Review: Spring by Ali Smith

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I’m tempted to think of the third instalment of Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet as a literary sucker punch. But that does the book a disservice, as it’s so much more than a simple wake up call to the damage and division caused by hate speech and our failure to genuinely connect in the age of social media.

Surely, however, this is the angriest and most bitter of Smith’s works to date, with its attack on the dehumanising apparatus of Britain’s immigration service: the UK Immigration Removal Centres, in which detainees are reduced to ‘deets’ – stripped of all rights and dignity. And, importantly, Spring is also an exercise in how that process  transforms the people who work in such places into machines. And how, in fact, we are all in some way contaminated by that system; by the fact that we live in a society which allows it to happen and engage with media that condone it.

Spring is littered with sections in which the author hurls that sense of social atrophy in our faces: condensing, for example, the hate speech of trolls (together with punctuation issues and typos) to frightening effect:

SHUT UP just shut the fUck Up can someone tape her mouth shut she deserve to be relentlesly abused what a Cunt go and die hang yourself you ugly Cunt we are all having a laugh at you You are a shit show nobody couldn’t play fuck marry kill with you its just Kill you are a Tampon you are odios you deseve to be raped left for dead your Daughter deserves to be raped and stabed to death with a Kitchen KNnife your like a broken record bleeding heart liberal fuck WE know where you Live

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 223). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Painful to  read, these are moments which prove just how normalised such discourse has become. Smith picks apart facile claims to freedom of speech. Language is no longer a system of communication, but a signifier of difference. And while the language of division comes cheaply, our failure to engage in genuine dialogue costs us dearly.

Language, then, is both barrier and bridge, depending on where you stand, as IRC officer Britt discovers, on hearing her fellow worker speak in Gaelic:

For some reason just hearing it made her angry. It made her near tears. It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever. Then Torq made it worse by smiling at her like he really liked her while he made the impossible sounding sounds. Her throat started to hurt like it does when you try to stop yourself crying. It was the language that was making it hurt.

Smith, Ali. Spring (Seasonal Quartet) (p. 326). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Spring also picks up on Smith’s preoccupation with the act of storytelling. “All my work is about books,” she tells Christina Patterson in an interview for The Independent. “It’s all circular and it all comes back to books and what they do.” www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/ali-smith-the-power-and-the-story-226080.   Thus Spring zings along with the intertextual mastery so characteristic of her other work, intertwining its own stories with those of other narratives – such as the (almost) encounter between Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke in 1921, or tales of Scottish history. All of this reinforces the sense that it is narratives which make and break us. But that stories also feed in and off each other – and that in this respect, it is impossible to ever truly end a story. Continually surpassing their boundaries, stories spill into our lives and offer points of resistance and change. And that, at the end of the book, is what perhaps  Spring offers by way of hope.

While Spring can be read by itself, I would recommend reading it alongside Autumn https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1358 and Winter https://wordpress.com/post/katecudahy.wordpress.com/1292 as this reveals the way in which Smith is pulling a yet larger narrative together in startling and beautiful ways as she works through the seasons. It is also a novel which requires a second reading in order to allow all the hidden quirks and twists to fall into place.

Yet another masterpiece which reinforces Ali Smith’s status as perhaps the greatest writer of her generation.

 

 

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Review: Hotel World by Ali Smith

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In America, Jean Baudrillard maps out the Bonaventure hotel in Los Angeles as one of the ultimate sites of postmodernity. The building, he claims, is a “box of spatio-temporal tricks” (1988: 59). Decentralised and detached from the world outside, it creates and orders its own utopic reality; its guests and visitors seemingly stranded in a dislocated, sanitised hyper-reality.

This is surely the same environment into which Smith plunges the reader in her 2000 novel Hotel World – territory which is disturbing in its familiarity. Seen from a variety of vantage points, the hotel is a place of work, of life and – in one case – of death, a symbol of social inequality and a site of grief and memory. This is in spite of the hotel chain’s claims to uniformity – the obliteration of difference which extends to the people who work there: “…it is important, behind Reception, to wear hair tied back and to wear ‘subtle’ make-up. There Lise is, there she can see it, her subtly made-up face above her Name Badge, sleek and smiling, emptied of self, very good at what she does.” (112)

Yet, despite every attempt to erase the personal or the temporal, bits somehow get left behind. There are the physical reminders – “…the Left Behind Room; this is where all the things guests leave behind are stored…alarm clocks; batteries; books…” (105) or the dust “made of human skin,” (191). And there are the grieving friends and relatives left behind in the wake of a death. And no amount of regulation – no artificial measure of control – can, it seems, prevent the random accidents and encounters which live on in people’s minds and memories, in spite of the transience of hotel life.

