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Ali Smith book Artful deftly reveals a personal story

Ali Smith's touching novel is narrated by a woman haunted by her dead lover, who sends her perplexing messages, writes Anna Aslanyan.

The British author Ali Smith. Photo by Sarah Wood
The British author Ali Smith. Photo by Sarah Wood

Artful
Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton
Buy


A perfect definition for Ali Smith's new book can be found in The Reader, the 2006 anthology of her favourite writings. In that collection's introduction, she says that books "are alive on their own terms", before illustrating this statement with several dozen pieces by authors she admires.

Further proof is her latest work, Artful. Constantly crossing boundaries between fiction and essay, it dictates its own rules, now setting a brisk pace, now stumbling over raw emotions, but always catching its breath to analyse yet another work of literature, often captured in a handful of words with astounding precision.

The book lunges and feigns, its dexterity worthy of the character it takes its title from, the Artful Dodger, that spirited pickpocket with "a glorious reputation". For the narrator is reading Oliver Twist, among other things, and discussing her impressions with her lover, gone but present, throughout the four chapters, each based on a lecture recently given by Smith at Oxford.

As always, Smith uses a number of tricks (some subtle, some overt) to explore the genre she is inventing. One is to have the four lectures - On Time, On Form, On Edge and On Offer and On Reflection - written by the protagonist's dead lover. Reading them is one of the most intimate experiences for the heroine - as, indeed, it must have always been for those who cannot imagine living in a world without words.

And then, of course, there are the lectures themselves - their author, whoever they might be, makes observations on the role of time in literature, the meaning of the arts, the difference between a short story and a novel, the latter "bound to be linear … even when it seems to or attempts to defy linearity". Turning the pages, you sometimes feel as if you are browsing through the author's bookshelves (another highly intimate act), where you find Oscar Wilde next to Angela Carter, Katherine Mansfield next to Michelangelo, and Jose Saramago next to Czesav Miosz. Smith's take on their works combines ardour and sangfroid.

She distils her reading of them into clear, fine-tuned sentences - for example, when talking about Borges' short story The Mirror of Ink, which "teaches us that the vision which comes from nature united with art … will mesmerise us with this beauty, then with revelations of our cruelty and mortality". Even more striking is her verdict on Austerlitz by WG Sebald, "a work intensely uneasy with notions of fiction and with itself as a fiction".

The narrator's personal story unfolds between the lines of these essays, seamlessly weaving itself into the text. Haunted by her dead lover's appearances, things missing, breaking or moving around the house, the heroine is especially disturbed by the messages she keeps receiving, incomprehensible, composed in what seems to be a made-up language. Trying to convince herself that these are mere tricks of conscience, the narrator signs up for therapy sessions.

She complains to the counsellor about the sightings, half-hoping to be persuaded of their imaginary nature, before adding, in parentheses: "In actuality, you'd been turning up less and less … But I wasn't going to tell her that." The strange otherworldly words, apparently coming from nowhere, sound "all Greek" to her - and turn out to be really Greek.

The meaning of the messages, sent in a language neither the recipient nor the author can - or could - speak, is gradually deciphered; and no, it has nothing to do with the present state of Greece's economy - the most frequently used word reads "epomony", or "patience".

Far from being gibberish, all these phrases are, it transpires, taken from songs associated with a Greek actress whose name, Aliki Vougiouklali, the narrator cannot recognise. The next discovery, a letter that has inexplicably smuggled itself into one of the dead writer's manuscripts, talking about this legend of cinema and theatre, proves to be "an unimaginable gift" from someone who has never truly left.

While Artful is innovative in its form and full of original ideas, many of its motifs echo some of the notes sounded in Smith's earlier works. Those familiar with her short story The Theme Is Power will remember the narrator's lover smashing a huge boulder that has taken over their bedroom; here the lover is no more, so it falls to the heroine to cut through a wall with an equally vigorous, decisive stroke. Learning that the protagonist works with trees brings to mind another story, May, whose narrator falls in love with one. A kindly colleague who lets the heroine stay at home to finish Oliver Twist is reminiscent of the protagonist's mother in some of Smith's most autobiographical works. Thus, the book brings you back to the author's home ground, playing it - again - on its own terms.

Another thing Ali Smith readers will immediately register is her penchant for wordplay, something she does more and more skilfully with each new book. Other writers' affection for puns can be either annoying, when they come across as far too clever by half, or pitiful, as it dawns on you what impotency hides behind the sparkling facade. With Smith, everything is different: she has that rare gift, a sense of measure (which also happens to be the title of a collection by Robert Creeley, whose perfectly measured poem concludes The Reader with "words to say,/ things to be") that never lets her down.

So hearing about "our thoughts travelling at the speed of tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph" you laugh - much as the narrator's lover did when found by her awake in the middle of the night and advised to calm down: "Go and do a line of Shakespeare." The joke was appreciated so much it might have even ended up in one of the lectures: "Maybe it was in this one," Smith teases us again. Even her "Litter-ature!" doesn't come across as over the top, as it would have done if uttered by someone more pompous (which is to say, pretty much everyone), less in awe of other people's writing: tuned into Edwin Morgan's "Forget your literature? - forget your soul", the exclamation takes on bright, but not in the least lurid, overtones.

The intimate experience of reading someone else's words that immediately strike a chord deep within you lasts until the final, unfinished page of the suddenly abandoned lecture notes. "That was it over. I'd read all of you, now" sounds very much like post-coital tristesse, something the heroine and her lover might have felt after getting to "a place that could only be reached when you were brave enough to come into yourself so wholly that you left yourself behind". For some of us this state can only be achieved after prolonged foreplay, its paraphernalia necessarily including white sheets covered with black characters, waiting to come alive on their own terms.

Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.