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)