Essays

Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith

By posted at 6:00 am on February 13, 2014 4

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1.
I can still remember exactly where I learned certain words. I can recall Salman Rushdie’s repeated use of assiduous in Midnight’s Children. Or looking up pulchritude when I came across it in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth. The first time I read the word fantod was not in Mark Twain, who popularized its usage, but in David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, where it was invariably preceded by the word howling. Tennessee Williams taught me mendacity, and Thomas Pynchon taught me…well, he taught me a lot of words (among them: phalanx, faradic, tessellate, and hysteresis, as well as numerous words in numerous languages). Of course, I had undoubtedly read those words before reading each of the above works, but I had never absorbed them. The usage of the words in these novels and plays didn’t just use the words –– they exploited the words for all they’re worth. Saleem repeatedly attributes assiduity to his mother Amina in Midnight’s Children. Mendacity is discussed at great length in A Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Zadie Smith makes the lovely observation that the ugliness of the word pulchritude doesn’t match its meaning (Wallace, in his posthumous essay collection, Both Flesh and Not, notes that pulchritude is “part of a tiny elite cadre of words that possess the opposite of the qualities they denote. Diminutive, big, foreign, fancy (adj.), classy, colloquialism, and monosyllabic are some others.”). I now associate these words with their respective authors. Every time I use one of them, it is as if I can feel the presence of my teacher over my shoulder. I am, in those moments, part of a tradition, albeit a small one.

But what really excites me are authors who teach me new meanings to banal words. New words can be a joy, inasmuch as they remind me of the sheer vastness of language (not to mention my limited grasp of it), but the reconsideration of a word I already know –– now that is something. Defamiliarizing language reminds me that everything in language, even definition, is fluid, malleable, and open to inventive use. Shakespeare, obviously, is the easy example here. As Stephen Fry says, Shakespeare “made a doing-word out of a thing-word every chance he got.” He invented words (eyeballs, amazement, bedazzled) and reclassified others (the verb “to gloom” became “gloomy”). But for me personally, the writer who most tickles my linguistic fancy is Ali Smith, one of the most underappreciated writers working today.

coverAli Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a “wordsmith.” Her prose, however, isn’t as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. Let’s just start with some examples. Her latest novel, There But for the, exemplifies her remarkable acumen with quotidian language. Each of the four sections of the novel is named after the words of the title, and they also serve as the first word of the first sentence of each chapter. She mines “there” for everything it’s got, beginning with the form of a knock-knock joke. Who’s there? takes on new meaning once Anna, one of the protagonists, considers what it means to really be there, as in present. Her friend Denny tells her that he can “sum up the last six decades of journalism in six words…I was there. There I was.” Suddenly the idea of thereness persists in her mind as Anna receives word that an old acquaintance has shut himself into a room at a dinner party, and refuses to come out:

It was as if the whole outside world was TV soundtrack. Maybe there was a new psychosis, Tennis Players’ Psychosis (TPP), where you went through life believing that an audience was always watching you, profoundly moved by your every move, reacting round your every reaction, your every momentous moment, with joy/excitement/dis-appointment/Schadenfreude. Presumably all professional tennis players had something like it, and maybe so to some extent did everybody who still believed in God. But would this mean that people who didn’t have it were somehow less there in the world, or at least differently there, because they felt themselves less observed?

Then, when Genevieve, the distraught homeowner, describes to Anna the situation with Miles and the dinner party, Anna suggests that Miles isn’t “all there,” to which Genevieve’s precocious daughter replies: “He is all there…Where else could he be?” When Anna knocks on the door to Miles’s newly adopted home, she asks, “Are you there?” In her memories of Miles, he tells her about a book he’s writing, which begins, “There was once, and there was only once…Once was all there was,” echoing the beginning of this novel, which begins, “There once was a man…” and goes on to set-up the dinner party fiasco. There is used, still in this section, in all of its varieties: “It’s over there,” “There,” (as in, locating something and as in, There you go), or in the exchange, “What exactly is a pun therefore?” which yields the response, “What exactly is a pun there for?” The section ends with Anna saying, “I’m here,” dropping one letter from the sections theme, creating a new word with a more intimate meaning.

