Artful

( 4 )

Overview


“A stimulating combination of literary criticism, essay, and fiction” (The New Yorker) from the incomparable Ali Smith

Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of ...

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Artful

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Overview


“A stimulating combination of literary criticism, essay, and fiction” (The New Yorker) from the incomparable Ali Smith

Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world—it is about the things art can do, the things art is made of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. A magical hybrid that refuses to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. Ali Smith’s heady powers as a novelist and short story writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Leah Hager Cohen
Smith is a trickster, an etymologist, a fantasist, a pun-freak, an ontologist, a transgenrenatrix, an ypomonist—O.K., now I'm just making up words. Smith might approve. A wordsmith to the very smithy of her soul, she 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…these are like no lectures you've ever encountered. Part ghost story, part love story, part mystery, part ode, they weave a narrative that feels more urgent, more naked than academia commonly allows. This is good. Good because exciting; it hooks us. And good because in taking this approach, Smith goes a long way toward restoring the arid subject of comp lit to its more rightful state, something vital and raw.
The New York Times - Dwight Garner
…equal parts ghost story and academic treatise…clumsy but seductive…Ms. Smith has an agile and mischievous mind. Artful injects more pleasure into your head than some books that aren't clumsy at all…It's a book with unusual nooks and crannies, a book that pulses with minor-chord heartache…
Publishers Weekly
This contemplative, electrifying, and transformative book comes in four sections, originally delivered as lectures on comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Readers, however, won’t find themselves on the other side of the lectern. Instead, Smith (There but for the), writing in the first person but not necessarily as Ali Smith, opens with grief: the I-persona has recently lost her longtime love and, still in the throes of despair a year later, turns to the papers and research left on her beloved’s desk, ostensibly for a series of talks on literature—the substance of which becomes much of Smith’s actual lectures. 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.” Yet what Smith also provides is the I-persona’s own journey, through her anguish, through her responses to her beloved’s notes and ideas (which the reader also reads) and through some “real” life (visits with a therapist, some mentions of work, etc.). The results are redemptive for everyone, testifying with singular clarity and wit to the immutable necessity for art. (Jan. 28)
New York Times - Dwight Garner
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.
NPR Books
These brief, acrobatic lectures…perform spectacular feats of criticism. Each is as playful as it is powerful, as buoyant as it is brilliant.
New York Times Book Review
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.
San Francisco Chronicle
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.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
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.
Los Angeles Review of Books
“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.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
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.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
From the Publisher
“Author Ali Smith’s narration is practiced, with well-thought-out timing and emphasis.”
AudioFile

“There is a moving intimacy to [Ali Smith’s] narration. Readers of serious literature and poetry will find this a rich, worth listen.”
Library Journal

Kirkus Reviews
Acclaimed Scottish novelist Smith (There but for the, 2011, etc.) considers the places where art and life intersect, sometimes collide and meld. The guide on this extraordinary journey is a woman who, after "twelvemonth and a day" of mourning, sees her dead lover before her. She offers the apparition tea and begins to ask questions, but the responses are garbled and confused. Smith's storytelling facility and critical eye are evident in the fact that this ongoing conversation--adapted from a series of lectures at St. Anne's College, Oxford--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. In the essay "On time," Smith reminds us of Shakespeare's "Devouring Time, Time's pencil, Time's fell and injurious hand, Time's scythe, Time's fickle glass." Even books, she writes, are "tangible pieces of time in our hands…they travel with us, they accompany us from our pasts into our futures…." In each of the essays, the woman continues her struggle with grief and letting go. Her lost lover returns again and again in an alarming state of increasing decay, and she regrets the failings of her imagination to call up an odorless, less-ragged form. Smith seamlessly connects the narrator's smart, funny, regret-infused observations to an expansive discussion of aesthetics, metaphor, the tension between form and fluidity, what it means to be on the edge in life and art, the power of Oliver Twist (in all its forms) and Alfred Hitchcock movies, and the acts of giving and taking. On this quest, the author goes into the "margins that burn with the energy of edit" to shed light on the human spirit through art. But does the grieving woman ever let go of her lover's spirit and move on? It's all beautifully revealed. A soulful intellectual inquiry and reflection on life and art, artfully done.
The Barnes & Noble Review

A stranger coming to town is one of the oldest plots around, but the strangers in Ali Smith's fiction tend to be very strange indeed. Smith was first shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize for her debut novel, 2001's Hotel World, which opens with the ghost of a chambermaid who plunged to her death down a dumbwaiter shaft. Smith was shortlisted a second time for 2005's The Accidental, in which a woman emerges to upend the sensibilities of a middle-class family — or is she just a projection of the family that's upended itself? Her 2011 novel, There but for the, turns on a dinner guest who refuses to leave the host's home, drawing a media circus in his wake.

