Ali Smith's superb new book, Artful, began as a series of talks on comparative literature that were delivered at St. Anne's College, Oxford, in January and February of last year. It must've been one hell of a show. "The second week, the students had tripled," Smith told The Independent, and by the final week you couldn't find an open seat in the back row.
It's easy to see why. These brief, acrobatic lectures, which Smith says appear in Artful "pretty much as they were delivered," perform spectacular feats of criticism. Each is as playful as it is powerful, as buoyant as it is brilliant. It's nothing for Smith to tumble, for example, from Cezanne to the Artful Dodger when she describes "literality meeting a metaphor," or for her to consider Beyonce's 2009 hit "Halo" when she grapples with the notion of liminal spaces.
But there's more going on in Artful than nimble analysis. The four lectures — "On time," "On form," "On edge," "On offer and reflection"— arrive within a haunting fictional story about love, loss and healing.
The book opens with a mourning, unnamed narrator rattling around the study of her dead lover, who has left behind a series of essays about art and literature. The narrator sits down and tries to disappear into Oliver Twist when she thinks she hears a knock at the door. "Then I looked up over the top of the open book because it sounded like someone was coming up the stairs," Smith writes. "Someone was. It was you."
It's the ghost of her lover, "covered in dust and what looked like bits of rubble," and for the rest of the book the narrator explores and reacts to his unfinished work. This clever conceit opens up all sorts of exciting possibilities for Smith, and she takes full advantage of them.
Liberated from the formal confines of academia, for example, Artful can be thoroughly brainy without having to be definitive. In the "On edge" lecture, for instance, the narrator encounters this bright note on Henry James' novel The Golden Bowl in one of her lover's old essays:
"The Golden Bowl is about worth, about money, about seeing the flaw in what looks perfect, yes. But as its first chapter insists, with its repeating imagery of veils and mists and screens and shutters and the shrouding these do, The Golden Bowl will be about a more deathly flaw, a state of blindness."
Meanwhile, Artful's love story gives it flesh and blood. The narrator tenderly recalls how living with her lover was like "living in a poem or a picture, a story, a piece of music" and how she used to help him relax on sleepless nights. "Calm down, I said once," she says. "Go and do a line of Shakespeare."
In perhaps the book's most affecting moment, the narrator discovers an essay of her lover's titled "Hello my darling, how are you? I hope you are very well, are you?" It's a love letter, a request for forgiveness and a brief treatise on the late Greek film star Aliki Vougiouklaki. Here's a sample:
"Just a passing thought, to apologize if I seemed or seem harsh, I'm really sorry, and to explain why I didn't want you to see the screen — ie I wasn't really working, and I was suddenly unbelievably embarrassed in case you found out I wasn't, and even worse, that instead of working I was trawling the net for things you'd love."
Smith, a 2007 Royal Society of Literature fellow and award-winning novelist, has published four acclaimed short-story collections, and she once called the form "a total joy." So it only feels right to give the last word here to Katherine Mansfield, that modernist short-story master. Her reaction to D.H. Lawrence's novel Aaron's Rod provides a fitting tribute to what Smith has accomplished in Artful. "All the time I read this book," Mansfield wrote, "I felt it was feeding me."