The incomparable Ali Smith melds the tale and the essay into a magical hybrid form, a song of praise to the power of stories in our lives
In February 2012, the novelist Ali Smith delivered the Weidenfeld lectures on European comparative literature at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. Her lectures took the shape of this set of discursive stories. Refusing to be tied down to either fiction or the essay form, Artful is narrated by a character who is haunted—literally—by a former lover, the writer of a series of lectures about art and literature. A hypnotic dialogue unfolds, a duet between and a meditation on art and storytelling, a book about love, grief, memory, and revitalization.
Smith’s heady powers as a fiction writer harmonize with her keen perceptions as a reader and critic to form a living thing that reminds us that life and art are never separate. Artful is a book about the things art can do, the things art is full of, and the quicksilver nature of all artfulness. It glances off artists and writers from Michelangelo through Dickens, then all the way past postmodernity, exploring every form, from ancient cave painting to 1960s cinema musicals. This kaleidoscope opens up new, inventive, elastic insights—on the relation of aesthetic form to the human mind, the ways we build our minds from stories, the bridges art builds between us.
Artful is a celebration of literature’s worth in and to the world and a meaningful contribution to that worth in itself. There has never been a book quite like it.