Published by Hamish Hamilton CA on January 29, 2013
Source: First Reads
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The incomparable Ali Smith melds the tale and the essay into a magical hybrid form, a song of praise to the power of stories in our lives
A book 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. A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization. Smith’s heady powers as a diction 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. Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form from ancient cave painting to 1960’s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights-on the relations of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us. Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.
Artful is an intriguing blend of fiction and non-fiction. It tells the story of a woman who is literally haunted by her deceased husband, a man who used to give talks on literature. While learning to cope with her grief and move on she reads a series of lectures that her husband had been working on.
The book is labelled as literary criticism, and it is that, but it’s also a story about grief and love. It was not an easy book to read by any means. Most books I can pick up and finish before I put it down, but this one had to be read in chunks so it wouldn’t overwhelm me.
When I received my copy I thought I would just skim the first page, but the prose and the lyrical quality to the writing drew me right in. In a way, I’m haunted by this book. Even after putting it down it would stay in my mind, nonsensical words that made me try to understand, or even just the thoughts on writing and literature. I read the first of four lectures that day, and afterwards I spent far too much time flailing over the diction. My favourite quote is actually a paragraph:
You are calling my bluff, of course. I call yours back. I take that book to the tattoo parlor down Mill Road and I come home, after several sessions, with exactly this tattoo. I choose to have it done in deep blue, the color of your eyes. It costs me a fortune. It hurts like irony.
I’ve read this book again already and yet it still lingers. It’s one of those books that just touches you in a simple way that holds so much meaning. I wouldn’t recommend this book to just anyone, of course. I think it needs to be read by someone who is of a literary mind, who enjoys books that are thought provoking, and by someone who doesn’t mind breaking down in tears at the final lecture. Because I know I did.