Winter.jpg

Continuing on in her ambitious season-inspired chronicle of our times, Ali Smith opens “Winter” with the statement “God was dead: to begin with.” She continues on ringing the death bell for everything from modern day conveniences to systems of government to states of being. These pronouncements act like a wry commentary on the uncertainty many people now feel as citizens in a precarious world despite all the apparent advancements of civilization and culture. It’s also a clever play on the opening of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” and his declaration of Marley’s death as a precursor to the chilling introduction of his ghost. Just as Dickens was a fierce critic of social stratification, Ali Smith’s writing critiques the way in which society has become increasingly economically and politically divided. This new novel continues with some of the same themes as “Autumn”, but focuses on a Christmas reunion between a nature blogger named Arthur or “Art”, his mother Sophia who is a successful businesswoman and his estranged aunt Iris who is a political activist. Art also brings with him a stranger named Lux who adds an element of chaos and a uniquely different perspective.

The shadow of Brexit looms large in this story as does the alarming destructive force of that new president across the pond. References are scattered throughout to specific recent true events from a Tory MP literally barking at a female MP in the House of Commons to the Grenfell Tower tragedy to Trump telling boy scouts they’ll be able to say Merry Christmas (instead of Happy Holidays) again. She even makes a sly dig at the buffoonish conservative ex-mayor of London, Boris Johnson. These accounts from the news are all examples of political forces flaunting their power and brazenly asserting their arrogant dominance over women, the working class and non-Christians. Smith shows the way these instances filter into the consciousness of her characters influencing both their perspectives and the language of their dialogue. Sophia and Iris are polar opposites in their ideological points of view and frequently bicker. The character of Art is a common point between them and fascinatingly the two women even disagree over events concerning his youth. This isn’t only a novel about the present, but it frequently circles back to the past alighting upon connections and meaning and ideas which have been lost in the passage of time.

Smith’s writing is always imbued with a sense of humour. Her story begins like a Shakespeare-style comedy of concealed identity. Since Art is fighting with his girlfriend Charlotte and he promised his mother he’d bring her home for Christmas he hires Lux to pose as his girlfriend. This creates a series of absurd interactions and hilarious confusion. Sophia finds herself butting heads with institutions around her from banks to eye clinics with tragic-comic results. Individuals inevitably become alienated within regimental systems of dealing with people like Elisabeth's experience trying to submit a passport application in “Autumn.” As in all great comedy there is a tinge of sorrow and anger mixed in with the laughter. Out of a delightfully odd situation where Sophia is haunted by the ghost head of a child there arises a sober statement about ageing and a moving aspect about this character’s past interactions with the art of Barbara Hepworth.

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

Portrait of Barbara Hepworth by Ethel Walker

The real ghost who seems to flit through this novel is Hepworth herself whose art and presence seems to permeate the story. This is sculptor whose smoothed-down natural materials frequently featured a hole through which to look through. There are a lot of elements to this story that have to do with nature and perspective. Art is the figure caught in the centre trying to reconcile his relationship with nature through writing on his blog amidst a corporate job tracking down copyright theft. Hepworth's sculptures feel like they organically rise within the narrative to insist on challenging the characters' perceptions. Later, Smith recounts the way a neglected painting by Ethel Walker was only recently identified as a rare early portrait of Barbara Hepworth as a teenager. Like a vision of the past, the woman herself resurfaces anew.

I have a particular passion for watching nature documentaries – particularly late at night when I’m struck by sleeplessness. Somehow this voyeuristic connection with the lives of animals and the physical world helps lull me into a state of abandon and unconsciousness. Something I’ve learned from these documentaries is that, although winter is a time of scarcity for many animals, it’s also a time in which predators such as wolves thrive best. Since they find it easier to prey on the elderly, young or sick, it makes killing easier at this time of year. Therefore, winter is a time that requires a heightened level of vigilance and care. Ali Smith’s “Winter” is a heart warming encouragement to come together, to question, to watch out for each other in these cold times when carnivorous powers seek to consume and discard those that are most vulnerable. It’s a reminder to give ourselves time in a fast-paced world where we never feel like we have enough time: “That’s what winter is: an exercise in remembering how to still yourself then how to come pliantly back to life again.” It’s also a reminder that the spectre of nature is ever present and will regenerate to crawl over and crumble every wall that’s built.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
6 CommentsPost a comment

