The most beautiful thing about Ali Smith’s new book Artful — at once a series of real-life Oxford lectures and a metafictional post-love story — is the way she carries us through her unnamed narrator's emotional progression. As I read, following the bereaved lecturer from Dickens to Damien Hirst, from her notes to those of her deceased partner, I felt compelled to create a "skeleton key" out of her varied references to art and literature. Below you'll find nine of them — nine piercing observations that also articulate the arc of the narrator's grief and love.
55 (“Not marble nor the gilded monuments”)
How do words preserve the people we have lost? “This sonnet, [Shakespeare] says, will last longer than any gravestone – and you’ll be made shinier, brighter, by it ... it’ll even keep you alive after death.”
Like the dead partner's papers, Hirst's jewel-encrusted skull points to the tensions between life and death, art and reality. "Hirst [knows] like all artists do, that regardless of how precious the stones stuck all over it are, it’s a skull."
“The Messenger God”
As she describes the Greek messenger-god Hermes, who could flit across the heavens, Smith notes that “Alive and very fast both sometimes mean the same thing, we are able not just to know but to see where we are and where we're living ... reflection means we see ourselves.”
Torso of Apollo”
Smith's narrator implicitly relates reading her partner's lecture notes to looking at a broken sculpture: “It’s the act of making it up, from the combination of what we’ve got and what we haven’t, that makes the human.”
The Artful Dodger
from Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist
The gulf between the narrator and the dead beloved reappears in the vagaries of language: “It’s as if the Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it’s as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing ... [if] words are more than literal, then [Oliver Twist's] own second name becomes the twist of his own story.”
Was it necessary that the narrator's partner die? The Greeks would say so: when Achilles was dipped into the River Styx, his “heel got missed out ... [and so] All time’s arrows pointed at that unprotected heel.”
“Rilke suggests there’s simply no point in [Orpheus’s] trying to bring Eurydice back to the surface." The narrator feels differently: "If I had a chance to fetch you from the underworld, to go down and persuade them and fetch you home, I’d never look back.”
How can a poem express loss? Through structure and its failings, perhaps: “The villanelle form holds all the lost things safe and simultaneously releases them, lets them be lost.”
Peter Hobbs’s In the Orchard, the Swallows
Finally, how does love survive death and grief? From Hobbs's book, Smith draws the lesson that "gifts" can be a form and embodiment of love, and “the responsibility of accepting the gift radiates beyond the story’s protagonists and passes to the reader of the novel.”
“Great books are adaptable,” Smith tells herself in the first of her lectures; “they alter with us as we alter in life, they renew themselves as we change and re-read them at different times in our lives.” For me, the magic of Smith's lectures is that she makes a gift of everything she lays eyes on — and reminds us of our power to keep revisiting and revising our most treasured stories, even as they renew and change us.