Posts Tagged ‘Ali Smith’


May 22, 2019

The greatest danger in Ali Smith’s project to write a novel a year for four years, each using as a different season as its starting point, is that it becomes a comfort to her readers. Once again we find the echoes of a Dickens’ novel (Hard Times) in the opening lines (“Now what we don’t want is Facts”) introducing a bravura exercise in found language, a prose poem polemic:

“What we want is bewilderment. What we want is repetition. What we want is repetition. What we want is people in power saying the truth is not the truth.”

Then, in a second prelude, we have the voice of Spring herself, a trick which Smith pulls off with her usual panache and puns:

“The winter’s a nothing to me.
“Do you think I don’t know about power? You think I was born green?”

Only then do we meet our first character, Richard Lease, “the TV and film director…I mean you’re bound to have seen something he did if you’ve lived long enough…” standing on a train platform in Kingussie. Why?

“That’s the wrong kind of question. It implies there’s story. There’s no story. He’s had it with story.”

Smith, on the other hand, continues to demonstrate her own mastery of story and story-telling: a hundred pages later we will leave Richard and meet Brittany, “a DCO at one of the IRCs employed by the private security firm SA4A”(another example of the way Smith captures the language of the moment). A hundred pages after that Richard and Brittany will meet and both their lives will be changed by a twelve-year-old girl called, of course, Florence.

And then there is the comfort of art itself: Katherine Mansfield and Rainer Maria Rilke are prominent (“They break the mould. They’re modern.”), as is the artist Tacita Dean who works mainly in film. And, as with the previous two novels, another of Shakespeare’s late plays (Pericles) resonates throughout, from wordplay (Richard when asked by his friend Paddy, “who do you think you are, bloody Pericles of Tyre,” answers “Pericles of Tired”) to the character of Florence, whose ability to make others act nobly may remind us of Marina, who manages to remain a virgin while working in a brothel by convincing men to think of their better selves. As one of her colleagues tells Brit, the:

“…age of miracles isn’t past, some schoolkid got into the centre and – you won’t believe it. I still can’t. She got management to clean up the toilets.”

Florence is the springboard for the novel, taking Brit from her job to the Highlands of Scotland simply because Brit feels compelled to help her. Once there her first action is to save Richard’s life. She puts her ability to go places seemingly unhindered to the fact that “sometimes I am invisible” (a neat reversal of invisibility of refugees locked up out of sight) but she also makes other feel visible. On their train journey together Brit realises:

“She has never been happier on a Monday afternoon than she is right now… Who has given a fuck about Brit’s favourite anything for more than ten seconds in the last ten years?”

Florence is the novel’s hope, as children so often are in Smith’s work, but though she is at the heart of the story she is also, in a sense, outside of the story, a reminder to the characters, and the reader, to be better. She is also a reminder of change and the future, in the same way as the frequent references to mountains are a reminder of nature and what endures.

There is much, then, in the novel to be comforted by: Richard “giddy with afterlife”, nicknamed Doubledick by Paddy after a Dickens’ character who “lets go of the bitterness;” Brit, so carefully named, escaping rather than imprisoning; and Florence “sending the thinnest of green shoots through the rock so the rock starts to split.” But literature should not be a blanket to snuggle under and neither is this novel. Rilke, we are told, was inspired by a postcard of a renaissance painting to write about Orpheus, and Smith seems to suggest our task is much the same. “Fuck compassion fatigue,” Paddy tells Richard, “That’s people walking about with dead souls.” The detention centre where Brit works is

“…like a kind of underworld she thought. Place of the living dead.”

In ensuring the novel shakes as well as comforts us, much depends on Brit. When Autumn was first published I expressed some disquiet about the way working class characters, like Brit (“she wanted college but they couldn’t afford it now”) were portrayed, particularly when in low paid, functionary jobs with little control over their actions or even language. Here Brit is freed from all that but, in what might initially seem like a betrayal (look away now if you don’t want to know how her story ends), only temporarily. If it is a betrayal, it is not Smith’s – in fact, it is the novel’s bravest decision, as Brit, abandoned by Florence, realises:

“She was just an extra in it. She was the hired help.”

This, for me, was the novel’s saddest line, closely followed by (in both senses):

“It felt like being bullied did, back when she was at school and had to pretend she wasn’t clever.”