Ali Smith is an author whose writing embodies absolute passion, invention and positivity – this is true despite her new novel “Autumn” beginning with the line “It was the worst of times, it was the worst of times.” Because she is writing about the contemporary including this year’s recent significant referendum where the UK voted to leave theEuropean Union, this statement playing upon Dickens’ famous opening accurately reflects the political and social feeling for many people in this country. What Smith does in this novel is give a sense of perspective on this mood of all-encompassing gloom. She shows how while times might feel dire right now, it is simply a season in the turning of time. It’s the story of a young woman named Elisabeth Demand and her friendship with Daniel Gluck, an elderly man who lived through the rise of fascism in Europe in the 1930s. Together they debate ideas and create stories while witnessing the monumental changes happening in the society around them. Their exchanges are very different from the present popular mode of communication “which is a time of people saying stuff to each other and none of it actually ever becoming dialogue.” “Autumn” emphasizes the importance of art and literature as a means of communicating when dialogue between different factions of society comes to an end. In this way, this novel naturally follows on from Smith’s “Public Library”, a collection of wonderful short stories interspersed with real accounts of the personal and social importance of libraries and books for connecting people.

Another aspect of Smith’s positivity is the way in which her stories often involve charismatic and intelligent young people. Many like to moan about the coming generation by claiming they are aimless and lazy, but Smith frequently shows a real optimism and respect for her adolescent characters who are relentlessly inquisitive and creatively engage with the world. This novel moves backwards and forwards in time, recalling the occasions in Elisabeth’s youth when she first got to know her neighbour Daniel. Her mother Wendy is sceptical about this friendship, worries Daniel might have some ulterior motives and speculates that he is gay. Elisabeth astutely observes in response to this that “if he is… then he's not just gay. He's not just one thing or another. Nobody is. Not even you.” This is a continuation of an idea brilliantly realized in Smith’s last novel “How to Be Both” where characters weren’t necessarily one thing or another. In the imaginative and funny stories Elisabeth creates with Daniel they play upon this assertion showing the ever-changing and fluid nature of people, societies, language and the environment around them.

In opposition to the playfulness of this dialogue between the pair are the institutions which seek to hem in and pigeonhole people. In the present day Elisabeth tries to get a passport application put through the post office, but she’s told on multiple occasions after waiting in a long numbered queue that her photos and the head on her shoulders doesn’t meet required specifications. These scenes make a funny critique of the way our society frequently puts people through tedious regimented processes instead of giving individual attention. But it also takes a worrying look at the notion of citizenship during a time when who you are and where you came from will come under scrutiny as our government dictates who does and does not belong in our country. Furthermore, these scenes highlight how policies focused on classification and exclusion trickle down into the public consciousness causing factions and divisions within communities.

Pauline Boty

Pauline Boty

Elisabeth becomes fascinated by the little-known artist Pauline Boty who was Britain’s only female painter working in the Pop art movement of the late 1950s. As someone who studied Pop art in college and had a passionate interest in Andy Warhol, I feel ashamed not to have known about this artist before reading “Autumn”. Boty challenged conventional notions of representation and gender in both her art and life. She tragically died of cancer before she was thirty, but would no doubt have been better remembered and left a more substantial legacy had she lived and continued with her imaginative work. Through viewing her art work and studying her life, Elisabeth finds a way to engage with the creative ideas Boty set forth and applies them to how she questions and views the present time. In one memorable scene it leads her walking; she follows fields of cow parsley to land designated as private and encounters a man who tries to stop her using regimental language. This causes a disruptive crisis between the individual and the natural world.

