So long as that woman from the Rijksmuseum
in painted quiet and concentration
keeps pouring milk day after day
from the pitcher to the bowl
the World hasn’t earned
the world’s end.
Wislawa Szymborska (trans. by Cavanagh and Baranczak)
Of all the riches in Ali Smith’s book, Artful, this is perhaps the one that spoke to me most insistently while I was reading. We are living in difficult times and teetering on the brink of worse ones, and it is perhaps only art that has the authority and the kindness with which to remind us that it was ever so. And also to provide an antidote to all that is toxic in the present day. The Roman historian Sallust (again, thank you, Ali) said ‘these things never happened, but are always’, and if he could say that a millennium or so ago, and the World hasn’t yet earned the world’s end, well, maybe there’s hope. See, this is the paradox of reading a book that is purely, unashamedly, in fact joyfully, literary and apparently about nothing to do with the present moment at all. Art always has something relevant to say.
Artful is the compilation of four lectures Ali Smith gave at St Anne’s College, Oxford in January and February, 2012: On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer And On Reflection. It is not – as some reviewers seem to think – the novel that Ali subsequently made out of the lectures, but the lectures themselves ‘pretty much as they were delivered’. They are, in fact, the most original form of art criticism that I’ve ever read, being a combination of fiction and critique rolled into one big, generous, sometimes overwhelming gift of narrative.
There is a story, then, that weaves all the material together. Our narrator has been grieving for a lost partner for over a year when, in the hope of breaking the deadlock, s/he plucks a book down from the shelf at random and it happens to be Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Thus encouraged to move a chair, which in the narrator’s opinion has long needed moving, in order to get better light, s/he begins the book, and begins to think about the book, and at that point something extraordinary happens: the ghost of the lost partner appears in the doorway, dirty and torn, covered in bits of rubble and having some trouble with words, but back. However, this is not a ghost like all the others. The first thing the partner does is to sit down in front of the television (‘You came back from the dead to watch tv? I said’), and then empties a cup of tea on the floor. Before long the ghost is being quite the nuisance, stealing things and breaking things and smelling so badly that all the neighbours ring up to complain about the drains.
Interspersed with the story of the revenant are passages of literary criticism which turn out to be the lectures that the lost partner was writing in the months before dying. These lectures bring together snippets of lots and lots of wonderful works – old and new, poetry and prose, the references range from Shakespeare and Gilgamesh and Woolf and Graham Greene to Hitchcock and Saramago and Beyonce (yes, you read that right). And they are used to look at all the rich and varied ways that time and form create, sustain and renew art, and that borderlines and edges, gifts and promises and reflections all thrill and confound and enlighten us. There is, oddly enough, a hurrying quality to the literary passages, as if there’s scarcely time enough for the writer to shower us with the abundance of artful gorgeousness that s/he longs to collate together here. Sometimes the ideas come so thick and fast that you just don’t have time to make sense of them all, or to get what each little passage means. To get the best out of this book, don’t quibble. Just open up your reading arms and gather in as much as you possibly can. It’s like Ali Smith has become Ali Baba and for the time of reading, this incredible cave of literary treasure is open to you. So hurry, take all that speaks to you, knowing you can come back for more. ‘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,’ Ali Smith writes.
Books need time to dawn on us, it takes time to understand what makes them, structurally, in thematic resonance, in afterthought, and always in correspondence with the books which came before them…. Great books are adaptable… You can’t step into the same story twice – or maybe it’s that stories, books, art can’t step into the same person twice, maybe it’s that they allow for our mutability, are ready for us at all times, and maybe it’s this adaptability, regardless of time, that makes them art, because real art (as opposed to more transient art, which is real too, just for less time) will hold us at all our different ages like it held all the people before us and will hold all the people after us, in an elasticity and with a generosity that allow for all our comings and going. Because come then go we will, and in that order.’
So perhaps you can see that the ongoing story of the ghost is a brilliant way of reflecting on the reflections on art. The ghost is the creation of the narrative – which is its own time out of time, and which has the elasticity to make anything happen that it chooses. The ghost is also a liminal element, which is to say something that hovers on the borderline between life and death, which makes us, precisely, aware of that very borderline and as such presents a hypnotic notion to our imaginations. And the ghost returns in stories in order to make the people in them reflect on their lives; this is what ghosts have, after all, a very special gift of enlightenment that can’t be given any other way.
But perhaps most of all, what we understand by the end of this poignant, beautiful and demanding little book is that art is always recompense for loss. It crystallises the lost moment, the lost experience, the lost society, the lost age. It gives us in imagination what we do not have before us in reality. And it comforts us and sustains us with the truth, told in a way that we can bear, given in a form that nourishes us. ‘All the time I read this book, I felt it was feeding me.’ (Katherine Mansfield on D. H. Lawrence’s novel, Aaron’s Rod) If you ever feel like you are losing faith in the world and in the humans who live in it, then pick up Artful. Or indeed any of Ali Smith’s works, which I love because her writing is always full of joy. But Artful will remind you why art is so necessary and so vital, today and always.