It is here that Smith pinpoints on an individual level where our country has failed. While Richard is rejuvenated with a new film project, Brit retreats into her old life, only slighter more chastened and bitter than before. And with that, what was merely brilliant, becomes vital.


March 4, 2018

“God was dead: to begin with.”

So begins Ali Smith’s Winter, echoing Dicken’s A Christmas Carol in the same way Autumn used the cadences of A Tale of Two Cities’ famous opening in its own first words. Smith’s choice of the out-of-fashion Dickens as one of the uniting factors in her quartet of seasonal novels is both inspired and appropriate. Dickens was, after all, a political novelist, concerned with all levels of society. He may seem a strangely old-fashioned bed-fellow for Smith, but both share a love of language and word-play and a sharp but uncynical eye.

Shakespeare is the other English writer Smith has turned to – specifically his late plays (here it is Cymbeline; in Autumn it was The Tempest). In her description of them (in an interview with Foyles) she perhaps reveals something of what she, too, is aiming for:

“The late plays are what you might call the most integrated of his works in that they cocktail together comedy, tragedy, history and the unexpected, unthinkable, always miraculous-seeming potential for rebirth that’s both literal and of the spirit, and they also produce, each time, a pure new kind of myth, a refined and transcendent storytelling completely of its time and its individual imagination yet simultaneously made communally from all the stories taprooting across the world’s literatures.”

Dickens, the essentially English; Shakespeare, a reminder of the international appeal of English art; and, in case anyone feels Smith has forgotten her own roots, Muriel Spark providing a further epigraph, from her most overtly political novel, The Abbess of Crewe, which set the Watergate scandal in a nunnery. (Autumn was also prefaced by a quotation from a Scottish expatriate, W S Graham, suggesting a further pattern).

The word ‘dead’ also features frequently throughout the novel, from the rampant opening where mortality ends everything (though not ghosts); to Art’s Google searches where he types ‘X is d…’ and time after time the word ‘dead’ to appears as the top search; to the sound of the church bells chiming at midnight, which, in another Dickensian flourish, they seem to do more than once:

“Midnight again, for Christ sake.”

It is, of course, in T S Eliot’s words, “the very dead of winter.”

All this would be very little without a story, however, and here we have one about a mother and a son, a sister and a stranger. Family and hospitality: the very essence of Christmas. Brexit, among others things, has been accused of highlighting a generation gap, and both Autumn and Winter are concerned with relationships across the generations. Sophia, the mother, is identified as having voted Leave, but her nostalgia for a ‘better’ past seems to have begun much earlier, as a memory from 1977, when she spends Christmas in a squat with her sister, Iris, suggests:

“That red post-box on the front of the Radio Times: why does it mean so much and at the same time so little? She wants it to mean again like meaning used to mean.”

Smith, here, seems to be tapping into the craving for blue passports, perhaps also reflected in Sophia’s business where everything her shops sell is made to look old:

“That’s what people like buying just now… Things that look like they’ve got a history, reclaimed looking things.”

On closer inspection, however, Art is not unlike his mother. Her artificially distressed furniture is not dissimilar to his ‘Art in Nature’ blog where his ‘personal’ stories turn out to be economical with the truth. In one of the novel’s funniest scenes (because Smith is always, like Dickens, at heart, a comic writer), Lux, a young woman he has paid £1,000 to pretend to be his girlfriend, Charlotte, while he visits his mother, questions him, about a particular entry:

“What kind of car was it? Lux says.
How do mean, car? he says
What I say, Lux says. Car. The one you drove to the puddle in.
I haven’t got a car, he says.
So you hired a car? she says. Borrowed one?
I can’t drive, he says.
How did you get to the village in the blog, then? she says. Someone drove you?
I didn’t actually go anywhere. I looked it up on Google maps and on an RAC route planner, he says.”

Similarly, Charlotte is a modern version of Iris, who has spent her life protesting. (“I was never good at keeping quiet,” she says.) Her resentment of Art is a mirror image of Sophia’s resentment of Iris. Smith spends time in the novel recounting the history of the protest at Greenham Common, a deliberate attempt to reclaim some forgotten history (that whole era – another example being the Miners’ Strike – is still largely missing from literature). This allows for an interesting reversal of the accusations that are now frequently levelled against her generation (what Charlotte calls “forty years of political selfishness”) when she says to Art:

“Me, me, me… It’s all you selfish generation can talk about. I’m going to tweet about it in a long scroll rolling itself out of my mouth like in an illustration of a dandy by an eighteenth century satirist.”