One of the funniest parts of this frequently playful/funny novel is a section where Daniel and Elisabeth discuss a story about someone who disguises himself as a tree and becomes embroiled in a battle. Smith has written in the past about people’s connections to trees or transformation into trees. There’s a great tradition of metamorphosis in literature – everything from Homer’s “The Odyssey” to “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” – both of which this novel makes sly references to throughout. As well as being an entertaining and lively exchange between the two characters this mutually-created tale says something very moving about people’s connection to nature. It also highlights the connection between language and books, the way our words are inscribed upon paper and how there isn’t a separation between our ideas and the world around us. Also, their story which at first seems humorously abstract turns very personal for Daniel in a moving way. Smith is a master at catching the reader off guard with passages that are deeply emotional.

Smith plans for “Autumn” to be the first in a quartet of novels all named after the seasons. It’ll be fascinating to see how the books play out together and how much more we’ll discover about Daniel’s troubled past. At the start of the novel he washes up on a shore in a way that is reminiscent of Shakespeare's "The Tempest". I suspect Smith has more to say about the parallels between the changes happening in society now and what Daniel witnessed growing up. He makes a beautiful statement in this novel when he tells Elisabeth “always try to welcome people into the home of your story.” This is a hopeful cry for inclusivity and diversity against the current political movement towards shutting down borders. It’s a plea to really see all the people around us and acknowledge that they are part of our lives and our communities rather than shutting them out or pretending they don’t exist. “Autumn” triumphantly shows how our stories don’t belong to us alone but are part of a larger narrative of humanity and the time we live in. 

Read an interview I conducted with Ali about "Autumn": https://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/in-conversation/interviews/2016/oct/ali-smith-on-autumn/

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
11 CommentsPost a comment

We’re getting to a point where a library isn’t a library anymore. As Ali Smith humorously discovers in the opening of her new book of short stories, a building in central London marked library is now more likely to be a private members’ club that is focused on lists of cocktails rather than sharing literature. Despite the 1964 Public Libraries and Museums Act in the UK which states local councils are under a legal obligation to provide library services, over ten percent of the libraries in this country are under threat of closure. We’re told there isn’t enough money for libraries; we’re told banks need the money more. Campaigns have been afoot across the country to save these vital cultural institutions. This book is a way of weaving together the way in which literature is a physical part of our everyday lives. Interspersed with the stylistically-daring short stories in this collection are testimonies about our personal relationships with libraries by people ranging from authors such as Helen Oyeyemi, Kate Atkinson, Kamila Shamsie, Miriam Toews and Jackie Kay to fabulous, passionate people in publishing like Anna Ridley and Anna James. Libraries make authors and publishers who make more books which in turn make more libraries and authors and publishers. Ali Smith’s “Public Library” is a vibrant, loving tribute to libraries, our passion for books and how they are an integral part of our communities.

In several stories there are seemingly closed systems which the characters struggle against. One narrator tries to convince a newspaper that he’s still alive after they publish a false story about his death – twice! Another narrator argues with a credit card company that she never purchased a plane ticket which has appeared on her statement. One narrator speaks on the phone with a doctor’s office about the tree which is growing out of her/his chest until the important things being said fade into the background and there is just the beauty of the blossoming tree. There is a lot of drifting away from the trivial everydayness of the world and rigid ways in which people can limit language. Drawn by thoughts of poetry, fiction and song characters walk away from important meetings, important people, important places. Literature draws them into the imagination, into the unknown because you never know what you’ll find between the covers of a book. If you crack a book open there may even be poetry sewn into its spine. People lose themselves in books (as the title of one story states) to take them to “The art of elsewhere.”

As clever and as sophisticated as Ali Smith’s stories are, they always pay close attention to the importance of human relationships so the characters feel immediate and real. They have arguments, misunderstandings, money worries and jealousy. The voices of these characters shine through. It feels like it could be Smith herself stating her writing mission when one character remarks: “I want it to be about voice, not image, because everything’s image these days and I have a feeling we’re getting further and further away from human voices.” It’s amazing the way Smith is able to make her characters feel so familiar even though in many cases the protagonists remain nameless and sometimes we don’t even know their gender. They speak intimately about grief, fear and love in a way that draws you into their experience and you can absorb it into your own life.

