- Sarah Wood
Ali Smith was born in Inverness in 1962 and lives in Cambridge.
Her books have won and been shortlisted for many awards. Her recent publications include How To Be Both (2014), winner of the Goldsmiths and Baileys Prize and the Costa Book Award for Best Novel; a collection of short stories, Public Library (2015), and the novels Autumn (2016) and Winter (2017), the first two novels in a "seasonal quartet". Like Smith's earlier novels Hotel World (2001), The Accidental (2005) and How to Be Both, Autumn was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize.
Ali Smith possesses the perfect characteristics of the short story writer: rigorous self-discipline in the planning process, an eagle eye for condensing detail, a capacity for using the personal and individual to suggest universal truths and a skill for hinting at a wider world beyond the story, all of which can be seen in her three major collections of short stories Free Love and Other Stories (1995), Other Stories and Other Stories (1999) and The First Person (2008).
Her novels Like (1997) and Hotel World (2001) also have the tight planning and formal construction of her short stories. Like for example is divided into two equal parts, the stories of two women with the pleasingly symmetrical names of Amy and Ash, the symmetry, and the fact that the two names are similar to the author's, giving us an uneasy insight into the closeness the three women share. Hotel World too is divided into five sections, the stories of five very different women during a day in the life of a hotel in the Global Hotel chain. Each section stands in its own right, and yet the stories are deftly interweaved, with characters from one section popping up in another, the actions of one character influencing the fate of another.To say that Smith plans her writings conscientiously gives the impression that she might be an over-deliberate, uninspiring writer, but this is very far from the truth. The themes she chooses to write about are ambitious: love, particularly but not only, that between women, death, loss, guilt, grief, illness, time and the chasms of misunderstanding between couples or the generations, where affection can become lost in impatience and incomprehension. They are themes that most writers touch upon, yet she seems to see them in a new, fresh light. Her first book of short stories, Free Love and other stories, experiments with love of every kind and degree, every story with its own individual tone - from the delicacy of the shy naval electrician in 'A Story of Folding and Unfolding' who, working in a WAF station just after the war, falls in love with his future wife when he sees her flimsy underwear folded in her locker; the fiery passion of the photographer in 'A Quick One' (note the double entendre here) remembering the height of an affair 'when clothes were worn to be taken off'; the poignant unrequited love of the Sunday art cinema goer in 'To the Cinema'; sibling love and the aching realisation of its loss in 'College' (a theme explored in more depth in Hotel World); a young couple's shared obsession with the actor River Phoenix in 'Scary' and a schoolgirl's crush on her French mistress in 'The World with Love'.The bold opening story, 'Free Love', tells the tale of a young girl who loses her virginity to a prostitute while on holiday with a friend in Amsterdam. Many are the times we have read stories or seen films about sexual awakening in the arms of prostitutes, but the innocent is usually a young man. At what point in the story do we realise that this time the innocent is a girl and that we are reading about a lesbian awakening? It is difficult to say - later in the story we read about how the encounter gives the main character the confidence to seduce her (girl)friend and all becomes obvious, but from the beginning, Smith playfully toys with a sexual ambiguity that continues to appear in other stories in both this and other books. When we read of love from this first story on, we are often on guard to see whether we are talking about man-woman or woman-woman love and, in the end we cannot help but come to the conclusion that Smith seems to want us to come to - that love is love, no matter the age, sex or environment in which the protagonists live. For, as Smith herself says, 'true love stories are always interchangeable' and we all feel love in the same way - 'everybody gets the crazy time'. Other Stories and Other Stories continues exploring the world of lesbian love in tales such as 'Blank Card', where a woman receives a bunch of flowers from an unknown admirer, and only at the end of the story do we realise that the admirer is not only her lover, but also a woman. But Other Stories... also branches out into new imaginative territory where we come across the couple with a summer insect infestation in their home in 'Small Deaths', the mysterious woman in 'Kasia's Mother's Mother's Story' who, though seemingly a non-Christian, steals a crucifix from a church in the belief that it will protect her and her children, or the sinister, nightmare world of Pauline in 'The Hanging Girl' who inhabits a world of near-insanity alongside the ghost of a young girl who has been hung for a crime which is never fully explained to us. Smith's work abounds with mysteries, with unresolved puzzles: what really happened to the old man who survived under the snow for a week in 'Miracle Survivors'? Who is the woman in 'Kasia's Mother's Mother's Story' hiding from? What crime did the girl in 'The Hanging Girl' commit? What country is she in? In the stories these mysteries are small but fascinating distractions, in the novels they become central to the plot: why is Amy's 'daughter' Kate not her own? Where did she get her from? Did she steal her from her lover, Ash? Why did the girl in Hotel World fall to her death? Was it an accident or was it suicide caused by the shame of her recognition that she loved a person of the same sex? As well as arousing the reader's imagination, the mysteries help to give each story a wider context, to make the story just a slice of a much larger and more complex world. They make the stories more real, because this is what life is - a continuous series of strange coincidences and unresolved endings.Smith's narratives are peppered with irrelevant information, which she delivers with a tongue-in-cheek delight worthy of Michael Caine. 