In this way Smith undermines the idea that the problem is generational. Art, perhaps unsurprisingly, offers hope for the future when he discovers his dual inheritance, the time he spent with Iris as a child which his mother has always denied.

Smith’s art also exists in the balance between the prosaic and the poetical. In a novel so grounded in reality that there are references to events which took place as recently as last summer, there are also surreal, transcendent moments such as when “a slab of landscape roughly the size of small car” suspends itself above Art’s head. Similarly, Sophia is haunted by a head – “the head of a child, just a head, no body attached” – like Marley’s head on the door knocker, the beheaded Cornish saint Newlina, the heads of the guillotined in the basket. Smith transforms this head throughout the novel, eventually linking it to art itself, the sculptures of Barbara Hepworth. It is this ability to transform and transcend which makes Winter a novel of hope. As Lux says of Cymbeline:

“…if this writer from this place can make this mad and bitter mess into this graceful thing it is at the end, where the balance comes back and all the lies are revealed and all the losses are compensated, and that’s the place on earth he comes from, that’s the place that made him, that’s the place I’m going.”

That this reasoning seems both naïve and profound is very Dickensian. One day, I suspect, someone will read this novel and feel the same.


June 30, 2017

Just over a year ago I listened to Ali Smith read from Autumn at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. She was reading from a manuscript – any hope of an early copy of the hardback being available (as they often are at book festivals) was made to look ridiculous by her declaration that she had only just delivered the final version to the publisher. Two months later it was on the shelves. Smith was upfront about the haste with which the novel had been written, her intention being to write about what was happening in Britain today: it was the first ‘post-Brexit novel’.

I was in the audience for Ali Smith’s reading because I have been a reader (and admirer) or her work since Free Love and other stories was published by Virago in 1995. I mention this because I have some concerns about Autumn, most of which originate from the identification of the novel as a reaction to Brexit. Brexit features prominently in the novel:

“It’s just over a week since the vote…
The village is in a sullen state. Elisabeth passes a cottage not far from the bus stop whose front, from the door to across above the window, has been painted over with black paint and the words GO and HOME.”

It’s also the subject of what might be described as prose poems which occur throughout the narrative:

“All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. All across the country, people felt they’d really lost. All across the country, people felt they’d really won. All across the country people felt they’d done the right thing and other people had done the wrong thing.”

The divide created is echoed in the novel by the appearance of a fence on what was common land:

“Apparently a fence three metres high with a roll of razorwire along the top of it has been erected across a stretch of land not far from the village. It has security cameras on posts all along it.”

The fence leads to a confrontation between Elisabeth and one of the security guards – a scene Smith read out in Edinburgh:

“Fine day, she says.
You can’t walk here, he says.
Yes I can, she says…
This is private land, he says.
No it isn’t, she says. It’s common land. Common land by definition is not private.”

Of course, the audience, and the reader, are on Elisabeth’s side, just as we are in numerous other encounters in the novel – when she’s getting her passport application checked; when she’s asked for ID at the nursing home where her friend and ex-neighbour, Daniel, is dying; when she tackles the receptionist at the doctor’s surgery… On each occasion she deflects authority with wit – which is really just another way of saying that she proves she’s cleverer than the other person, rather than right. Note, it’s not enough for her to say it’s common land – she must go on to refer to the definition of common land, which she knows, being cleverer.

“You are unlawfully trespassing.
As opposed to lawfully trespassing? she says.”

An earlier conversation with another nameless character doing his job in the Post Office is also instructive. The banal language he must use when describing the Check & Send service he offers is, of course, amusingly contrasted with Elisabeth’s ready wit, but when he attempts to be humorous, Smith (presumably via Elisabeth’s viewpoint) undercuts it with reference to his silent laugh: “Shoulders. Up, down.”

It’s interesting to compare this to Smith’s description of the Christine Keeler case:

“The prosecuting lawyer has the air of a foxhound. He makes fun of her.”

This seems very much Elisabeth’s attitude to those who are not as clever as she is. Is this Smith’s intention? Perhaps. It certainly won the approval of the audience in Edinburgh, possibly lacking in security guards, Post Office workers, and receptionists. It strikes me as particularly unfortunate in the ‘first post-Brexit novel’, however, as Brexit has been frequently characterised as the educated against the uneducated. Smith herself used education as an escape route, from Inverness and her working class background. It’s possible she believes that this path is open to everyone, and that those who take low paid jobs, often accompanied by mundane, repetitive language as restrictive as a strait jacket, are culpable in their routine functions. But, as Daniel advises Elisabeth, “Always give your characters the same benefit of the doubt you’d welcome when it comes to yourself.”

