Ali Smith’s Artful is a terrific book made up, pretty much, of the text from four lectures given by her at St Anne’s College, Oxford, where she was the Weidenfeld visiting professor in European Comparative Literature in the early part of 2012. By all accounts, Ali surprised herself by agreeing to take on the challenge of giving the series of lectures which, reportedly, rightly, were wonderfully received.
It is said that Ali is pretty shy, and compared to many modern writers she shuns publicity, preferring to let her books stand alone. She contributes plenty of articles to newspapers and magazines, gives occasional interviews, but is not active on social media. Her appearance on Desert Island Discs, however, revealed Ali as an engaging, effervescent interviewee, and she babbled away merrily, like a fast-flowing stream in the Highlands.
Reading Artful it is very easy to hear the Ali from Desert Island Discs gabbling away, enthusiastically. Those who have studied Literature at university will know better how her lectures compare with what they have sat through, but the impression is that Ali deliberately set out to offer something different.
She purposefully wraps the core parts of her talks in a story, an ongoing dialogue with a dead partner, so that it becomes a moving treatise and tribute, touching on grief and ghosts, secrets and passions, messages from beyond the grave and how we respond to loss. It is a far more adventurous approach to communicating ideas than fusty theory and blowsy philosophical obliqueness. Ironically, it seems Ali once fled from the academic life. It is easy to understand why.
The titles of her Artful themes (On Time / On Form / On Edge / On Offer and Reflection) show a degree of wit to begin with. From the opening line Ali unleashes a torrent of references and quotations, ancient and modern, the words coming fast and furious, all gleefully served up with relish rather than in an ostentatious show-off way.
The text is almost overwhelming with the connections and links and citations, but some of us like that kind of thing: following up leads, clues, and so on. Sourcing these quotes must have been quite a feat of remembrance, so presumably Ali has loads of notebooks with quotes and references all written down in, and cross-referenced.
Within a few pages of the start of Artful there are allusions to, among others, Oliver Twist, Greek myths, the 2011 London riots, Henry James, Angela Carter, William Blake, Jane Austen, George Mackay Brown, Walter Benjamin, Joseph Conrad, Shakespeare, Margaret Atwood, José Saramago, and Katherine Mansfield. Ali incidentally wrote an introduction to Penguin’s Collected Stories edition of Katherine Mansfield, where she notes that for all her innovation, her work is surprisingly easy to read. And it could be said that what Kat Man do, Ali can too.
The wonderful thing about Artful, and Ali’s writing generally, is that she can be chatting away in her infectious and intimidatingly bright way about the poetry of Wisława Szymborska and then suddenly veer off at a tangent to take in ‘Three Wheels on my Wagon’, the much-loved New Christy Minstrels Junior Choice favourite, which Ali reminds us is a Burt Bacharach and Bob Hilliard song, one that is from around the same time that they wrote ‘Tower of Strength’ and the great Chuck Jackson number ‘Any Day Now’ which Elvis later covered. Mind you, Bob Hilliard did have previous, having written ‘The Coffee Song’, the one about Brazil having an awful lot of coffee, which Sinatra recorded, though to muddy the waters Hilliard also co-wrote ‘In The Wee Small Hours’ for Frank.
Another of the great things about Artful specifically and Ali’s writing in general, is the way she makes the classics come alive. She has a natural passion for them, which can make the reader feel guilty for their ignorance. Ali touches on a similar thing with her Desert Island Discs choices when she picks a Beethoven piece and talks about how for a long time she felt a distance from classical music because she didn’t know enough about it, but that now she listens to some Beethoven every day and enjoys discovering the different layers. That illumination also features in her short story ‘Fidelio and Bess’ with its blurring of Beethoven’s and Gershwins’ operas.
Ali’s choice of book for her desert island sojourn was Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and her own book Girl Meets Boy is a riff on the myth of Iphis which includes the line: “It’s what we do with the myths we grow up with that matters”. Ali has also retold the myth of Antigone for younger readers, and somewhere there must be a pun of putting the myth into Smith?
Her Artful mentions a number of times Ted Hughes’ retelling of tales from Ovid, which in a twisted way serves as a reminder of seeing Ted Hughes speak, or rather read, at Avery Hill College on that same day, that same sixteenth birthday, the day that really belonged to Trout Mask Replica and the A Certain Ratio cassette.
For, little or nothing much sticks in the mind about Ted Hughes’ reading, except that it was an opportunity to be away from the classroom for a while, and a lingering impression that this was not how a poet was expected to be, this brooding presence, glowering, lowering, up there at the lectern in a rough tweed jacket and tie, with hair flopping down over his forehead like Bryan Ferry, not trying to please.
Memory plays tricks on us all. Things linger unbidden in the mind, while other memories remain elusive. It is a reminder how much we all take for granted when we are young. It probably seemed more important back then what John Peel was playing or Dave McCullough reviewing in Sounds or who was signing for West Ham. School days are taken for granted, but looking back it is fun to recall your tiny hippy hard-nut history teacher’s habit of quoting Captain Beefheart at racists, saying that we are all coloured or you wouldn’t be able to see anyone.
And it is sort of heartbreaking to remember how a sweet, nervous English teacher, a gentle lady, cared enough to take small groups of kids to matinees in the West End, to see plays like Seán O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (which was a delight for a young Dexys fan) at the Aldwych on The Strand. Apparently Judi Dench was in that production, but was she on stage that afternoon?: “The memory wastes.”