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Artful Hardcover – January 24, 2013
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As author of the 2012 Weidenfeld Lectures on Comparative Literature, Smith finds inspiration in Milosz’s conviction that “The purpose of poetry is to remind us / how difficult it is to remain just one person.” Indeed, Smith daringly splits herself into two captivating voices: that of a Dickens-loving bibliophile and that of her former lover’s ghost. Because that ghost shares the bibliophile’s passion for literature, the dialogue evolves into a wide-ranging reflection on how novelists invent reality, how poets cross-fertilize the literary flowers of their predecessors, how filmmakers transform the screen into a dream that absorbs their audience. As unpredictable as an undead vagrant, this scintillating conversation showcases Smith’s own gifts as a creative writer. But it also reminds readers of how great literature—of Shakespeare, Lawrence, Hopkins, Ovid, Plath, Rilke, and Flaubert—requires them to reorient their line of vision. Nothing—Smith shows her reader—forces such reorientation more than violating conventional boundaries, often in dangerous ways. These most unlecture-like of lectures deliver the thrill of perilous border crossings. --Bryce Christensen
"A stimulating combination of literary criticism, essay, and fiction. Smith’s writing is ethereal... funny."
—The New Yorker
"These brief, acrobatic lectures... perform spectacular feats of criticism. Each is as playful as it is powerful, as buoyant as it is brilliant."
"A wordsmith to the very smithy of her soul, [Smith] is at once deeply playful and deeply serious. And her new book, in which she tugs at God's sleeve, ruminates on clowns, shoplifts used books, dabbles in Greek and palavers with the dead, is a stunner."
—New York Times Book Review
"What a treat…. Artful is a love story full of everything - mind and body, past, present and future. The last lines of this wonderful book are spoken by the narrator: '(Who did I think I was talking to? You.)' Thank you, Ali Smith, from all of us."
—San Francisco Chronicle
"Smith dealt before with grief in relation to the passing of time in her 2001 novel, Hotel World. The clever structure on show in Artful allows her to expand on this theme and enables the reader to delve back in at random and be entranced all over again."
—Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Ms. Smith has an agile and mischievous mind. I will keep this book on my shelves forever, I suspect, for one line alone, a play on the song 'Smile,' made famous by Nat King Cole. (Charlie Chaplin wrote the music.) 'Simile,' Ms. Smith writes, 'though your heart is breaking.' If that doesn't make you happy you may be, like the writer in this book, dead... It's speckled with elegant allusion... It's a book with unusual nooks and crannies, a book that pulses with minor-chord heartache... What matters in both life and literature, this book suggests, is to keep trying to connect."
—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
"One of the marvelous things about this book is its reconciliation of the serious — both in the form of this crumbling, smelly guest and in its ardent advocacy of art — and light. Smith, whose love of words and skill at wordplay has already been made apparent in her stories and novels, performs dodge after dodge after dodge… What Smith has done with Artful is to invent a new form apart from form, to build a kind of Frankenstein’s monster inside the act of art."
—The Los Angeles Review of Books
"Artful is full of crossings and parallels. It is thought in 3-D. It is artful, which the book itself observes is the name given to the Oliver Twist character of the Dodger: the one who animates the story, who brings life to it."
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch
"Contemplative, electrifying, and transformative....Through riveting reflections on the limitations and the limitlessness of stories, Smith considers four aspects of the endeavor of creation: on 'time, 'form,' 'edge,' and 'offer and reflection.' The results are redemptive for everyone, testifying with singular clarity and wit to the immutable necessity for art."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"[An] extraordinary journey... Smith's storytelling facility and critical eye are evident in the fact that this ongoing conversation about time, memory, loss, longing, love, art and nature stirs the mind and heart all the more because it takes place between the imagination and reality. A soulful intellectual inquiry and reflection on life and art, artfully done."
"Smith daringly splits herself into two captivating voices... This scintillating conversation showcases Smith’s own gifts as a creative writer. But it also reminds readers of how great literature—of Shakespeare, Lawrence, Hopkins, Ovid, Plath, Rilke, and Flaubert—requires them to reorient their line of vision. Nothing—Smith shows her reader—forces such reorientation more than violating conventional boundaries, often in dangerous ways. These most unlecture-like of lectures deliver the thrill of perilous border crossings."