'Not many people know that' Caine would remark when imparting his irrelevancies to others and you can almost hear Smith yelling this as she gives you a rundown of the contents of the Left Behind Room in Hotel World ('alarm clocks, batteries, books, all kinds of cameras...seventeen pairs of jeans...packs of condoms...a prosthetic limb (lower leg)...small easily lost children's toys') or how the more spirited chambermaids 'had a practice of wiping down the toilet seats of exceptionally messy rooms with the face flannels of guests'. In Like we are informed that, if a person bites you 'the new cells of the body will still, years after the bite, reproduce the shapes of the teeth that bit you all those years ago', that 'four hundred different kinds of insects....can be supported by living on one tree' and that 'nuns are not allowed to give each other presents'. Not only are some of these facts fascinating in their own right, they also give us an insight into Smith's personality - we imagine her poring over encyclopaedias as a child, (rather as the girl in Like does over the One Hundred and One Great Wonders of the World), sifting through articles in Sunday newspapers, keeping notes of any interesting new irrelevancies - and we feel more in empathy with her because of this.In the novel Like, Smith convincingly takes us into the mind of an eight-year-old: her world is a kaleidoscope of names and colours, the smell of dead fireworks, plastic animals stolen from school and hidden in secret places, dreams of circuses and far off worlds, of words (the letters of words on a page look like people, she thinks), and joke after joke: 'Why was Cinderella thrown out of the football team? Because she ran away from the ball', 'What kind of music do ghosts like best? Haunting melodies'. Kate may not be Amy's real daughter, but Smith skilfully builds up a strong image of mother-daughter intimacy by a mixture of physical detail - the washing of the dirty neck and the cleaning between Kate's toes, the musky, gas heated, condensation-filled caravan where Amy and Kate snuggle up to read together - and the robust leg-pulling, that only people who are close can submit one another to: 'I am called Kate Shone', says the little girl. 'More like Kathleen the Hooligan, Amy says, jabbing her in the ribs with the packet of cotton buds, drying her after her shower'.Her wicked sense of humour spawns endless puns at the blackest moments in her books: 'Put your hands together for this swinger' 'Why did the chicken cross the road? Wouldn't you if someone wanted to ring your neck' cries the compère at the execution in 'The Hanging Girl'. After Sara Wilby falls down the lift shaft in Hotel World we hear how terrible jokes 'the punchlines of which were, for example, Well and truly shafted...had been Chinese whispered up and down the stairwells'. Language is important for Smith, not only for its jokes, irony and double meanings, but also to give her narratives tone and psychological complexity. It is no coincidence that Amy in Like loses her capacity to read language after the emotional turmoil of acquiring her child, and only begins to read again when she feels confident enough to go back to her parental home and take a holiday with her child. In Hotel World too, as the ghost of Sara Wilby slips away into eternity, not only do the colours that she sees and her memory for physical sensations begin to fade, but so too does her verbal reasoning. She begins to forget words ('There is a word for heated up bread'), and sentences in the book contain blank spaces and full stops where words should have been ('Seeing birds. Their wings. Their beady. The things they see with'). The punctuation too becomes more and more confused, at times non-existent. The use of this device makes this section difficult to read, but at the same time adds a sense of urgency to the phantom's quest - to find out why her physical alter ego fell to her death - before fading into obscurity. The fact that Sara's sister, whose story we come to later in the book, speaks in the same breathless, unfinished way, underlines the closeness of the two girls. The sister's use of swear words is a typical characteristic of teenage dialogue, but also represents her mental confusion and her subconscious desire to be irreverent, to spit in the face of tragedy.Else, the bag lady in Hotel World, has a rich world of inner thoughts that range from the metaphysical poets to the rules of the Winter Shelter, but is so cut off from the real world, and debilitated by respiratory problems, that she communicates in short, abbreviated snatches of language 'Cn y spr sm chn? Thnk y.' Penny, the 'bored out of her mind' journalist staying at the hotel, spends her life conjuring up adjectives (classic, ideal, flawless, immaculate, superior, transcendent) that are as empty of meaning as her own life and, as the narrative shows us, totally inappropriate to describe the Global Hotel, which is far from perfect, harbouring as it does sadness, secrets and disrespectful staff.What happens after you die? How do we feel when a loved one dies? How will death come to us? How can we cope with grief? These are ideas that have preoccupied artists since the beginning of time, but what does it actually feel like to die a violent death? This is a question that few writers have addressed, and even less have depicted with the such simple language, with such brutal, fresh immediacy as Ali Smith in her description of the swimming champion's final dive into oblivion in the lift shaft in Hotel World:'hooooo and broke on the ground, I broke too. The ceiling came down, the floor came up to meet me. My back broke, my neck broke, my face broke, my head broke. The cage around my heart broke open and my heart came out. I think it was my heart. It broke out of my chest and it jammed into my mouth. This is how it began. For the first time (too late) I knew how my heart tasted'.
