Ali Smith's Artful is quite something. Quite several things, in fact. It's a quartet of lectures on literary-critical themes; it's a fiction, of sorts; and it's a meta-meditation on many of the things it itself embodies: big questions about art, about texts' relationships with one another and with their readers. Sound pretentious? It really isn't, somehow. (Self-indulgent, certainly – but in such a good-natured, generous-spirited, celebratory kind of way, who could complain?)
The topics of the book's four lecture-essay-chapter-things are "On Time", "On Form", "On Edge" and "On Offer and On Reflection". They grow from a fictional world where Smith's narrator looks through the papers of an ex-lover, who died leaving notes for four university lectures, never delivered. This bereaved narrator is visited by the lover's ghost, and in the presence of that ghost assembles these thoughts.
Smith's four topics are ways of considering literature and artistry; more even than that, they dig around in the experiences of life and death. Our bereaved narrator knows that time is also about transience, transience about loss. Edges are also borders, and thoughts about the liminal lead to thoughts about the boundaries between life and death. (Enter Orpheus and Eurydice.) Edges are also screens and surfaces, and the cutting-edge, embodied in re-inventors such as Leonora Carrington and W G Sebald. Form, meanwhile, asks the difference between Cézanne trees and real trees, made and the natural.
And then there's the voice! Smart, allusive, informal, playful, audacious, it's dense with ideas but sustaining always a heady pace. It is inspired, inspiring, exhausting. It finds words it likes and worries at them, cracks them open; it lays out for a reader inert phrases ("time will tell") and reviews and revives them. It is full of good jokes. It has big, sweeping statements – what the novel form is about, what short stories are good for – but also alights on micro-details of text for moments of shrewd close reading. It is hard to read slowly, but impossible to take in fully if you don't.
The narrator's reading of Oliver Twist runs throughout, that artless leading character set against his Artful friend. But we're also given Aliki Vougiouklaki and some Hitchcock, José Saramago and Juan Pablo Villalobos, Clarice Lispector, Javier Marías, Ovid and Wislawa Szymborska. Smith's horizons are wide, odd and constantly surprising, and she shares with us, energetically. It is maddening, and totally seductive. (It's true. I think I am in love with Ali Smith. Yes, I'll cope.) And the same things that make Artful allusive make it elusive. While drawing you on, it also tempts you with the possibility of a second read, and the knowledge that there's so much more to be mined.
Artful is a gift from Ali Smith to her reader. It's a book no one else could have written, or would have. Smith has a critic's eye, but fills her book with the novelist's art, and the novelist's heart. Time to read it again now.