I am off to see these wonderful Scots tomorrow – cannot wait!
In which I review two very different books – ‘Blankets’ by Craig Thompson and ‘Geisha of Gion’ by Mineko Iwasaki.
N.B. This is the last of the videos which I had filmed a couple of months ago and done absolutely nothing with – hooray!
A world of men, the fallen Past behold,
And fill the spaces else so void and cold
To make a very heaven again thereof;
As when the sun is set behind a grove,
And faintly unto nether ether rolled,
All night his whiter image and his mould
Grows beautiful with looking on her love.
Thou therefore, moon of so divine a ray,
Lend to our steps both fortitude and light!
Feebly along a venerable way
They climb the infinite, or perish quite;
Nothing are days and deeds to such as they,
While in this liberal house thy face is bright.
I am going to see Ali Smith talk at the Cambridge Literary Festival tomorrow, so thought that this was a fitting review to end the working week with.
First published in October 2012.
It is a fair comment to say that Ali Smith is one of the most exciting contemporary authors writing today. Her prose is often stylistically exciting and she crafts her characters wonderfully and originally.
Her newest book, Artful, is marketed as ‘part fiction, part essay, a revelation of what writing can do’. This is true to a point. A fictional story runs concurrently with a lot of factual information pertaining to literature and its writers, all of the material of which has been adapted from four lectures which the author gave earlier in the year. Consequently, Artful has been arranged into four different ‘thematically organised bursts of thought’ – ‘On time’, ‘On form’, ‘On edge’ and ‘On offer and On reflection’. Throughout the book, Smith has set out to explore a wide variety of different themes, ranging from love and form to life and death.
Life and death are perhaps the most far-reaching of the themes which Smith has examined in this volume. The entirety of the fictional portion of the book is narrated by a protagonist who is ‘haunted – literally – by a former lover’. At the outset, the narrator states that after marking the first year since her lover’s death, she is ‘more at a loss’ than ever before. Throughout, she is speaking to her dead lover, addressing sentences and passages directly toward him: ‘But it was your chair, this chair, even though we’d bought it on my credit card (and it still wasn’t paid off)’, and ‘In fact, I just managed a whole ten minutes there without thinking of you once’. As with her other novels, Artful has an absorbing narrative style from the outset, and whilst we never learn the names of her characters, they both come alive on the page.
Her lover, although just a thought or something akin to a memory at the start of the book, soon materialises into a ghostlike physical being: ‘You were standing in the doorway… You were covered in dust and what looked like bits of rubble… You were wearing that black waistcoat with the white stitching that went out of fashion in 1995, the one we gave to Oxfam’. She later goes on to tell him: ‘It was like you had no idea you were dead’. The ghost himself asks philosophical questions throughout, as though he has all but forgotten the ways of the world. When given a cup of tea, the following happens: ‘I looked round you had upended the mug and were pouring the hot tea out on to the floor. Then you put the empty mug in your pocket’.
The book’s narration comes across as truthful and painfully honest at times, and the situation built up between the couple feels incredibly realistic. This part of the book entices, intrigues, absorbs and draws the reader in. The fictional part of the book, then, is nothing short of wonderful.
All this aside, the book takes on an interesting turn. The husband, once a lecturer, has left several of his speeches on his desk and his wife reads these throughout the book in order to feel closer to him. This we learn much further on, however. At first, it seems as though the factual information has been placed in at random, and whilst it is interesting in itself, there is a chasm of imbalance between the fiction and the fact. Smith’s style becomes a little confusing, and it feels as though too many factual examples have been used throughout the book. At first, this technique is almost engaging, but after a while it causes Artful to be read much like a textbook. It feels muddled and is not as readable as Smith’s purely fictional works. The strange mixture of styles takes the usual sparkle away from the fictional element of the book. The idea itself is a clever one, but at times it really does struggle to work harmoniously with the story.