Conversations with the undead: Ali Smith gives the lecture a haunting twist

Smith has been admired for her glittering inventiveness as a novelist

Latecomers to Ali Smith’s first lecture on comparative literature at Oxford University might have been forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into the wrong room. It began as a ghost story – about a lover back from the dead, still smelling of the dank earth from which she has risen – delivered in Smith’s melting, Inverness-accented voice, as fast and hypnotic as running water.

Latecomers to Ali Smith’s first lecture on comparative literature at Oxford University might have been forgiven for thinking they had stumbled into the wrong room. It began as a ghost story – about a lover back from the dead, still smelling of the dank earth from which she has risen – delivered in Smith’s melting, Inverness-accented voice, as fast and hypnotic as running water.

 Those preparing to nod off for the hour at the back of the hall must have been jolted awake by the sheer oddity of it, or perhaps from delighted relief. Either way, Ali Smith could feel the surprise in the room. They clearly liked the first instalment of her Weidenfeld lectures because they came back to St Anne’s College in increased numbers the next time around, and the time after that. “The second week, the students had tripled,” says Smith, soft-voiced, leonine-featured, still startled by the turnout. By the last lecture – on Valentine’s Day – all the seats in the back row were taken.

There is a moment in her talk, now published in book form as Artful (Hamish Hamilton, £20), when the penny drops that this – the ghost story – is the lecture. Yet, just when the fiction has the reader/listener rapt, it shape-shifts into a debate on comparative literature, segueing into lit crit on Dickens’s Oliver Twist and Greek film musicals, morphing into an illustrated talk on art history, reversing back to the ghost story and forward again – as emotionally freighted as a piece of storytelling, as intellectually rigorous as an academic’s essay.

It is typical of Smith. Nothing has ever been linear in her literary universe. The architecture of her novels is mischievously multiple, with a shining intelligence and breezy wit that renders it instantly readable.

Her 2001 novel, Hotel World –  the narrative constructed from numerous interior worlds that revolved around one mysterious death – was praised for its dexterity and shortlisted for the Orange and the Man Booker prizes. Her later novels – from The Accidental, which won the Whitbread prize in 2005 and was shortlisted for Orange and Man Booker, to There But For The which won the Hawthornden Prize and Scottish Fiction of the Year award last year (and caused uproar for being overlooked by Man Booker judges) – also play with words and forms in audacious ways.

Her fiction is often seen as a continuation of the Modernist project for its inventiveness and endeavour to capture the richness of a single moment.  There are stories within stories and mysteries within mysteries, as if Smith has a surfeit of imagination, as well as ruptures of different kinds. Characters refuse to stay dead: the lover in Artful, the young woman who narrates from beyond her grave in Hotel World. There are impish intruders who disrupt the order of things: Miles from There But For The, who attends a dinner party and ends up barricading himself into the guest room; Amber, the free spirit from The Accidental who invades a middle-class family’s holiday home and aggravates illicit passions.

Smith sits in her office, a dinky terrace house in Cambridge which is a few doors along from her home, another dinky terrace house that she shares with her partner of 25 years, Sarah Wood. She is delightfully unapologetic about writing complicated stories, and says she has never felt pressure from publishers to simplify them. “Sometimes language asks for more attention,” she says. “I have been blessed. They [publishers] have always let me have enough rope. If they didn’t, I would write the books I write anyway, but they would never be published.”

Smith has always believed that an author must remain as anonymous as possible or risk impeding the fiction for her readers. Too much biographical information “diminishes the thing that you do” she says. “You have to remain invisible.” It is a purist’s view – or perhaps merely that of a very private person – and it is not quite of our time, when authors must ensure maximum visibility for maximum sales. “We spend most of our time sitting on our own in a room, writing, she says, with exasperation at the extra-curricular demands. “And I’m quite shy.”

Yet she is open, in spite of it. In fact, Smith, in person, seems rather like her books: clever, funny, warm, with a strong aversion to categorisation. “I don’t want anyone to be excluded. The way in which we are closing our [national] borders – I’m not interested in categories.”