There is also so much lively humour in this book. There’s confusion between D.H. Lawrence and DHL “The deliveryman.” There is a boy/girl who pleads to pay for a new toaster with flowers. There is a character whose partner is so engaged with Katherine Mansfield’s life and writing that she becomes like an ex-wife between them. There is wordplay: it’s explained that a girl whose father is in and out of prison “from time to time, did time.” It’s as if Ali Smith can peel open words to consider their origins and the way they are commonly used to then blend them into her narrative and conversations between characters to give them whole new meanings.

Most importantly, “Public Library” shows the way literature is a part of our consciousness, shaping and moulding who we are and influencing our actions. It’s not abstract or separate from our everyday lives. It’s physical. Smith shows that long dead authors themselves are still a solid presence in the world. D.H. Lawrence’s ashes could be scattered anywhere. Remnants of Katharine Mansfield are a part of the wings of planes. The records and recorders of our culture don’t hang in an ethereal way above our lives; we interact with them every day. These stories make the world feel refreshing and new. They draw you back into life. They make you want to run to your nearest library.

 

Since this book is filled with so many moving personal statements about what libraries mean to us, I’m going to give my own…

In 1999, I left my small college in Vermont (which is close to a town called Norwich) in order to live for several months in Norwich, England. I went as part of a study abroad programme, but really I made the hasty decision to leave the US after the breakdown of a relationship. What can be more satisfying than casually mentioning to your former lover who has left you: “Oh, didn’t you know? I’m moving to England.”

Arriving at the stark concrete University of East Anglia campus which is surrounded by fields with rabbits and Shetland ponies, I was suddenly on my own and I had no idea what I was doing there. I found out there was something called a Union Pub & Bar where members of my student residential building took me to drink and socialize. I didn’t like to drink (at that time) and I could never hear what people were saying over the loud music. Soon I made a hasty retreat to the large library on campus.

There on the quiet floors filled with books my friend Carolyn and I played games like “who can find the gaudiest-looking book in the library” and there she introduced me to the first book I read by Joyce Carol Oates who would go on to be my favourite author. There I discovered a much-battered old edition of a book containing two holograph drafts of Virginia Woolf’s novel “The Waves” where you can see copies of the actual words crossed-out and additions she made in the margins when writing it. There I watched a black and white VHS recording of an interview between Lorna Sage, Malcolm Bradbury and Iris Murdoch who all smoked throughout the discussion making the screen appear like a hazy intellectual fantasy set in heaven.

There I sat in the library one dreary lonely afternoon taking notes and plotting the key points of a literary graph I planned to mark the years of key publications by modernist authors so I could physically see where they intersected. It wasn’t a class project – just a fun thing to put on the wall in my little dorm room. I was excited to find that T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” came out the same year as Virginia Woolf’s “Jacob’s Room” and the same year as D.H. Lawrence’s “Aaron’s Rod” and the same year as James Joyce’s “Ulysses.” And there, surrounded by my reference books and poster board and ruler and pencils and mess of notes, a man who I’d go on to live with and love for the next sixteen years approached me and said with an amused grin, “Hi, aren’t we in the same creative writing class? What on Earth are you doing?”