In lesser hands, all this verbal play would strike one as preening and obnoxious. In Ali Smith’s delicate grip, words become emblems of the character’s life. There introduces Anna’s ponderous relationship with the world she’s in, it questions Miles’s sanity, it hints at the fable-like nature of the narrative, and it works as an introduction to the predicament that sets all of this into motion. This kind of gymnastic use of a single word is Smith’s specialty, but instead of simply engaging in verbal pyrotechnics for their own sake (as, say, Barthelme arguably did), Smith wants to understand the dynamic between language and our inner lives. Can you really tell me, for instance, that you’ve never considered a word until its myriad meanings seem to encompass every aspect of your life?

coverWell, even if you haven’t, Smith has, and her constant quest for elastic language remains a singular pleasure in her work. In The First Person and Other Stories, she writes three tales named after fictional points of view: the title story and “The Second Person” and “The Third Person.” Each one surprises you with what Smith means by the title. In “The First Person,” a couple’s almost cynical dynamic actually displays their burgeoning love for one another:

You’re not the first person I ever had really good talks like this with, I say.

I know, you say. Been there, done that. You feel very practised.

Thank you, I say. And you won’t be the first person to leave me for someone else or something else.

Well but we’ve a good while before that, with any luck, you say.

And you’re not the first person to, to, uh, to––, I say.

To stump you? you say. Well. You’re not the first person who was ever wounded by love. You’re not the first person who ever knocked on my door. You’re not the first person I ever chanced my arm with. You’re not the first person I ever tried to impress with my brilliant performance of not really being impressed with anything. You’re not the first person to make me laugh. You’re not the first person I ever made laugh. You’re not the first person full stop. But you’re the one right now. I’m the one right now. We’re the one right now. That’s enough, yes?

You’re not the first person to make a speech like that at me, I say.

Then we’re both laughing hard again in each other’s new arms.

What a wonderful passage, how honest in so many ways. Smith shows here how, like language, we can embody multiple meanings, in this case the honest cynicism of relationships, that we’ve been through the dance before and that, in many ways, many of our emotional rituals are recycled and should thus lose power, but how despite all those logical thoughts, we feel love anyway. We feel new with a new love, even though we’ve felt new before, even though we’ve laughed in another’s arms. Those thoughts don’t matter, even though we’re completely aware of them. We fall in love nonetheless. As if we never had before.

2.
I’d like to ask a question here that Ann Patchett asked of Edith Pearlman: why isn’t Ali Smith famous? Sure, her books have won numerous awards, but so have Pearlman’s, and though her books are almost unanimously well acclaimed, she seems to only be known by writers. This kind of reputation usually draws the phrase writer’s writer, but Smith, as I have argued, moves beyond mere linguistic innovation. Her books are soulful explorations of what it means to live inside our minds, with all the bouncy, circuitous thoughts that live in there with us. More than that, she is so immensely readable, her prose moves like the conversation of a witty friend. Accessible, playful and rich with insight, Smith has few peers. So: why isn’t she famous?

coverOne answer might be Smith’s tendency to beguile, not just in her books, but also in her career. She rarely sits down for an interview, does zero press for her books and consistently creates narratives with strange premises: a man refuses to leave a dinner party, a stranger upends a family when she appears at their home one night, a woman finds a child at a grocery store and can’t rid herself of him. These are not the sorts of tales that ordinarily top the bestseller charts. Yet, would anyone expect George Saunders’s books to sell well? Or, for that matter, Stephen King’s? Most recently, Smith produced a book that defies categorization. Artful is, to me, one of the best and most unique works of literary criticism published in the last decade, yet it received minimal coverage, as if the reading world (in America, at least) responded to a new book from Smith with nonchalance: “Oh, that woman made another strange book.”

Sidestepping any conventional approach to analysis, Smith instead tells the fictional story of a woman who has lost her partner of many years. Her dead lover wrote a series of lectures on art and literature, thus the criticism done here is filtered through the point of view of a non-literary person who remembers her partner’s work. A sense of mourning enters into the book, also of longing, of heartbreak, of love. Here’s an example of the interplay between the emotional and the academic modes of Artful:

There, I thought. I’m okay. I’ve moved a really heavy chair. I’ve changed things. And I’ve read sixteen lines in a novel and I’ve thought several things about them and none of this with you, or to do with you; I even read the phrase ‘item of mortality’ and thought of something other than you. Time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds. Then you would tell the story of Achille’s mother dipping him in the protective river, holding him by the heel between her finger and thumb; that’s why the heel got missed out, didn’t get protected. Which, you said, when it came to story, was what suspense meant. And from then on all time’s arrows pointed at that unprotected heel.