There are few writers, I believe, who quite succeed in occupying the minds of their characters to the extent that Ali Smith does. She renders them instantly recognisable, their traumas, dilemmas and joys our own. And they also offer a point of resistance to the apparent pessimism of Hotel World and its inhuman territory of pressed, starched sheets; numbered doors and static. They break down barriers, and refuse to submit to the sterility and quiet tyranny of postmodern existence.

This is another book which proves that Smith is one of the most outstanding authors of her generation.

Review: Public Library by Ali Smith

Public library and other stories by [Smith, Ali]

Recently I ordered a couple of ‘real feel’ copies of works by or about Ali Smith – Girl Meets Boy, and a collection of critical essays on her work. I already had one of these books on my Kindle, but as I needed volumes with page numbers, I decided to order from second hand bookshops. When both books arrived, they were coated in library issue plastic covers, and one of them still contained stamps from Dulwich public library. Coincidentally, I was just reading Smith’s volume of short stories Public Library, which addresses the demise of this treasured institution across the UK following a decade of local government cuts and austerity.

It was both ironic and deeply saddening, and it made me think of what a focal point the library was in the small Derbyshire town where I grew up. (I’m happy to say that’s one book palace which survived the chop). A visit to the library meant opening up new worlds: a very private new world as a reader in a very public space.  And it meant measuring one’s progress from childhood to adolescence when you received the adult reader card – a rite of passage noted by a few of the contributors to Smith’s volume. Libraries are communal spaces and democratic spaces. They function like an enormous secret we’ve all been let in on. Downloading an ebook is just not the same – you don’t have that same sense of sanctuary, or of paying books their due respect while celebrating the fact that this is one of the few times life genuinely gives you something for free. Because without an internet connection and a credit card, you’re mostly forced to source your books the pirate way. And that demeans all of us – authors and readers.

The short stories in Public Library are also a celebration of the act of reading itself, of words and their power, of writers and their histories. Smith has the most amazing ability to mine for joy and subversion in all of her work; to eke out a space in what we take for granted, enabling the reader to see it from new perspectives. I can think of no other author who could effectively pair a tale on credit card fraud with an investigation into the death of D H Lawrence. Or who could trace the breakdown of a marriage to an obsession with Katherine Mansfield. Smith is best at making the incongruous seem a vital part of lived experience – at tracing analogies and associations between the most disparate of pairings. She’s a rebel writer whose work casts an even light over popular culture as much as the literary past, if it will draw her reader’s attention to an idea or image. And snaring our attention is something she never fails at.

Public Library is a paean to our most treasured communal spaces, and to how books connect us across geographies and across time. An essential read and a provocative one.

Review: Autumn by Ali Smith

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This was a re-read of Ali Smith’s novel Autumn, the first instalment in her ‘Seasons’ Quartet. It is, after all, a book which you can only take so much from on a first reading, since it is so wide-ranging in terms of its frame of reference, and it is crammed with internal echoes which are easily missed.

Shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2017, Autumn has been described as a post-Brexit novel, but it’s much more than that. True, it considers the way we become victims of our own lies and prejudices; erecting fences and borders in a deluded attempt to keep ourselves safe. But it also has a lot to say about the way we construct stories, about the way those stories unfold in time and space, and in turn construct our own sense of identity. And deep down, it’s also a love story of an extraordinary kind.

Danie Gluck is 101 years old, sleeping and suspended in his own subconscious; his memories merging with his dreams until it becomes impossible to know where the past ends and imagination takes over. His sole visitor at the Maltings Care Providers Plc is young art historian Elisabeth Demand, who befriended Daniel when he was her neighbour over twenty years earlier. Daniel’s conversations with young Elisabeth about art, books and story-telling, time, truth and lies, created a bond between them which Elisabeth later recognises as a kind of love. The love which enables one person to see another clearly. For as Daniel says, “we have to hope…that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters.” (160)

Flitting freely between perspectives and time, Autumn is a bit like being on the inside of someone else’s memories. “Time travel is real,” Daniel claims. “We do it all the time.” This does not just concern personal memories but myth, literature, art, politics and popular culture, all of which get incorporated into Daniel and Elisabeth’s sense of self; their lives fusing with the books they read and the art they witness. Memory, then, emerges as a kind of mental collage, analogous to the collages of pop artist Pauline Boty whose joyous life and tragic death forms another narrative strand of this complex and beautiful novel.

As Smith states in an interview with Norwegian writer Linn Ullmann, “…love is multiple, various, takes all forms, is non-exclusionary; it will not be coralled, will not be given a shape, refuses to be fixed, and in that way unfixes us all. Thank God.” Few people can write with such truth about love, and of how much we lose in its absence.

Review: Winter by Ali Smith

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As with all of Ali Smith’s work, Winter is couched in deceptively simple prose, lulling the reader into a sense that this will be a straightforward tale of loss and redemption. And while it is both of those things, it is also a charged, complex and astoundingly beautiful meditation on the way, as a society, we stake out ideological battle lines; on the relationship between art and nature, the fake and the real; on our attitudes to the environment and on our obsession with technology.