None of this reads as weirdness for its own sake. Smith revels in oddities and has cultivated a cracked, off-kilter style to match, but the gamesmanship that marks her fiction burrows into humanity without cynical plasticity. Asked to deliver a series of lectures on art last year at Oxford University, she's clearly felt little need to change course. Unlike the sober, foursquare musings on creativity that tend to result when an author is given a podium, Artful resembles much of Smith's fiction — willfully fragmented and with a carefully engineered mood of uncertainty. "Here's to the place where reality and the imagination meet," she writes, though this book does little more than loosely sketch out what that place might look like.

Artful's four chapters — "On time," "On form," "On edge," and "On offer and on reflection" — are each anchored by a rudimentary plot. The nameless narrator's partner has died, but the partner (the genders here are undefined) has returned, in ghostly fashion, to labor on these very lectures. In the same way your eyes have to adjust to a dimly lit room, there's a blurry feel to this setup that takes some getting used to: Our hero is allegedly in mourning but idly ponders Dickens, and the lover's resurrection hardly registers as even a surprise. "You're later than a rabbit in Alice," is one of the first things the narrator says. Drop literary references first, ask questions later.

But this chilliness, too, is to a purpose. A dead author turns out to be a useful place to start because, as Smith points out, the fear of death is one of art's chief motivations. "Walter Benjamin says that's where there storyteller's authority comes from, death," she writes. Smith takes this highly metaphorical setup and layers even more metaphor upon it: The dead writer is prone to petty thievery (what true artist isn't?); the narrator works a job detecting root problems in trees and plays an arcade game where she tries to get "HOME" but forever winds up "LOST."

So to be an artist is to be alive and to be alive is to be in a wilderness. Each chapter is, in a way, about this getting lost. For Smith, "form" is the imperfect shape an artist gives her emotions. "Edge" is the anxiety wrapped up in the art-making process, and the liminal, between-two-worlds characters that evoke that anxiety; the book's title at least partly refers to the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, a book the narrator keeps returning to. "Offer and reflection" are the tradeoffs an artist makes with the audience to make that anxiety comprehensible. Smith treats these ideas loosely: she's a flâneur, jumping from point to point and poem to poem, and she consistently emphasizes the unfinished nature of this work. One section is titled — take a deep breath — "Haven't found a song title for this section yet/something about linearity — maybe Time After Time or Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime (By the Korgis — check lyrics)."

But riffs like that are themselves artistic contrivances, and this is a better organized, more thought-through series of lectures than Smith wants to immediately let on. Smith's fiction sometimes feels like the work of a modernist airdropped into the twenty-first century, and it's telling that many of the exemplars of her literary concerns hail from that age: Woolf, Dalí, William Carlos Williams, Sylvia Plath, e. e. cummings, and more. To that end, Artful's abstractions and stream-of-consciousness mood has a familiar tint. "Art itself is a broken thing if it's anything, and—the art of remaking, or imagining, or imaginative involvement, is what makes the difference." With so much literary fiction today snapping to a familiar mold, Smith's insistence on art's messiness feels at once nostalgic and refreshing.

Not that Artful's messes are entirely persuasive. "You know I can't do argument," the dead author insists, and if Smith wants to be a flâneur, she could occasionally stop behaving like she's doing it on a moped whose brakes have gone out — she swerves from Dickens to Colette to Shakespeare to the Greek B- movie actress on the book's cover to Borges to Margaret Atwood. What gets over bypasses the supposedly un-doable argument in favor of a plea for art's naked, life-and-death importance. The artist, Smith writes, occupies "the complex cultural place where kindness, thievery, bartering, and gift-giving all meet, make their exchanges, and by exchange reveal real worth." Artful comes well supplied with passion though it's swapped in a goodly amount of disorganization, too. In Smith's hands, that feels like a fair trade.

Mark Athitakis is a writer, editor, critic, and blogger who's spent more than a dozen years in journalism. His work has appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, Chicago Sun-Times, Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Washington City Paper, and many other publications. He is currently a member of the Board of Directors of the National Book Critics Circle.

Reviewer: Mark Athitakis

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143124498
  • Publisher: Viking Penguin
  • Publication date: 2/4/2014
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 374,725
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.72 (h) x 0.72 (d)

Meet the Author

Ali Smith

Ali Smith is the author of nine works of fiction, including Hotel World and The Accidental, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and winner of the Whitbread Award. She lives in Cambridge, England.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2014

    Author

    Okay. I'll toy with it! :)

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 28, 2014

    Scorge

    Kk

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 19, 2013

    a great discussion of literature, but not a novel

    I was very disappointed by this book. It had some good insight on a broad spectrum of literature and on a smaller selection of fine art; however, there was no plot and the pieces that were supposed to be plot were so short and so far apart I lost interest between them. The snippets of "plot" were more distracting than engaging - they led to many unanswered questions and were completely disconnected from the rest of the book. This should be a collection of essays for a college lit class, not a novel.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

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