Elisabeth has her own escape route: art, and her imagination. It’s instructive how much of the novel takes place in her head: “That moment of dialogue? Imagined.” This is the gift her friendship with Daniel has given her. As a child, Elisabeth tells Daniel:

“There’s no point in making up a world…when there’s already a real world.”

Daniel convinces her otherwise. It is also through Daniel that she finds the (real life) pop artists Pauline Boty – the present day Elisabeth is a junior university lecturer in Art History. This means, of course, that the real world is only half the story – it’s her mother who takes action against the fence, not Elisabeth.

Don’t get me wrong – Autumn is a vibrant, pulsing novel of ideas bursting with wit, humour and passages which thrill and soar. As a political novel, however, it fails.

‘The Child’

November 2, 2009

first person

Reviewing collections of short stories is a difficult art. You may love one, then find the next rather dull. The more similarities, the easier to discuss, but doesn’t that make the collection as a whole less interesting? Above all, you will be unlikely to be able to examine any of the stories in detail. So instead of attempting a review of Ali Smith’s latest collection, I intend to simply discuss one of the stories, ‘The Child’. It is, of course, my favourite, but it also highlights one of the advantages the short story can have over the novel: the ability to develop the surreal.

The story begins in a deliberately ordinary manner:

“I went to Waitrose as usual in my lunchbreak to get the weekly stuff.”

Notice the emphasis on routine and the intentionally vague “stuff” – too banal to merit further description. However, this is simply to provide a credible background to the first unusual event, the appearance of a child in the narrator’s shopping trolley. Here Smith’s descriptive powers come into full force on the basis that the more unlikely something is, the more the reader needs to picture it – and, as this story rests entirely on the child, we are treated to an extensive portrait:

“The child in it was blond and curly-haired, very fair-skinned and flushed, big-cheeked like a cupid or a chub-fingered angel on a Christmas card or a child out of an old-fashioned English children’s book…”

Interestingly, though the description is intended to make us believe in the child’s existence, it relies heavily on the mythological and fictional. It also presents us with an ideal child, “embarrassingly beautiful” – though “a little crusty round the nose,” a touch of verisimilitude which actually makes it more adorable. Like any rational person, the narrator takes the child to Customer Services, but unfortunately no child has been reported lost, and the woman behind the desk automatically assumes the child is the narrator’s, as do a succession of customers. It is not so much no-one believes the narrator, as they do not hear her – the picture of her with the child creates the automatic assumption she is the mother, and any protestations are put down to the fact she is having a ‘bad day’. When the child starts to cry a woman hands him to the narrator and he stops:

“I had never felt so powerful in all my life.”

This is the first sign of any attraction to owning the child. Whether partly for this reason, or simply because she is bowing to the opinion of those around, the narrator takes the child to her car.

It is at this point the story moves from the unlikely to the surreal, and from the simply interesting to the exceptional: The child suddenly speaks:

“You’re a really rubbish driver…I could do better than that and I can’t even drive.”

The child speaks in a “charming” voice, but what it has to say is less so: a litany of racist, sexist, and homophobic remarks that would make the Daily Mail blush. The narrator’s reaction?

“I was enchanted.”

So much so that when she realises the child is hungry she immediately begins to breastfeed, and plan “how to ensure the child’s later enrolment in one of the area’s better secondary schools,” one of the story’s funniest lines. This despite the fact that we know the narrator is a Guardian reader. The contentment does not last, however, as the child proceeds to tell a series of politically incorrect jokes, and the narrator eventually (in fairy tale fashion) abandons him in the woods.

This story is funny, surprising (even shocking) and thought-provoking. It has a lot to say about the relationship between mothers and children, and society’s assumptions in that area. The non-PC child might represent the more right-wing views that can come with family; the fear of producing a child alien to your own sensibilities; or the link between child-rearing and the disempowerment of women (many of his remarks and jokes are sexist).

And, no, she doesn’t leave the child in the woods. Of course, she worries and goes back for him, and then…well, when it comes to short stories, I think you have to discover the denouement for yourself.

‘The Child’ can be found in The First Person and Other Stories by Ali Smith.