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, 24 May 2017

"Public Library and other stories" by Ali Smith (Penguin, 2016)

Between the stories are collected anecdotes about public libraries. Before the first story there's one entitled Library.

The first story, "Last", begins with "I had come to the conclusion". The narrator gets off a late train at the last station, sees the empty train put into a siding. But it's not empty - a lady in a wheelchair's been left there. The narrator wants to return and help, but there's a sign stopping trespassers, which makes the narrator wonder "why, anyway, did the word fine mean a payment for doing something illegal at the same time as it meant everything from okay to really grand?" The narrator wonders what she could say to the trapped lady - "I could tell her endlessly, boringly, about words and how they meant and why it mattered, and what had happened in my life to make them not matter." The woman is released by railway staff. On the last page we're told "The word last is a very versatile word. Amongst other more unexpected things - like the piece of metal shaped like a foot which a cobbler uses to make shoes - it can mean both finality and continuance, it can mean the last time, and something a lot more lasting than that. / To conclude once meant to enclose."

"The beholder" was shortlisted for the Sunday Times Short Story Award. I'm not convinced. In "The Poet" things get strange -

There was the word gorgeous, and there was the word north, and there was a sound that went between the words that she liked. Could you wither a word?
There was an orchard nobody went to. How could anything touch it? It was all blossom right now. There was the whole meadow full of flowers, wild ones, all the bright faces, out that window beyond this house only a couple of streets away. She sat low on the old nursing chair and the Fraser books sat on the shelf right next to her eye. Fraser. Olive. O LIVE. I LOVE. O VILE. EVIL O

Plots can sometimes seem indulgent. "The human claim" begins with "I had been planning to write this story about the ashes of DH Lawrence". There's a page about Lawrence, then 5 pages about the narrator frustratedly phoning a bank because, opening a letter from the bank, the narrator realises she's been a victim of fraud. "I pressed the hang-up button on my phone and found I was in my front room./ What I mean is, even though I'd been there the whole time, I'd actually just spent the last half hour somewhere which made my own front room irrelevant" (p.83). Then 3 pages about follow-up letters and a previous pickpocket episode. Then 4 pages about DH Lawrence's ashes and works - "In one of his most famous, he watches a snake drink at a waterhole then throws a log at it to show it who's boss. The moment he does this he understands his own pettiness; he knows he's cheated himself" (p.87). Then she worries about her card again, looks on Google Earth for Lufthansa HQ (a plane ticket had been bought with her card). Wandering, she reaches Harmonsworth on StreetView, realises that old Penguin paperbacks (e.g. "Lady Chatterley's Lover") were issued from there. There's a page about writing the credit-card company a letter. The last page describes dreaming about what the fraudster might be getting up to. The ending is

Meanwhile, that snake that Lawrence threw the log at disappeared long long ago into its hole unhurt, went freely about its ways, left the poem behind it.
Meanwhile, right now, the ashes of DH Lawrence could be anywhere.

So because of distractions, the story's original inspiration (like Lawrence's snake) got away, but not before a work was made.

She likes using strange connections and what comedians describe as "callbacks". In "The ex-wife" coincidences abound. On p.100 there's "you'd say, I just need to know whether Wing was actually the original kitten of Charlie Chaplin. To know what? I'd say. In a letter to Charlie Chaplin". On p.116-7 we read that Virginia Woolf wrote about a plane that people watched above London. The ex-wife (Katherine Mansfield) was a film extra in WW1. The narrator works out that her films could have been melted down into resin to coat the wings of the very plane Woolf saw.

Typically the narrator's mind drifts when there's nothing much else to do. In "Grass", the narrator, stuck in a traffic jam, drifts back in time to when she was stuck behind the counter of a quiet shop. In "The definite article" the narrator wanders through Regent's Park, sparking off a list of observations and a regurgitation of historical/literary research. Towards the end there's "One entire Park, compleat in unity of character. Endless stories, all crossing across each other, and mine tiny negligent, quick as a blink, where nothing much happened except this: I stepped out of myself and into the park, I stepped off the pavement and into a place where there's never a conclusion" (p.165)

There are lists (names of roses, for example) and concluding lyrical flourishes. There are interesting observations and phrases - "There was a man whistling, walking along holding a can of Skol ahead of himself. He was holding the can like a compass" (p.157). She likes using dreams - "All the people in the dream, I say, are strangers to me. I recognize them, but only from having dreamed about them before. And I'm looking out of the eyes of a different person in the dream every time I dream it" (p.193)

Her child characters all seem much the same whatever their age.

Other reviews

  • Kate Kellaway
  • Goodreads
  • Francesca Wade (Each of Smith’s stories is a gem: fast-paced and incongruous, every situation made immediately intriguing by deft detail and sharply humorous dialogue.)
  • Lucy Scholes
  • Edmund White (Unhappy romances (between women) are frequently the so-called back story.)
  • Sameer Rahim (Smith delights in making unexpected connections. This can make for an amusing and insightful reading experience, but sometimes feels slightly cobbled together.)
  • Kirkus review (“The Ex-Wife,” probably the best of the collection)
  • Allan Massie

No comments:

Post a Comment