"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, because books are produced more by books than by writers; they're a result of the books that went before them. Great books are adaptable; they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives"
Artful is based on four lectures Ali Smith gave at Oxford University. The lectures were done in a unique format as if someone had discovered essays on art and fiction written by former lover who haunts you. I really loved Ali Smith's short stories, especially "True Short Story" where there is a lot of material on the nature of the short story. When I saw these essays as forthcoming on Amazon I knew I really wanted to read them. There is much that is marvelous in these wonderful essays. Smith loves the short story and there is a lot to learn about the form in this book, along with much more.
Last year as I read articles on the short story by William Trevor and Elizabeth Bowen who both said the short story was the newest literary form. I thought who am I to contradict them but every fiber I had
screamed "totally wrong, they are the oldest form". I was so happy to see Smith agree with this and talking about ancient works such as The Epic of Gilgamesh as pieced together short stories and even talking about cave paintings as being inspired by short stories. I felt a shiver when she talked of countless literatures of the past lost to us. I talked about his in my post The Reading Life Guide to Getting Started in the Indian Short Story.
Smith talks about why we need art and the limitations and reach of short stories. She organizes her lectures around four themes, "On Time", "On Form", "On Edge", and "On Offer and Reflection". I do not think there is an "Ali Smith doctrine" in these lectures, she is artist and a lover of the short story, not really a formal theoretician or academic (thankfully!) The greatness of these lectures, and they are marvels, is in the many wonderful things she says that make you ponder if you agree or not. There are lots of really interesting reading ideas here also. She talks about a lot of things here you I really enjoyed reading such as Charlie Chaplain films, Nate King Cole, and she spends a lot of time talking about Oliver Twist. My mind was opened up to a new way of looking at the book by what she says about the Artful Dodger and Fagin.
She talks about the greats of literature: Ovid, Rilke, Flaubert and Shakespeare. I was so happy to see she loved Katherine Mansfield. She made me think of Mansfield as a writer on the margins and I reflected that Smith is probably right when she said Mansfield is still on the margins of the literary canon of modernism.
The entire essay contains simply wonderful utterances any one who loves reading or books (not the same thing) will relish reading and at times feel Smith is articulating what they feel but cannot express.
There is enough in this line for a dozen huge books: "Walter Benjamin says that's where the storyteller's authority comes from, death." I have begun to do word counts on some of the works you read and so far if you scan a 400 page collection of short stories and a 400 page novel for terms like "death" and "love" they come up more more often in the short stories.
Artful by Ali Smith is a challenging book, both in understanding what she is saying and it trying to incorporate her knowledge within your own. This not an academic presentation of facts to help you pass your orals. It is a wonderful work of art, almost a new art form. There just is so much to like and learn from in these essays. I think one could read them many times with pleasure and profit.