It's taken me a long while to be receptive to the work of Scottish novelist and playwright Ali Smith, almost as if I had to learn how to read her -- but Smith's Autumn is the book that taught me how to do so, and now I'm hooked on them all. (I blush to think that I felt the same about Virginia Woolf when I was young. Thank heavens that changed.)
"I’ve known Smith since I was 17 (her partner, the artist and film-maker Sarah Wood, is my cousin). In the 1990s we used to write each other letters. Recently I unearthed a blurry photograph she sent me 20 years ago of a cat’s tail dangling over a sofa. 'I have a long-term plan to write a novella for each season,' she’d written on the back. 'It seems to me the seasons are so gifted to us that it’s a kind of duty, a very nice one.'
"Though she jokes now that she sounds like Katherine Mansfield pretending to be charming, this talk of gifts and duties gets to something essential about Smith. She believes in unselfish communal values such as altruism and generosity and has an infectious faith in hospitality, be it to new ideas or strangers. In addition to writing eight novels and five collections of short stories, she has fought against the mass closure of public libraries ('libraries matter because we’re living in an age of disinformation') and the proposed scrapping of the Human Rights Act; is a patron of the charity Refugee Tales and a staunch advocate for young writers and writers who have fallen out of fashion. She’s not, in short, an artist who seeks to wall herself off from the world."
Even in the Mythic Fiction field, where we render life through myth and metaphor, many of us are likewise determined not to wall ourselves off from the world but to use our art to guide each other through the dark. Smith shows how to do so without slipping from storytelling into didactism.
From Autumn, Smith's poetic and powerful "post-Brexit" novel, published last year:
"Her mother sits down on the churned-up ground near the fence. I’m tired, she says. It’s only two miles, Elisabeth says. That’s not what I mean, she says. I’m tired of the news. I’m tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren’t, and deals so simplistically with what’s truly appalling. I’m tired of the vitriol. I’m tired of the anger. I’m tired of the meanness. I’m tired of the selfishness. I’m tired of how we’re doing nothing to stop it. I’m tired of how we’re encouraging it. I’m tired of the violence there is and I’m tired of the violence that’s on its way, that’s coming, that hasn’t happened yet. I’m tired of liars. I’m tired of sanctified liars. I’m tired of how those liars have let this happen. I’m tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I’m tired of lying governments. I’m tired of people not caring whether they’re being lied to any more. I’m tired of being made to feel this fearful. I’m tired of animosity. I’m tired of pusillanimosity. I don’t think that’s actually a word, Elisabeth says. I’m tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says. "
"Elsewhere there are no mobile phones. Elsewhere sleep is deep and the mornings are wonderful. Elsewhere art is endless, exhibitions are free and galleries are open twenty-four hours a day. Elsewhere alcohol is a joke that everybody finds funny. Elsewhere everybody is as welcoming as they’d be if you’d come home after a very long time away and they’d really missed you. Elsewhere nobody stops you in the street and says, are you a Catholic or a Protestant, and when you say neither, I’m a Muslim, then says yeah but are you a Catholic Muslim or a Protestant Muslim? Elsewhere there are no religions. Elsewhere there are no borders. Elsewhere nobody is a refugee or an asylum seeker whose worth can be decided about by a government. Elsewhere nobody is something to be decided about by anybody. Elsewhere there are no preconceptions. Elsewhere all wrongs are righted. Elsewhere the supermarkets don’t own us. Elsewhere we use our hands for cups and the rivers are clean and drinkable. Elsewhere the words of the politicians are nourishing to the heart. Elsewhere charlatans are known for their wisdom. Elsewhere history has been kind. Elsewhere nobody would ever say the words bring back the death penalty. Elsewhere the graves of the dead are empty and their spirits fly above the cities in instinctual, shapeshifting formations that astound the eye. Elsewhere poems cancel imprisonment. Elsewhere we do time differently. Every time I travel, I head for it. Every time I come home, I look for it."
And so do I.
"And it was always the stories that needed the telling that gave us the rope we could cross any river with. They balanced us high above any crevasse. They made us be natural acrobats. They made us brave. They met us well. They changed us. It was in their nature to."
"It's a question of how we regard our situations, how we look and see where we are, and how we choose, if we can, when we are seeing undeceivedly, not to despair and, at the same time, how best to act. Hope is exactly that, that's all it is, a mater of how we deal with the negative acts towards human beings by other human beings in the world, remembering that they and we are all human, that nothing human is alien to us, the foul and the fair, and that most important of all we're here for a mere blink of the eyes, that's all."
"There's always, there'll always be, more story. That's what story is."
And from a fine interview with Smith in 2014 by Alex Clark:
"Smith describes herself as 'a really uncool, geeky enthusiast.' Was she aware of the power of books from a young age? 'Oh, always!" she laughs. 'I was profoundly changed by Charlotte's Web. When you fall in love with a book something especially interesting and exciting is happening because of the way language works on us as human beings. And I love language. And I also love butterflies, and cloud-shapes, and types of train. What can I say? The world is a proliferation."
Words: Follow the links above to read the full articles by Olivia Laing and Alex Clark. The poem in the picture captions is from the Food/Land issue of of the Canadian magazine Guts (Fall, 2015); all rights reserved by the author.
Pictures: Dartmoor ponies on Chagford Commons on a winter's day.