In this single passage, the narrator moves from personal reflection to broad insight and recollected literary analysis. What makes the choice of form here so wonderful is the way it reflects, to me, one’s relationship with literature. Our brains (and, to be sure, our hearts) don’t usually work like academic papers do –– we can’t cite the exact quotation or prove our thesis at the drop of a hat. Instead, we recall the novels and stories and poems we’ve read and conjure a feeling or sensation we got when we first read them. Literature is a part of our unconscious life, just like past lovers, long-ago travels, and instances of pain and suffering and joy and hope. It is all mashed up into a messy medley of personal selfhood. Artful’s narrator, then, becomes not just a tool for Smith’s criticism but also a stand-in for the bridge between art and our selves. Art becomes a part of us yet exists independent from us, just like the people we love.

Artful, though, engages in the academic approach as well, with Smith once again extracting as much as she can from single words. As the narrator rereads Oliver Twist, she remarks on the repeated use of the word ‘green,’ which is one of the first things the Artful Dodger (from whose name the book takes its title) says to Oliver when he meets him. In this same scene, Dodger asks Oliver about ‘beaks,’ which Oliver takes to mean “a bird’s mouth.” Dodger tells him that a beak is a magistrate, about which our narrator writes:

It’s like literality meeting a metaphor, I thought. Or –– no –– it’s like a real apple meeting a Cezanne apple. It’s as if Dodger speaks another language altogether; and it’s as if Oliver has to understand that a beak can be more than one thing, and a mill, and all the words that come in the paragraph after too, a stone jug, a magpie. Everything can be more than itself. Everything IS more than itself.

Underneath Smith’s wordplay lies philosophical positivism –– like words, we all contain multitudes; we can be one thing and its opposite, or, like Smith writes of the Artful Dodger, whom Dickens refers to by various names, we are all “a work of shifting possibility.”

In a rare interview for a newspaper in Cambridge, where she lives, Smith had this to say about the instinctual connections you must make in order to allow a story to move where it wants to go:

If you write something, you look at it, and maybe the word ‘green’ will turn up in four places in one paragraph, so then you think ‘what does green mean?’ It means immaturity, it means spring, it means newness, it means naivety. Then you look in those directions to see what the words wanted you to do.

And there is a connection, just like she says. The word green appears again. Appears in Oliver Twist and in an interview with Smith. What, taking from Smith, are we to do with this? It would be easy to guess that Smith was probably working on Artful at the time of the interview (the piece focused on There But for the, Smith’s book directly before Artful), but I’d like to think that it’s more than that. I’m going to settle on newness, because whenever I think of Smith, new is a word that pops into my head. I wonder what she’d do with it.

See what the words wanted you to do, she says. Smith follows words around like a detective, noting every street they walk down and every activity they engage in. She waits patiently for the telling moment, the odd behavior, and there (ahem) she finds its purpose, and the story seems to come along with it.

Image Credit: Flickr/darwinbell





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4 Responses to “Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith”

  1. Edward Champion
    at 7:52 am on February 13, 2014

    Well, at long last, The Millions has published a decent and rigorous take on an author who deserves greater recognition. Well done, Jonathan Russell Clark! And you didn’t even have to resort to TV commercial imagery!

  2. Steven Weinzierl
    at 8:25 am on February 13, 2014

    A great read.

  3. Eliza
    at 11:09 am on February 16, 2014

    Someone had to write this – thanks!

  4. Jonathan Russell Clark
    at 3:59 pm on October 3, 2014

    […] Wordsmith: The Beguiling Gifts of Ali Smith | The Millions Ali Smith, appropriately enough, is one of the few writers (along with Nabokov, Stoppard, Woolf, Wallace, and Hitchens) who qualify as a “wordsmith.” Her prose, however, isn’t as rich or ornate as some of the other wordsmiths, but no one else can mine ordinary words for such rich, emotional meaning. […]

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