A realm of words inhabited by readers
When the “I” in Ali Smith’s Library says “this is a true story”, I believe her. I believe her because she describes herself as a writer walking across London with her editor, Simon, to photocopy some new short stories. Smith’s editor is Simon Prosser and the story of their venturing into a building with the sign “LIBRARY” above its doors is plausible.
But I also believe it when the grieving protagonist in The Beholder finds, growing beneath her collar-bone, something “woody, dark browny greeny, sort of circular, ridged a bit like bark”. Her panicky doctor sends her to a consultant — “Actually ... I’m going to refer you to several consultants at the following clinics: Oncology Ontology Dermatology Neurology Urology Etymology Impology Expology Infomology Mentholology Ornithology and Apology, did you get all that?” And when a rose — the Young Lycidas — blossoms from the small stem sheltering under her clavicle, I believe in this.
As the referral suggests, Smith’s collection of short stories delights in the anagrammatic and the etymological, the digressive and layered. “Every rose opens into a layering of itself, a dense-packed grandeur that holds until it spills”, thinks the “I” of The Beholder. Winding through the stories is a motif of flourishing and withering. In The Poet the protagonist wonders: “Could you wither with a word?”
If words flourish under Smith’s attentive gaze, they wither with neglect. The stories are spliced with descriptions by “friends and strangers” of public libraries. In the British context they describe, hundreds of libraries are cutting their services or closing. Smith’s correspondents celebrate the democratic nature of libraries and the radically equitable access they allow to learning. Jackie Kay quotes her father in her poem Dear Library: “Browse, borrow, request, renew — lovely words to me. /A library card in your hand is your democracy.” Serendipity, joy, possibility and getting books for free recur in writers’ accounts. So does an awareness of how libraries support vulnerable people, providing books for those who cannot buy them, as well as computer access and a quiet public space.
Public Library follows Smith’s Booker shortlisted seventh novel How to Be Both (2014), a bravura work of entwinement in which her teenage protagonist studies DNA and Latin with her beloved by writing song lyrics to make each subject “unforgettable”, then translates them into Latin. Employing a literary version of the fresco technique for which the book’s other protagonist, Renaissance painter Francesco del Cossa, is remembered, Smith layers life over life.
How to Be Both was published a year after the oddly neglected Shire (2013), in which The Beholder and The Poet first appeared. Shire blends poetic slivers of nonfiction and fiction with images by Sarah Wood. This in turn extends the captivating hybridity of Artful (2012), which proceeds like Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with an anti-lecture approach to its anatomy of loss and language, taking essay and form as part of its subject.
Here, too, there are lives within stories and stories within lives, woven, twined and teased throughout. Smith’s work scintillates with reading — it is starred and punctuated by fragments of other writers’ work, and by its characters’ reading. It is breathless and expansive, leading readers into the work of hundreds of writers. As in Artful, some stories include lovers who are a reader and non-reader. This allows a dash of lecturing or hectoring and a splash of irreverent humour. One reader explains to her lover that “Fiction ... is impossible but enables us to reach what is relatively truth.” In Artful, a non-reader advises her lover to “Calm down ... go and do a line of Shakespeare.”
Haunting the relationship between reader and non-reader in The Ex-Wife is a third party, Katherine Mansfield, referred to by the nonreader as “your ex-wife”. Dropping Mansfield into this contemporary affair, plaiting fact and fiction, Smith gets beyond the limits of time and gender as well as form. As she writes in Artful (aficionados can download a glorious audio version read by Smith) in the vibrant On Form: form never stops. “It’s the bacterial kick of life force, something growing out of nothing, forming itself out of something else.”
A story about DH Lawrence’s ashes is interrupted when its writer-protagonist, Ms Smith, sorts out an unauthorised purchase on her credit card. A character is compelled by a story she is certain was written by Angela Huth, which Huth denies. Along with poet Olive Fraser, central to Shire, is a treasury of other poets.
In The Definite Article a character steps “out of the city and into the park”, exchanging an “urgent meeting about funding” for a rediscovery of poetry, taking “a path, any path” from the bottom of Primrose Hill and thinking of all the writers who have been there. The Art of Elsewhere begins with the statement: “I’ve been trying to go elsewhere all my life”, and ends with an anaphoric paean to that place: “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 is a refugee or an asylum-seeker whose worth can be decided by a government.” It is into this flourishing elsewhere that Smith’s stories venture, where things loosen and transform, and where libraries of delight spill their collections of dense-packed grandeur.
is poetry editor at UQP.