Her complex narratives structures are less a Modernist contrivance, she suggests, than a case of following her instincts to tell a story. “I wouldn’t call my work Modernist. I would rust if I try to think about labels. I’d feel like the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz…

“I would love to write Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. I would love to write [a linear story]. One day, I’ll try to write one,” she says, but corrects herself with the addendum: “You can’t write the [one] story because the story is already multiple.”

The lecture, she explains, was not an exercise in literary playfulness. She was a fledgling academic before she became a writer, but aborted that first career partly because she could not swallow the lie that lecturers were imparting definitive truths. “I’d be talking about To the Lighthouse and people would be waiting for an answer! [In giving it] I knew I was lying,” she says.

Some years into the lecturing at Strathclyde University, she began suffering from ME. It lasted months rather than years but it unhinged her. “When you are ill you see things from the point of view, as Virginia Woolf put it, of lying in the gutter. This unharnesses you.” It was after hitting this wall that she began to write fiction proper (she wrote poetry and stories as an undergraduate at Aberdeen University).

When she was invited to give the Weidenfeld lectures (“I surprised myself by agreeing to do them, although I left that life because I didn’t like it”), she devised Artful’s anti-lecture format which refused to masquerade as any single meaningful authority.

“I knew I had to do something else. I had to appease the thing in me that says there is no one truth, and no one authority. That is the way things work with lectures. So if I was going to do a lecture, I wanted it to be about different authorities, the way there is no one true authority.   At the back of this was the question of ‘how much we do not know?’  That’s a kind of authority too.”

The lecture’s sub-plot involves mysterious words and the Greek actress, Aliki Vougiouklaki, who in the 1960s was hugely admired in Greece but was little known elsewhere. These elements are there to make Smith’s point about our lack of a bigger understanding. “In the middle of the economic crisis, we don’t even know the Greek word for money. It’s the lightest nudge, again, to what we don’t know about, in a world where we think we have all the information at our fingertips and on the screens of our phones.”

While Smith’s books tend to interrogate loss, afterlives and the meanings of words, they also celebrate love, and feature burning romances. She points out this fact – that there is a lot of love in her fiction. Artful, certainly, is not just a ghost-story, but also a love letter. What is curious is that while much of the love in Smith’s fiction is same-sex passion, and while Smith herself is openly lesbian, her descriptions of love do not allude to “lesbian” love, and her characters appear to be disengaged from gender politics.

Smith is not opposed to lesbian fiction as a category.  She is not opposed to any genre.  “And anything and everything which gives people who can be marginalised a sense of strength is really important, really crucial, a source of strength and support. But I’m always going to be interested in the thing which is beyond category.”

Last year, she wrote tenderly about her working-class parents as outsiders in their adoptive home of Scotland: “My father was from Newark in Nottinghamshire and my mother was from the very north of Ireland. They’d ended up in Scotland, where my father – well, both of them – would always be seen as having come from somewhere else.”

Could she have inherited their “somewhere else” status, and is it this that is reflected in her novels, with their charismatic intruders who crash into middle-class lives from the outside? “Having grown up in a small town, knowing I was gay, knowing what that meant and knowing what exclusion was… if there is a political basis [for my fiction], it is the refusal to exclude, or the atmosphere round questions of inclusion and exclusion.”

She met Wood at the age of 25, when she was working on her PhD at Cambridge University and was writing plays. “I started writing them because there was a lot of [theatrical] talent and money available in Cambridge, it was very easy to put very good productions on.”  Wood, who is a filmmaker and counsellor, was running a theatre company. Smith reassured her that she had written the play, The Dance. “I’d actually only written a third of it. I had to go home and finish it in three days.” 

Smith’s first published book was a collection of short stories, Free Love and Other Stories (1995), and since then, she has joked that she turned to novel writing only because there was no money in the unfashionable small form. Her short stories have ranged from a few whimsical pages of an over-heard conversation in a café to deeply affecting, exquisitely formed stories of love and bereavement.

She still adores the short story for its speed and its concentrated sense of poetry, she says. “Short stories consume you faster. They’re connected to brevity. With the short story, you are up against mortality. I know how tough they are as a form, but they’re also a total joy.”  The novel is a different matter. “It can take four years.  But anyway I always feel like a novice every time I sit down to write anything.” 

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