Sarah Glazer takes a second look at her reaction to an experiment.
I’m still not sure if I like novelist Ali Smith’s Artful. It has been marketed as a writing breakthrough, "refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form," according to the Amazon description. Or as I would describe it-- a story framed around a literary art appreciation lecture.
At first Smith’s writing feels like traditional fiction. This Scottish-born writer is the author of nine books of highly acclaimed fiction, including both novels and short stories. Her latest book opens in the voice of someone haunted by apparitions of a lover who has recently died.
The deceased lover had been in the middle of writing a series of literary lectures, which are discovered posthumously by the narrator. And those lectures become the meat of this book, which, in fact, Ali Smith originally delivered in the form of lectures at Oxford. (How post-modern is that?)
My ambivalence about this format was echoed in the sharp division of opinion in my book club. Those who had anticipated an engaging novel came away disappointed. The enthusiasts were those who accepted Smith’s work as a broad-ranging meditation on what makes for great art in literature. They also appreciated her irrepressible habit of sprinkling the book with plays on words.
I started out in the camp of the detractors. When I curl up in bed with a book at night I admit I want a good tale. (Is there something primordial in this bedtime desire, a way to make sense of the world before we close our eyes and enter the jumbled, terrifying world of dreams?)
I found myself putting Smith’s book down impatiently and reaching for the collection of short stories on my night table, as her story line gradually dissipated, giving way to what felt like a weighty academic lecture of literary criticism.
(There’s also the oddness of both lovers being of unidentified genders—are they two women? A male narrator and a female lover? Or vice versa? Smith’s annoyingly clever way of obscuring their sex through the use of first person and second-person narrative makes all those options possible, yet also made the story feel less real to me.)
But if there’s one thing book clubs do for me, they give me the discipline to finish a book even when I’m not enjoying it. While dutifully attempting this task, I gradually put away my disappointment at the trailing off of the story line. I slowed down and started to appreciate Smith’s musings and her selection of observations on writing from other great writers—even if they didn’t always feel connected.
I was especially taken with Smith’s discussion of the novel and time:
“In a novel, there’s always a clock,” novelist E.M. Forster wrote in Aspects of the Novel, such that every time we open the same novel, we are returned to the time in which the story was set.
Modernists tried to change this: Gertrude Stein “has smashed and pulverized the clock,” Forster wrote excitedly in 1927 about her then radically new way of writing. In Forster’s view, Gertrude Stein hoped to “emancipate fiction from the tyranny of time.” (In our post-post modern age, with tweets moving instantaneously among us, we now find Stein’s experiments somewhat ho-hum, Smith acknowledges.)
Novels that are truly great, Smith suggests, are those you experience differently at different times of your life. Reading a novel again is something we don’t do enough, even though, as she points out, “we’d never give a serious piece of music one listen.”
“Great books are adaptable … they alter with us,” Smith writes, because “stories can’t step into the same person twice.”
I found that a moving explanation of how I felt reading Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina at an interval of more than a decade -- first as a teenager, thinking it was all about a torrid adulterous love affair, and later as a mother, when Anna’s forced separation from her young son suddenly struck me as the most poignant part of the book.
And it also helped me to realize that Artful will be a book I’ll delve into again, when I’m less impatient for a story and more interested in Smith’s thoughtful insights about how we read. When I next step into “Artful,” I will no longer be the person I was the first time.