildered literary device by which she is considering the nature of time.

is based upon four lectures Ali Smith gave at St. Anne’s College in Oxford during January and February of 2012. And it is very likely that as a verbal presentation the intent of the work was somehow clarified, less similar to the “Go Fish” nature of the presentation in print.

And yet, for the reader who can put aside the need for instant clarity and instead simply fling himself into this whirlpool of words, there are treasures here on offer. Fans of The Golden Bowl and Oliver Twist will find themselves especially sated.

But don’t expect an easy time of things.

This is a project constructed entirely out of goo: opaque, sticky, viscous. Indiscernible. As such it comes with a final, brief section called “Some Sources” in which our author reveals where she got some of the words she quoted without the appropriate grammatical marks.

Despite the many side trips into the mysteries of academe, Artful is a cold-eyed study of grief. A consideration of the places the mind wanders while sorrow and loss are knifing the heart.

As such: a riff on Joan Didion. As such: A Year and a Day of Fantastical Thinking.

As such, when she sets her mind to it, Ali Smith is capable of this:

“I’d been at a loss so I’d gone and stood in the study, which I only ever did when I felt the very worst. The desk was piled up with the talks you’d been supposed to give at that university. On the top was the one about time. I’d picked the first page up (suncurled, dried, a bit faded), I’d glanced at it and at the still quite pristine page below it and I’d laughed when I’d seen [German literary critic] Walter Benjamin’s name, because, much like my brother used to shout when we were kids in the back of the car and we were driving south, Ten points to the first person who can see the Forth Road Bridge, or my father when he was teaching me to drive, Ten points if you can hit that woman crossing the road, what you used to say when you’d make me come with you to those boring conferences was, Ten points to the first person who hears someone say the words Walter Benjamin.”

Of the four sections of the book (“On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge,” and “On Offer and on Reflection,” to dare to place them within quotation marks), “On Edge” is perhaps most successful–perhaps because by three quarters of the way through the text the reader finally knows what’s what.

Or perhaps because in it our author stops writing like a woman at a too-loud cocktail party who drives you away because she slurs and screeches, lurches in your direction, eyes blazing and you are pretty sure that she is drunk out of her mind, and gives us this sudden lovely moment:

“The thing about trees is that they know what to do. When a leaf loses its color, it’s not because its time is up and it’s dying, it’s because the tree is taking back into itself the nutrients the leaf’s been holding in reserve for it, out there on the twig, and why leaves change color in autumn is because the tree is preparing for winter, it’s filling itself with its own stored health so it can withstand the season.”

From here she jumps to: “Clever trees. Know-it-all trees. I was tired of trees.” And then: “I went to the doctor and told him I needed help with mourning.”

Beautiful stuff.

Most books are difficult to sum up. They can be easily described: this happens and then this and that. But Artful sums itself up perfectly in the shape of an untitled poem, that opens the second section, “On Form:”

“I placed a jar in Tennessee
because I could not stop for death
to see a world in a grain of sand
where Alph, the sacred river, ran.

“Nobody hear him, the dead man
alone and paley loitering,
rage, rage against the dying of
the golden apples of the sun.

“You stand at the blackboard, daddy.
let the traffic policeman wear black cotton gloves.
And for that minute a blackbird sang.
What will survive of us is love.”

Like much of the rest of the book, some of this resonates. Some is very familiar. And that reader remembers Auden’s poem about the death of Yeats, and the single poetry collection that was found in the dorm room of every English major, Ariel.

Seeking clarity, and, especially authorship, the reader turns to “Some Sources” and reads:

“On form begins with a poem made of lines from famous poems by, consecutively, Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, William Blake, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Stevie Smith, John Keats, Dylan Thomas, W. B. Yeats, Sylvia Plath, W. H. Auden, Edward Thomas, and Philip Larkin.”

And nothing else by way of explanation is offered.

Like the rest of this book, this poem is in turns witty, familiar, vague, surprising in its structure and grace, atonal, juxtaposed, forced, willfully oblique, literate, silly, and wise. And the reader hasn’t the slightest clue where it came from.

And that sums up Artful pretty damned much.