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
5 CommentsPost a comment

Richard Ford - Canada

Tony Hogan Bought Me An IceCream Float Before He Stole My Ma – Kerry Hudson

Flight Behaviour - Barbara Kingsolver

Union Atlantic – Adam Haslett

Black Bread White Beer – Niven Govinden

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

Artful – Ali Smith

Harvest – Jim Crace

The Luminaries – Eleanor Catton

The Wasp Factory – Ian Banks

My top books of the year are mostly new releases with big Booker winner “The Luminaries” taking a prominent place. It’s such a complex, rewarding and intelligent novel it did really deserve to win the Booker. Speaking of award winners the book that I think should have won this year’s Women’s Prize for Fiction was Kingsolver’s “Flight Behaviour.” It’s a really heartfelt story of a woman making difficult choices in her private life as well as a moving meditation on environmental issues. I know many people are tired of reading the nearly-universal and never-ending praise for Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” but it really is one of my top reads and totally mesmerized me. Another acclaimed writer whose book I absolutely loved was Richard Ford’s novel “Canada” which peters out somewhat towards the end, but has the most heart-breaking opening section. A book that totally swept me away was Ali Smith’s novel-ish book “Artful” which redefines the limits of what can be done in fiction while making every page feel immediately important and relevant to my life. "Harvest" attacked my subconscious and made its way into my dreams to leave me haunted and wondering. I’ve read Adam Haslett’s powerful stories before so was very excited to finally get to his novel “Union Atlantic” which is a really fascinating story about a few very different central characters and also a novel that critiques the causalities and pitfalls of capitalism gone mad. Two British books that captivated me are “Black Bread White Beer” and “Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma.” They explore areas of society and issues not often covered in contemporary fiction. Sadly, the author Iain Banks died this year which prompted me to reread “The Wasp Factor.” It’s so unbelievably original and has so many interesting things to say about masculinity and human nature. Now I must get to his other books.

It’s been interesting how starting this blog has prompted me to read more although I always have been an avid reader. I’m not sure anyone actually reads my posts (if you do thank you), but I’ve been enjoying the way writing about books helps me organize my thoughts and put them down someplace so I won’t forget them. Hopefully I’ll continue on all throughout next year. I know there are so many great books I didn't get to read this year. As always, I'm trying to catch up.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
6 CommentsPost a comment

At lunch one day while I was browsing through books at Clerkenwell Tales my eye was caught by a very attractive small book called 'Shire'. When I saw it was written by Ali Smith I immediately bought a copy as a present for my friend as her birthday was soon. However, I only just recently got a copy for myself. I'd been greatly anticipating reading it as it's a book of four new stories, the first story 'the beholder' I had heard Smith read at the Edinburgh Book Festival last year. It's a really heartfelt and funny story about someone who discovers that she's slowly turning into a tree. She has numerous problems in her life, but these become superseded by the beauty that's growing within her. The next two stories are half-fiction half-tribute to individuals. 'the poet' gives an account of the life of Olive Fraser, a Scottish poet who published a scattering of things throughout her life, but never came to great prominence as she was plagued by illness and financial troubles as Smith bluntly lists: “Bad headaches. Grey skin. Nosebleeds. Concentration lapses. Unexplained illness. Fatigue. Drifts from job to job.” Smith creates a story around this of the poet as a girl discovering music in the binding of a book she throws against a wall. 'the commission' is a much more overtly person story than I'm used to reading from Smith. Here she pays details her mentorship from a scholar named Helena Shire. The academic supports Smith during her time at university by giving her money as well as talking to her about literature and ideas. The story travels back and forth throughout scenes in Smith's life showing her development and how Helena helped shape the person she's become. The final story is a short piece called 'the wound' which relates directly to an anecdote in Smith's previous book Artful where she discusses art as an exchange that “can be a complex and wounding matter” and cites as an example a poem from the late 1500s. In this poem and Smith's story a man borrows mischievous Cupid's wings and bow and arrow. He flies up into the air filled with jubilation but accidentally shoots himself. This parable shows how art and love can transmogrify the individual by causing pain and through that pain understand the world and other people all the greater.

Like much of Smith's work Shire doesn't fit into a neat classification as it is at once literary fiction, biography, theory, philosophy and memoir. What carries us through all this fascinatingly varied terrain is Smith's engaging and innovative voice. Other authors' writing would probably become scattered and confused trying to handle so many subjects, but Smith masterfully carries us through her narratives making every story she touches upon immediate and moving. I'm continuously in awe of her daring and powerful ability to make meaningful connections.

