Artful by Ali Smith (Penguin: 2013) An odd structure of a book, alternating between a lecture on the meaning and vitality of art, and mournful opining from the widow of the person who wrote the lecture.
Ali Smith arrived on my Kindle on the back of the kind of internet praise that got my skin excited. People were throwing around superlatives like nobody’s business. She’d not really been on my radar before, but the more I found out about her, the more I realized here was a writer with a mammoth reputation for achingly good writing. And you know how much of a sucker I am for good writing.
So yeah, high hopes.
The writing was beautiful. At times, striking. Insightful and cutting. When Smith reached the nub of a point, you knew about it. She hits you with it (softly) and lets it resonate, echoing as you stare at the page, mind racing about what you’ve just read. She does that expertly, and it works. I highlighted a bunch.
And usually, that kind of skill is enough to sustain me. But with this, I have to admit, I struggled. The structure and form was too much for me. I don’t know what I was expecting. The book makes no pretense about its form. It’s a lecture. It’s, at its core, an academic study.
Sure, it’s one of the most beautifully written you’ll ever find. And it has a story humming in the background. This story of the widow of the lecturer, moving through their grief, learning more about their beloved departed as they read through the lecture, discovering more about the power of art and their relationship, and all that jazz. But that story always felt too much in the long grass. I always sighed when I got dragged away from it and forced to spend a chapter or two just with the lecture again.
Which blows. Because the stuff of the lecture is huge. The theme, it’s important. It’s why I picked up the book. The stuff of the lecture is art. It’s about why it’s powerful, why it’s important, why it is. And that’s a pretty core life meaning, at least for me anyway (and it should be for you too). But I got lost in the lecture. I got detoured and worn down and (whisper it) a little bored.
Another bloody conundrum. I loved the writing, and I love Ali Smith for that. And the pathos of the story bubbling in the background was real. But I wanted more of it. And I wanted the lecture to be less lectury.
Sorry. I’m so sorry. This book has diamonds in it. But it tripped over a cardinal sin. It bored me a little. And that’s something that books just shouldn’t do.
Next week, a change of pace with a book recommended by Mrs GBR.