“We know it all now, with our thoughts traveling at the speed of a tweet, our 140 characters in search of a paragraph. We’re post-history. We’re post-mystery.”
Some books you find because you are weirdly voyeuristic about what other people are reading, and your nosiness makes you find great reads. For me, the biggest selling point of a book is the impact it had on a person. You tell me how much you love a book and why, and the book becomes endlessly fascinating to me. I keep a mental to-be read list, as one is wont to do, and books recommended like this are likely to immediately reach the top of such lists. I discovered Ali Smith before I discovered any particular book of hers. I saw her endlessly quoted on different social media, and people gushing over her left and right.
Something about her drew me despite not knowing anything about her. The first book I read by her was How to Be Both, which was short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. It is the kind of book that completely sells the author to you and makes you want to read everything written by them. I don’t quite know how to describe her writing without resorting to clichés like it is nothing like anything you’ve read before (a statement which is a 100% true despite its banality). Although I read How to Be Both first, Artful was the first book of hers I saw quoted. I don’t remember what the quote was, or where I read it, all I remember is that it was indescribably beautiful. So, a few months later, walking amid the shelves at the British Council Library, when I saw Artful, I obviously had to pick it up.
Divided into four parts: on time, on form, on edge, on offer and on reflection, Artful is based on a series of lectures delivered by Smith at Oxford University. Refusing to fit into easy categories of fiction and non-fiction, the four essays are framed within a narrative of the narrator mourning the death of her (genders are never actually specified for either but I assumed it was a ‘her’) partner. We have the narrator literally and figuratively haunted by her dead partner. Each section has the fictional frame with the narrator living her life and learning to live alone interspersed with notes from the lectures that her partner was supposed to give before her death. The notes have an incompleteness to them which makes them more powerful; not much is elaborated on; we are just given these bursts of thoughts, ours to do with as we please.
“Edge is the difference between one thing and another. It’s the brink. It suggests keenness and it suggests sharpness. It can wound. It can cut. It’s the blade—but it’s the blunt part of the knife too.”
Artful is a book that defies the same edges it talks about, as it defies the time and form it talks about. As to an offer and a reflection, the book is both and neither.
It is a play upon a word and its severalties, but a play that runs deeper and turns into a reflection. The book offers a pause that flows between sentences like it is a part of it. You read long disconnected yet connected thoughts and are astounded by the discursiveness of writing about things that mean more than their superficial usages. We are made aware of every nuance, every connotation, every always-has-been and every never-was that comes with words and concepts.
A first reading can’t do justice to the subtleties the book has to offer. As I was reading it, I knew I would have to go back to it time and again.
Besides the depth and the wit, there are moments in the book that caused me to very audibly sigh while reading them— sentences and paragraphs that unsettled my heart a little, that made my head raise itself an inch higher, that changed where I was standing ever so slightly.
I read it over a long period of time, as reading it quickly wouldn’t do justice to the gravity of each sentence, and the little connections sprawling underneath the whole thing.
“There’ll always a dialogue, an argument, between aesthetic form and reality, between form and its content, between seminality, art, fruitfulness and life. There’ll always be seminal argument between forms — that’s how forms produce themselves, out of a meeting of opposites, of different things; out of form encountering form. Put two poems together and they’ll make a third.”
One of the most magical things in a book, I find, is intertextuality. There is something unexplainably wonderful about all of literature being one interconnected web where writers call upon each other through time and space, and draw from, continue or even break apart from what came before and pave the way for what might come after. Artful constantly quotes a multitude of books, poems, essays, films, songs while explaining and sustaining a thought and its various varieties over the ages. It sets up a conversation with a wide cultural sphere of thought and inspiration.
“You told me Leonara Carrington was an expert in liminal space. What’s liminal space? I’d asked you. Ha, you’d said. It’s kind of in-between. A place we get transported to. Like when you look at a piece of art or listen to a piece of music and realise that for a while you’ve actually been somewhere else because you did? I’d said. Or liminal like limbo? Maybe, you’d said getting excited, wait I’ll look it up, maybe limbo and liminal share a root, it sounds like they might.”
The whole book exists on a blurred space, a fault line, an in-between space—between personal and public, wit and emotion, fiction and criticism. It’s the liminal and the limbo it mentions. The book stumbles along and feels a little awkward at times, but the awkwardness only proves to be endearing. As I turned the last page, before verbalising my thoughts properly here, all I could manage was, “Wow”.
by Tanvi Joshi