It’s that time of year where people are putting together their ‘best of’ lists, and I’ll be obviously following that trend by doing the same next month, but it’s no real spoiler to tell you I’ve just read the best book of the year; and it comes as no surprise to me that it is written by Ali Smith.
The book is called Artful and is based around four essays from Smith that were the basis of a series of lectures at Oxford University. To describe these as a mix of fact and fiction is exactly the point. They set out the importance of aesthetics in everyday lives, and that the art that we encounter is part of what makes us; part of who we are. If we, to some degree, create our own selves then we can accept fiction as fact and ‘fact’ as fiction, or at least be happy to blur the boundaries. As Smith says, ‘In the aesthetic act something comes to life’, and that something is in us all.
Artful is a personal tour through some of Smith’s influences which include favourite writers, poets and artists. You may think this sounds self indulgent but you never get the sense of someone showing off. Rather this is a celebration of art and the central role it can play in enriching lives. She references Edwin Morgan, Cezanne, Rilke, Jackie Kay, Lee Miller, Alasdair Gray, EM Forster and many more but weaves their words (and pictures) into her own narrative. One of the most memorable strands of the story involves a re-reading of Oliver Twist that offers up new views and meaning, read as it is after personal loss. Anyone who has ever sought solace in a favourite book, song or poem to get through difficult times will recognise this and may, like me, find it one of the most moving things they’ve read all year.
One of Smith’s central arguments here is that while we listen to a piece of music over and over to gain new insight, or see new productions of a favourite play, we rarely re-read even our favourite books, always looking to the next. This book is a great example of this as I read it twice before deciding what to write. It puts into practise what she preaches, and she is right. Reading James Kelman’s The Busconductor Hines again recently gave me such a different view of the book and what it meant to me than when I first read it in my teens. Both readings are equally valid, but very different. That is the other side to Artful. Smith isn’t simply writing as a writer, but as a reader and that is equally important. Writing only has the value that we as readers give it, it is in the interaction that the spark of life is ignited.
Artful is as much about Smith’s writing as it is about her influences. I’ve read everything she has published and this book has her usual themes of individuals finding difficulty relating to one another, the importance of art, the influence of strangers, the power of love, the wonderful complexity of language and the ethereal nature of existence. You could argue, and I would back you up, that Smith is a true existential writer in that she acknowledges that we are individuals trying to make sense of ‘others’, and that one of the most accessible ways of recognising other individuals is in art, particularly in writing, as this is where shared experience can be set out.
In other writers’ hands Artful could have been the most painfully pretentious tosh, much like this review, and I would undoubtedly still have enjoyed it because I’m a sucker for this type of discussion, but I doubt I would have loved it as I do. You don’t just read Ali Smith, you fall head over heels for her, longing for her next visit. At the moment nobody does it better. She makes writing, at least her writing, seem so effortless and that’s always appealing. This book just confirms that feeling while simultaneously seeking to explain how she does it, or at least who has inspired her. But even after finshing the book, replete with a index of sources and illustrations, you still can’t see the strings.
Just as being a great cook is more than simply following recipes so being a great writer is more than understanding how story works, as many who have attended writing classes will know only too well. Although she discusses form, simile, metaphor and other building blocks of writing she is not instructing us as to how others should work, just explaining her understanding of how these specific artists have and how they in turn have effected her. The care she reads with, the detail that she looks for in others, is reflected in her own work. This is a book which is about labour, the work; but for Ali Smith hers is the ultimate labour of love. If you have any interest in reading or writing then this will inspire you but also make you feel that you belong, and I for one want to be a part of any club that has Ali Smith as member.