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith

'Artful' is probably unlike any book you've ever read or will read again. It is a heartfelt account by a narrator who spends his/her time reading through a battered copy of Oliver Twist and speaking to a deceased lover who haunts him/her by sitting at a desk, speaking a strange language and stealing little things. The gender of both the narrator and the deceased lover who the narrator refers to as "you" are never specified. The narrator recognizes that this must be a manifestation that's part of his/her grieving process so goes to see a therapist but finds little comfort past confirming that the deceased lover is speaking Greek rather than a completely made up language. Interspersed with this are contemplations on the meaning of particular concepts like 'time', 'form', 'edge' and 'offering' in relation to art. Taking examples from such disparate sources as the poetry of William Carlos Williams, Dylan Thomas & Sylvia Plath, novels by Jose Saramago, WG Sebald and Elizabeth Hardwick, Shakespeare, quotes by Katherine Mansfield and Margaret Atwood, the art of Yayoi Kusama, Herzog's documentary 'The Cave of Forgotten Dreams' and a Beyonce song. These references bring great weight to Smith’s arguments and observations as well as providing an eclectic list I could be thrilled by when I recognized the source or become very intrigued by if I didn’t know it. If it all sounds too cerebral to you, it isn’t. Smith incorporates all these references in a way that make them feel so meaningful to your own life and the life of the narrator grieving over a lost lover.

Smith uses second person narration in a lot of her fiction. This doesn't constrain the gender of the characters to one thing or another, but gives us a sort of utopian vision of social interaction where matters of male/female don't play any part. By writing "you" the voice of the narrator always feels very direct and intimate like being told a bedtime story. It also allows multiple meanings to blosom depending on who you think might be the recipient "you." It might be the narrator speaking to a particular character or the author speaking directly to the reader or, by speaking the words in your own mind, the reader directing the text out to someone in their own imagination. This is one of the most pioneering and powerful things about Smith's fiction and shows how she's someone that can break down boundaries and open up possibilities through a creative use of language. 

Smith unpacks words’ meanings by citing phrases that include the word such as this excerpt on time: “Time means. Time will tell. It’s consequence, suspense, morality, mortality. Boxers fight in bouts between bells ringing time. Prisoners do time.” Through these examples time can take on both an exhilarating meaning as well as a terrifying one or contain a whole slew of emotions at once. She shows that language is always about context. Language twists and bends through repetition. She could have easily referenced different dramatic plays from the branch of theatre known as “Absurd” as practiced by Ionesco, Pinter and Albee. In their plays words are sometimes repeated until they are flattened out to mean nothing and everything. The same sort of dissection takes place when reading books with special attention. Smith notes at one point “Books themselves take time, more time than most of us are used to giving them. Books demand time.” If we’re to let ourselves be moved and transformed by writing it’s necessary to surrender an adequate amount of time to fully understand what the writer is trying to say. We also literally lose ourselves in the book by surrendering our own time to it. The process allows us to subordinate ourselves to the power of our own imagination. As Smith describes, “it knows us inside out, the imagination. It knows us better than we know ourselves.” By giving space for the imagination in art we discover, not just more about the world, but about ourselves. Imagination also allows us to know, understand and love one another. At one point Smith observes “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.” This admits the fact that we can’t ever really know each other as we are all trapped inside our own heads. All we can do is imagine each other. To truly be loved someone must think the world of you, to stand in their imagination as someone who is probably even greater than you think yourself to be.

The title of the book is taken from Dickens’ character of the Artful Dodger – a figure Smith herself seems to inhabit in her writing - someone who is crafty, intelligent and a great survivor. I can’t recommend this book highly enough as well as Smith’s books of short fiction. I love Smith’s passionate engagement with art as something that is not just a luxury of life, but essential to it. Art flows through us. Art unmakes and makes us. Art gives us back to ourselves. And, as 'Artful' proves, Ali is a supreme artist!

Ali Smith will be discussing 'Artful' at Gay’s the Word bookshop in London on Sunday, October 20th at 1pm: https://www.facebook.com/events/1405649822998955/

 

Posted
AuthorEric Karl Anderson
CategoriesAli Smith
2 CommentsPost a comment