Early last year, Scottish-born novelist Ali Smith gave a series of lectures on European literature at Oxford University. Now, in “Artful” (Penguin, 237 pages, $25.95), her 10th work of fiction, Smith presents those lectures and builds around them a searing tale of loss, longing and recovery.
Smith divides the book into four parts: “On time,” “On form,” “On edge” and “On offer and reflection.” Her narrator, still raw from the death of her former lover, stumbles upon her notes for lectures that were never delivered. Each lecture prompts our protagonist to reflect on what the couple had and, with help from the insightful and poetic wisdom of writers and artists such as Cézanne, Virginia Woolf and Smith’s own beloved Katherine Mansfield, even helps heal her wounds.
“On time” takes us back to when the lovers first met, moved in and — “the most faithful act of all” — mixed their books into one library. The narrator remembers her commemorative tattoo (“it hurts like irony”) and reads notes on the passing of time and eternal youth. From Walter Benjamin on death, we jump to Joseph Conrad, José Saramago, then to Michelangelo. Shakespeare’s sonnets are parsed to reveal valuable nuggets (“time will undo us”); the differences between the short story and the novel form are outlined, with the conclusion that time is the key factor, not length. So begins a pattern for each lecture, and we read, rapt, as Smith passes us from one great to another, from the Ancients to the postmodernists, “flashforwarded and flashbacked.”
“Artful” interlards academic notes with personal ruminations, but Smith goes even further by having her narrator reread “Oliver Twist” and highlight salient sections that are relevant to the critical topic under scrutiny, and her own heartache. “Everything can be more than itself,” she writes, before decoding Dickens’ rich similes and double meanings. The artistic process, we learn, requires a certain degree of guile and deception, something Dickens expertly distilled into his most Artful creation, the Dodger.
When we reach “On edge,” our narrator confesses to being in “therapy land” and undergoing bereavement counseling. The writing is correspondingly more intimate, stark but beautiful, with private tensions leading to a shrewd discussion on how tension is rendered in art, from Alfred Hitchcock to Henry James. There are moments when Smith veers too much toward the abstruse (“language’s metaphoric metamorph”), but when she brings in a Beyoncé song and Tom Cruise’s hair, the novel benefits from its blend of high and low culture.
Smith dealt before with grief in relation to the passing of time in her 2001 novel, “Hotel World.” The clever structure on show in “Artful” allows her to expand on this theme and enables the reader to delve back in at random and be entranced all over again.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. Born in Edinburgh, he lives in Berlin.