This is the second part of Smith’s seasons quartet, and as might be expected there is thematic overlap with Autumn, most saliently perhaps in the references to memory and loss. One particular character is also referenced, who may well prove to be a link throughout the series. The story pivots around the relationship between two women: Sophia, a self-made business woman in her sixties, and her older sister Iris who has been a lifelong defender of the environment and human rights. Ideologically worlds apart, the sisters have grown to despise each other’s life choices; Iris living in a commune and protesting at Greenham Common while Sophia emerges almost as the model Thatcherite business woman, building up her small empire of department stores. Sophia’s son Arthur is the casualty in this family war: a sensitive child who has been severed from his roots and left to fend for himself at a private boarding school. As an adult, he seems to live life in proxy via his blog on which he posts fictional encounters with the natural world.

The feud played out between Sophia and Iris mirrors in microcosm those social and ideological fractures which often seem insurmountable on a broader, social level and the book widens its references to take in Brexit, the Bosnian conflict and the Second World War. Yet Winter ultimately considers the potential for healing and reconciliation even in the most unlikely of circumstances. It is a book which refuses to take sides, and which foregrounds dialogue and the understanding of difference as key to a future which will rise above and beyond the hatreds of the past.

Winter is a novel which confirms Ali Smith’s status as one of the greatest living British novelists – she was recently placed first in a TLS poll of academics and authors (theguardian.com/books/2018/apr/05/). I am always grabbed by the playfulness of her writing: her love of invention combined with her unquenchable curiosity, and the way her sentences seem to feed off and into each other. Reading Winter for the first time, I felt I was only scraping at the surface of the story, and I am certain that this is a book I’ll be revisiting on more occasions in the future.

Review – Ali Smith ‘Artful’

 

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Artful-Ali-Smith-ebook/dp/B0098P10UM

Here’s to the place where reality and the imagination meet, whose exchange, whose dialogue, allows us not just to imagine an unreal different world but also a real different world – to match reality with possibili… (Smith, Artful, 197)

Ali Smith is one of my all time literary heroes, so it’s kind of difficult for me to be objective about her writing. I understand some of the criticisms that have been levelled at Artful – that it’s too selfconsciously, well, artful, with its puns and its wordplay and its dizzying array of references to high art and low, to cinema, painting, TV, novels, poetry, songs and anecdotes. But, to be honest, that’s what I really want in essays or lectures. I don’t want some dry as dust expostion on the role of aesthetic form. It’s precisely the kind of grasshopper style that drew me to this book in the first place: the ability to cruise from Oliver Twist to Oliver! or from Miłosz to Rilke via Sappho. These associative leaps open up genuine dialogue, not just between the reader and author, but between the texts themselves.

But it’s not just those bold associations that Smith conjures, her linguistic pyrotechnics or the intellectual fizz of Artful which makes it such a wonderful collection of studies. It’s also the way that, at the same time, the author plays with the genre itself, inserting her essays within a narrative framework. Smith fictionalises herself, as the now dead author of a series of lectures which are read by her grieving lover. This is, I believe, one of the most beautiful examples of literature as love letter since Woolf’s Orlando, a gift of startling generosity since, as the narrator later realises, “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift. But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.” (188)

This is what is so characteristic of Smiths’ writing. “Art,” she writes, “is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter” (166). It is this perception of writing as an act of exchange, as a circuit between reader, writer and text, “the place where reality and imagination meet,” which forms the bedrock of her literary project. Because, beneath the wit and wisdom of her prose lies compassion and warmth, an empathy which, she explains, is ‘art’s part-exchange…its inclusivity, at once a kindness, a going beyond the self.’ (178)

Review – Ali Smith – “Girl Meets Boy”

 

I  kind of discovered Ali Smith’s work by accident. I was looking for something to read, and decided to try out a few of the Man Booker shortlisters from 2014. The minute I started How To Be Both, I knew I was going to be reading more of her work.

Boy Meets Girl was as eloquently beautiful a narrative as I could have hoped, and one of the most powerful modern reworkings of ancient myth I have yet encountered. It retells Ovid’s narrative of Ianthe and Iphis, the former transformed by gods into a boy in order to marry the woman she loves. Smith cleverly relocates the story in contemporary Inverness, where two sisters – Imogen and Anthea – battle with their own identity crises.

The tale is one of transformation and the empowering potential of change. In that sense, it is a joyous, riotous and rebellious narrative, which celebrates our capacity to change ourselves, the community around us, and ultimately the world we live in. It’s also a story about the power of stories – of the way in which, in order to grasp the opportunities that change brings, we hold onto narratives as a way of bridging the gap between our former selves and our new identities. But no one says that better than Smith herself, so I’ll finish this review with a quote from Boy meets Girl:

“… it was always the stories that needed telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature too.” (160)