A realm of words in­hab­ited by read­ers

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Felic­ity Plun­kett

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.

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