Scottish novelist Ali Smith is a proven master of wry and elegant prose. With her 2005 novel The Accidental, she demonstrated the ability to invest literary stunts with flair, depth, and real feeling. Her new book, Artful, isn’t so much a stunt as a jury-rigged contraption whose motto might be “Waste not, want not.” Smith’s talent is very much in evidence throughout, but the book consists of two halves that never come close to merging. That might not be so frustrating, except that neither half is strong enough to stand on its own. The meat of the book consists of four lectures Smith gave at St. Anne’s College early in 2012, which are “published here pretty much as they were delivered.”
In these essays, titled “On Time,” “On Form,” “On Edge,” and “On Offer And On Reflection,” Smith ranges over books she likes, from Henry James, Virginia Woolf, and Colette to more recent and obscure works such as Javier Marias’ “trilogy about surveillance and history,” Your Face Tomorrow, as well as a number of movies. The book’s front cover is adorned with a photo of actor Aliki Vougiouklaki, described here as “the Greek Monroe, Bardot, Loren, Hepburn (Katharine and Audrey), and she seems to have been like all of them rolled into one, and had a kind of Greek pastry and a doll both named after her, and had a kind of Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton relationship with her leading man, and almost with a Greek prince too, I gather.” This tribute appears late in the book, as if it were part of what Artful was building to the whole time. It’s easy to imagine that Smith’s fondest hope is to send readers to YouTube to look for film clips.
That’s what the narrator does of the book’s fiction half does when she first comes across Vougiouklaki’s name. The narrator is the spouse of the writer who supposedly wrote these lectures, who is now dead, and who may be haunting the house they once shared. The narrator also might be hallucinating a ghostly presence to help herself keep it together while she pores through her dead lover’s work, trying to make it through the grieving process. In focusing on that process and the mysterious nature of time, Artful recalls Smith’s 2001 Hotel World—which is a much better book, but which has the unfair advantage of being a real novel.
The lectures skitter all over the place, often without any clear connection to the subjects their titles reference, but the enthusiasm that comes through for literature and culture in general may have been enough to hold everything together when Smith was there to deliver them in the flesh. If she just wanted to preserve this material, the most logical solution might have been to just release the lectures as an e-book, without the half-baked fictional trimmings. But Smith may not be so crazy about e-books; in spite of her fondness for YouTube, she’s clearly an old-school, hard-copy kind of reader. That comes through loud and clear early on, when the narrator seeks out her old copy of Oliver Twist, “the old Penguin edition I’d had at university, with a spine whose orange had completely faded and a jolly engraving of drunks and children in a pub on the cover, which was beginning to peel away from the spine. It would probably stand one more read.”
At other points, Smith’s attitude toward the information age can be a tad cranky: “We’re well past the end of the century when time, for the first time, curved, bent, slipped, flashforwarded, and flashed back yet still kept rolling along. We know it all now, with our thoughts traveling at the speed of a tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.” That’s the lament of someone who knows that creating and appreciating literature takes time, and who can think of few things more awful than the feeling that we know it all, because teaching and being taught can be such a seductive experience. There may be no better expression of what’s romantic about being a hard-copy kind of reader than the narrator’s recollection that she and her lover made an important commitment to each other when their books came together to form a single library. Artful is half-baked, but traces of a sensibility that’s rich and fully shaped do leak through the cracks.