How to classify Artful, the latest offering from Scottish writer Ali Smith? An introductory note declares the book to be a faithful adaptation of the four Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature she delivered at Oxford last winter, but Artful is far from a rigorous academic talk; its literary criticism comes in the form of a fictional soliloquy of yearning. The premise is this: In a house in London, a woman mourning the death of her partner turns to their shared library for distraction from loss, only to find that her beloved has come back, unannounced, for a visit. The satisfactions of their reunion at first prove meager. Thoroughly zombified, the visitor gives off a powerful smell and trails rubble. Somewhere between life and death, she has shed chunks of her vocabulary and now prefers sitting in front of the television to speaking. As Smith’s narrator tries to coax her into conversation, she discovers the notes for—what else—a series of lectures on art and literature that her visitor was rushing to finish during her illness. These come to form half of a makeshift dialogue, the narrator addressing her own thoughts on the subjects at hand to the phantasmal “you” of her lover.
The namesake and patron saint of Artful is Dickens’s Artful Dodger, Oliver Twist’s sly guide to the pickpocket underworld. He’s a character whose many titles make him seem, to Smith, “like a work of shifting possibility.” The same can be said of Artful and its roving, supple reflections on paintings, poems, movies, and books of all kinds. Rilke and Sylvia Plath imagining the myth of Orpheus; HD sending Freud gardenias for his birthday; Lee Miller taking photographs of concentration camps; Christopher Marlowe translating Ovid: These are a few of the figures who cluster together, like Fagin’s crew of urchins, in improbable harmony around Smith’s set of improbable themes. There are chapters "on form," “on time,” “on edge,” and, most alluringly, “on offer and on reflection.” Smith threads her way through each with the help of a magisterial array of sources, highbrow and low. Her allusions and connections are deft and elastic, her language pensive, humorous, wise.
Before the ghost shows up, Smith’s narrator grabs her copy of Oliver Twist and drags an armchair from its usual place by the window to the opposite wall. The repositioning helps her read better, feel more at home, and Smith’s criticism, full of unusual arrangements, does something similar. Like works in a gallery, texts, images, and ideas take on fresh meaning by being moved and reorganized, nudged into conversation with one another. Sometimes the most unexpected configurations turn out to be the richest. It’s hard to imagine, for instance, what Hitchcock might have to do with Henry James, or how one could shed light on the other’s work, but Smith brings them together, moving from Hitchcock’s insight that suspense is best created by “giving all the information to the audience at the beginning of the picture” to the opening scene of The Golden Bowl, in which James’s Prince goes for a walk, as Smith writes, “paying no attention to the clues in his own narrative.” It suddenly becomes clear that James has framed the Prince just as Hitchcock might have, the motifs of his ruination expertly set up as if in an ominous tracking shot. The passage is the same as it ever was, yet somehow changed, made new. “His forms are creative fusions, which stir up the possibilities of form,” Smith says of the writer Ciaran Carson. She could be speaking of herself.
“Art is always an exchange, like love, whose giving and taking can be a complex and wounding matter,” Smith warns. Her grieving narrator throws herself into both anyway, because the opposite is also true. We need it to be. As she remembers from a visit to a museum with her lover:
The painting we were standing in front of when you told me this, a painting of a lake and some trees, was so full of the colour green that it’s almost all I remember about it, that greenness, though I remember you pointing out to me how everything in the picture was treated with the same importance or lack of importance, how every slab of colour mattered as much as every other, that that’s how the painting made its shapes, and how it mattered, too, that we knew it was a painting, something made, how Cézanne had wanted people who saw it to see how it was formed out of paint, made of colour, made of surface, before they even thought about trees or a lake. That way, you said, the artifice was what made the place in the picture—as well as the picture—truly alive.
To come alive through art: In reviving her lover by imagining her return, Smith’s narrator revives herself, too. There is an imperative at work here, the need to create as a way of moving past loss, which Smith, thinking of Rilke and his command to “change your life,” calls “the pure urgency for transformation.” Michelangelo, who shares space on a page with Beyoncé, Doris Day, and Harpo Marx, and whose rough, revealing sonnets come up throughout Artful, puts it this way in a note to his apprentice: “Disegnia antonio disegnia antonio/ disegnia e non perdere tempo’: draw antonio draw antonio/ draw and don’t waste time.” (Smith, with typical understated insight, observes, “except what he really wrote, because he wrote it so fast, was ‘desegnia e no prder tepo’ or draw and dnt wast tim.”)
As for Smith’s own apprentices, the students who came to hear and learn from her at Oxford—once word had caught on that she was doing something different, was not simply talking about what literature was, but was actually using it to making literature of her own in the lecture hall, attendance started to grow. At the second lecture, the audience had tripled. For the last, every seat was filled. And the ghostly beloved? Was she satisfied with the offering of this work she inspired? “To be known so well by someone is an unimaginable gift,” says Smith’s narrator. “But to be imagined so well by someone is even better.”
Alexandra Schwartz is on the editorial staff of the New York Review of Books.