Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

"Artful" by Ali Smith (Penguin, 2012)

"Artful" as in Dickens' Dodger - some interesting points about "Oliver!" and "Oliver Twist" are made. The book comprises four sections - "On time", "On form", "On edge", "On offer and on reflection" - that are "Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form", according to the inside cover. In the acknowledgements (which are right-aligned) it says that "The lectures are published here pretty much as they were delivered". I don't think I'd have enjoyed those lectures. On the page I can cope better.

If an author has some theoretical ideas but doesn't want to develop them, one option is to give them to a character (maybe an eng-lit student who faced with a life-changing event - love, death - integrates theories with life). I like "The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony" by Roberto Calasso, though that's "creative non-fiction" I suppose. In The Anthologist Nicholson Baker makes some serious points. I've read some of Andre Gide's notebooks which are interesting too. The sections of explicit theoretical interest in Smith's book are diluted by fiction which doesn't always have much of a thematic connection to the theory. Ali Smith's perky couples often keep themselves to themselves, and this pair is no exception - no group-scenes, no families. Her stories can be meta-fictional. In this piece the drafts of the lectures are commented upon by the partner. I noted the following points

  • "The story can be partial, can be a piece of something and still hold its own, still be whole. The novel, on the other hand, is bound to and helplessly interested in society and social hierarchy, social worlds; and society is always attached to, in debt to, made by and revealed by the trappings of its time" (p.29)
  • "Here it's as if [Ciaran Carson's] found the essence of form itself - it can generate dimensionality out of nothing, out of repetition, out of fusion, even out of its own barrenness like Steven's jarring jar" (p.73)
  • "Edge is the difference between one thing and another. It's the brink. It suggests keenness and it suggests sharpness. It can wound. it can cut. It's the blade - but it's the blunt part of the knife too./ It's the place where two sides of a solid thing come together. it means bitterness and it means irritability, edginess, and it means having the edge, having the advantage. it's something we can go right over .... Edges are magic too; there's a kind of forbidden magic on the borders of things, always a ceremony of crossing over" (p.126)
  • "Empathy, in art, is art's part-exchange with us, its inclusivity, at once a kind-ness, a going beyond the self, and a pickpocketing of our responses, which is why giving and taking are bound up with the goods, with the gods" (p.171)

Other reviews

  • Simon Savidge
  • Julie Myerson (The Observer) (It's tempting of course to think that both women are embodiments of Smith herself. ... this wonderful, deeply original book.)
  • Daniel Hahn (The Independent) (Smith's narrator looks through the papers of an ex-lover, who died leaving notes for four university lectures, never delivered. This bereaved narrator is visited by the lover's ghost, and in the presence of that ghost assembles these thoughts)
  • Leah Hager Cohen (New York Times) (her new book, in which she tugs at God’s sleeve, ruminates on clowns, shoplifts used books, dabbles in Greek and palavers with the dead, is a stunner.)
  • Philip Womack (Telegraph) (Her style is usually clear, but sometimes oblique)
  • Dimitri Nasrallah (Toronto Star) (she conspicuously sidesteps examples of American literature, which has arguably offered the greatest risks since the modernists she revisits ... To revisit and refurbish the universality of the subjective self now, of all times, might appear maddeningly unproductive to some readers. To others, however, this redressing of modernist principles will be viewed as an exceptionally pertinent project for the contemporary novel to undertake, given that a century has now passed since these avant-garde ideals first revolutionized the form)
  • Jenny Hendrix (Los Angeles review of books) (In retaining only the most blurred and genderless ghost of form, the book brings to life the pansexual erotics of the text the way Barthes envisioned it — omnivorousness as a form of generosity, of accepting (and excepting — because acceptance leads, for the giver, to loss) whatever it is offered)
  • Emma Lee-Potter (Daily Express) (Smith offers profound insights into the way we view literature today ... The bereaved narrator gets sporadic visits from her lover’s ghost, for example, but instead of coming back as “a small star” or “a mystic vision” the ghost is ragged and smelly with an alarming tendency to nick random objects from their house. ... In less skilled hands this book could have been woefully self-indulgent but Smith is far too smart to let that happen.)
  • Luna Dolezal (Stinging Fly)

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