"Smart, allusive, informal, playful, audacious. (It's true. I think I am in love with Ali Smith.) Artful is a gift from Ali Smith to her reader. It's a book no one else could have written, or would have. Smith has a critic's eye, but fills her book with the novelist's art, and the novelist's heart."
—Independent on Sunday
"Glittering inventiveness. Not just a ghost story, but also a love letter. As emotionally freighted as a piece of storytelling, as intellectually rigorous as an academic's essay."
"Smith's exuberance and cleverness delight. This is a sparky, inspiring, charm-laden little book that makes you want to read more and differently."
"A wonderful achievement. Smith is so readable, likable, witty, and difficult to put down, that it makes you wonder why more people don't make use of her. She could make David Cameron interesting. Artful is a uniquely accessible work of criticism at the same time as it's a haunting fictional portrayal of grief, lost love and the power of art. Smith possesses rare levels of genius. She deserves to be read and discussed by every single person who has an interest in literature today."
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It is not until near the halfway point of her book that Ms. Smith begins to discuss the great novel Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens. Then later on she begins to reference the character of the “Artful Dodger” within the novel, until softly you realize that her book, which you are reading, is an artful reference in itself to the artful dodger, and therefore a salute to a literary giant that went before her.
Personally, I had appreciated Dickens’ love of the redemptive salvation theme of orphans in Great Expectations but my appreciation of his Victorian ebullience of phrase was satiated once I completed A Tale of Two Cities. Therefore, I never could bring myself to yet another Dickensian task of Oliver Twist, with its now modernly predictable ending of rags to some form of wealth, spiritual or otherwise. So ironically, I was only familiar with the literary term, “Artful Dodger”, because it was embedded in the social psyche of my own culture in sumptuous proportions. In my reality, the awareness of the term “Artful Dodger” was akin to people quoting Bible or Shakespeare’s verses and not knowing the source, except this time it was me in my own spotty literary knowledge base.
The book is also quite shocking in its intimacy, because we walk right into her continuous soliloquy regarding the loss of her partner. She celebrates the literary skills of her lost love through this spiritual journey of writing as her own cathartic outlet. Her painstaking personal reckoning with grief is cloaked in their joint love of literature. This personal journey through grief reminds one of Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, but in a more non-fictional vein. This work is a fusion of literary criticism, personal healing from grief, and it extends reverence to the creative process as salvation in itself, simply because the process provides personal meaning for each one of us.
The finding of meaning through the daily slog of one’s own life’s ups and downs rings true with Viktor Frankl’s seminal work Man’s Search for Meaning. Summarily, if one finds meaning in all things, one touches eternity and can live forever. Viktor Frankl found this on his knees in a concentration camp, and survived to teach others through psychotherapy of the same accord.
Ali Smith quotes Virginia Woolf suggesting synergy of thought, essence, reality and form in the quote “the born writer’s gift of being in touch with the thing itself and not with the outer husks of words”. More simply put a writer’s gift of communication comes when you can reach out and touch a new thought with your mind without the fabric of the words impeding your path. This is delicate balance. This is the definition of artfulness.
I have heard some teachers focus on teaching form really well, because they believe that if the form is driving towards perfection, than the content will naturally come and fill the worthy vessel. In my view, the risk in relying too heavily on the teaching method of emphasizing the importance of form over content is that the joy of creation in all of its tenderness can quite easily be killed. Of course, form is easier to grade objectively rather than content, so this is a natural out flow of our instruction system. Many a student has left the English department with a sour taste and mumbling, “But I’m not good at writing…” because they struggled with mastery of form.
Yes there is balance in all, but whatever you do, write for your own joy and no other. Worshiping at the altar of form alone, which is quite easy to do in our “Just the facts, Ma’am” culture, can suddenly be akin to worshiping a death mask of the face of your beloved.
I am about half way through Ms. Smith’s work of non-fiction, and I look forward to slowly imbibing the rest, and see how my thoughts have evolved upon completion. Until then…