Review: Artful by Ali Smith


A masterpiece in four movements – Ali Smith’s new book is a profound meditation on love, loss and art. But is it fiction or non-fiction?

Review Artful by Ali Smith

The narrator of Artful, Ali Smith’s wonderful, genre-defying new book, might be mistaken for Smith herself. Recently bereaved, the narrator wanders the house she (Smith is coy with the personal pronouns, so let’s say “she”) shared with a deceased partner, and in her mourning happens upon a set of lecture notes left behind by the deceased – notes on art. Artful, addressed to the departed “you”, reproduces these notes, while also building them into the narrator’s own story, blurring the “I” and the “you”, the addressed and the addressee – even the living and the dead. So far, so confessional: but when the narrator’s dead partner comes back as a ghost, wanting to have its own say in matters, it starts to dawn on the reader just how playful a book this is going to be.

Artful is divided into four sections with punning titles (“On time”, “On edge”) based on four lectures Smith herself delivered in Oxford in 2012, so on some level this is a book dealing with “reality” – real books, real images, real experiences. Otherwise, however, it sits at the juncture of a variety of directions the book, any book, can take. Are we reading fiction or non-fiction? Memoir or fantasy? The tone throughout suggests you’re having an enjoyable chat with your most well-read friend, but the content is as unstintingly rigorous as found in any academic text, albeit significantly more readable. Smith talks about Freud, Henry James, Calvino, the great (and near-forgotten) English surrealist Leonora Carrington, and of course about Dickens, to one of whose most enduring characters this book owes (one meaning of) its title.

One of its main narrative thrusts derives from a sort of mashing up of Oliver Twist (the novel) and Oliver! (the musical), without appeal to “high” or “low” culture, or giving the slightest sense that one is “better”, in any sense, than the other

Smith’s work has always been gently experimental. This book ticks many of the boxes of postmodernism, both in its defying easy categorisation, and in its gleeful juxtaposing and comparison of poetry, photography, visual art and literature with no regard whatsoever for any boundaries that divide these forms. Artful: full of art. Why shouldn’t you seek insight into a piece of visual art by consulting a novel? It’s also a very democratic book: one of its main narrative thrusts derives from a sort of mashing up of Oliver Twist (the novel) and Oliver! (the musical), without appeal to “high” or “low” culture, or giving the slightest sense that one is “better”, in any sense, than the other. “Playful” is the adjective applied frequently to Smith’s work – here’s play at its most basic and profound, the resultant book a structure built from discrete blocks picked from all manner of different categories, all made to work together.

Certain clues indicate you’re in Ali Smith’s world, one unmistakable for any other. As in her most recent novel, There but for the, the text isn’t right-justified on the page, giving the book a slightly unfinished look – artless, one might say – and is set in a surprisingly large font. Smith eschews italics and quote-marks when referring to artworks (this can lead to awkward sentences when she talks about, for instance, “Rilke’s Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes., a poem whose title is already full of division and finality”, allowing said division to leach outwards into Artful’s own text). The overall visual effect is peculiarly like something handwritten, one way in which Artful underplays its own purpose.

Another is that the lectures forming the ostensible backbone of Artful don’t really go anywhere; really it’s the framing narrative, which draws from the subject matter of those lectures and converts the theoretical into the “real”, which does the work. But other than a musing on the role of art in our lives it’s not always clear what Artful is actually about – it’s certainly more impressionistic than didactic.

There’s beautiful writing here, and startling insights, as always in Smith. I was very taken with her casual suggestion that we take books far more lightly than other forms of art – you wouldn’t expect to understand a complex piece of music after a single listen, she notes, so why do we feel we “understand” a book after one read through? (This may be a warning note to the reviewer; Artful certainly seems destined to be one of those books that rewards repeated readings to tease out the serious points behind its deceptively light facade.) Even used as a compliment, though, playfulness – play – retains a whiff of the pejorative, suggesting a false dichotomy of the sort Artful is keen to collapse: the notion that you can’t make serious points through playful means. But play is crucial to our development and fundamental to our nature. What Ali Smith shows in his cunning, wise book is that to be artful, playful, is to be human: without art, we lose access to something of ourselves and are limited in how we relate to each other.