The book Girl meets Boy (2007) is one of a series entitled The Myths where important world writers have been commissioned by the publishers Canongate to retell a classical myth in a modern manner. Smith chooses to base her contribution on the myth taken from Ovid of Iphis and Ianthe. Iphis is born a girl but brought up by her mother as a boy. She grows up with Ianthe who becomes her best friend and society dictates that they will marry, but what will happen when Ianthe discovers her “husband” is in fact of the same sex as her? Iphis’s mother pleads with the Gods who turn Iphis into a boy and the couple marry and live happily ever after. The intricacies of family relationships – the main characters of the book are two sisters - the blurring of the lines between the sexes – one sister falls in love with a man so sensitive and kind he could be a woman and the other delights in a lesbian relationship - are constant themes in Smith’s work. The book contains some bold observations on homosexuality as one of the sisters realises her sister is gay and is forced to listen to the sexist, homophobic leering of her male friends. Many writers would rail or demonstrate outrage at the malice of the men, but for Smith it is enough for the men’s utterances to be self-condemningly ridiculous.
In the same novel Smith has some further pithy observations to make on the exploitation of water resources and young female interns by the unscrupulous multinational know as Pure and worldwide sex equality issues. The book is so rich in ideas and emotions that it is difficult to believe it all fits into a mere 160 pages and, above all, it is joyful, ebullient and positive, qualities that are unusual in contemporary literature. The climax of the novel is a gay wedding (in both senses of the word) with the couple’s family, friends, estranged parents, a male-voice choir from the Inverness Police Force and a female choir who sing “Don’t cha (Wish ya Girlfriend was Hot like Mine), the Gods, including Venus, Juno and Cupid, confetti and speeches with apologies for her absence from the Loch Ness Monster and a telegram-poem from historical woman-hater John Knox! Smith’s imagination runs riot and the reader cheerfully runs with her but then comes: “Uh-huh. Okay. I know. In my dreams. What I mean is, we stood on the bank of the river under the trees…that we truly wanted to go beyond our selves…And that’s the message. That’s it. That’s all” says Smith. What simpler or better declaration of hope could there be for two lovers or for the eventual social and political sanction of gay marriage?
Her third collection of short stories The first person and other stories (2008) sees a more mature and, sometimes, though not always, a more muted Smith, mulling over aspects of time, illness and age, although she still retains her original way with traditional subject matter. In “The Child” for example, someone leaves a baby in her supermarket trolley. She decides to take the child away and it begins talking to her like an adult, telling mother-in-law jokes and making outrageous comments. In the title story, which appears at the end of the collection we see two lovers discussing their relationship and trying to imagine a “first time I saw you” scenario to recount to family and friends. The imaginings are set off by the fact that the lover has moved the kitchen table out into the garden. At the end of the story the narrator sees the table left out in the moonlight and it becomes a metaphor for her love. “I believed I owned that table. Now, looking at it…I know that I don’t…Greenness will swallow it up…spring… will make it old, ruined, weathered” but, she concludes “It’s the best thing that could happen to anything I ever imagined was mine”. As always, Smith’s playfulness with words comes out in the dialogue between the two lovers. She describes her partner as Puck – “like the ice-hockey thing” says her partner, although Smith is referring to the character from a Shakespeare play. She considers mentioning Ariel (another character from the same play) but her lover interprets this as the washing powder by the same name and “like a double-bluff joke so…I find myself wondering again if maybe you’ve been having me on…you know a lot more than I do but for some reason you’re pretending you don’t”. What lover has not experienced this kind of confusion, where seemingly light-hearted flirtation sparks off darker thoughts?
In “True short story” Smith overhears two men, possibly father and son, arguing in a bar about the differences between short stories and novels. Is the novel a “flabby old whore” and the short story a “nimble goddess, a slim nymph”? they ask each other. “They were talking about literature, which happens to be interesting to me, though it wouldn’t interest a lot of people” says Smith in her ironic fashion. She puts the short story dilemma to her friend who is in hospital recovering from an infection after a course of chemotherapy. Her friend is an expert on the short story and this gives Smith the perfect terrain for stating some of her literary opinions. Literary ideas are more fully investigated by Smith in a series of lectures she gave at the University of Oxford in 2012 which were published in a collection entitled Artful where she gives her opinions on four aspects of literature: time, form, edge and offer and reflection using a witty combination of fictional pieces entwined with a series of quotes from a rich and wide range of literary sources.
In the novel There but for the (2011) Smith uses as her starting point a central character, Miles (or Milos as the press more exotically refers to him) who locks himself in the guest room during a London dinner party. The theme has been a common one in recent literature – in Kiran Desai’s Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard or The Woman who went to Bed for a Year by Sue Townsend, for example, but in many ways the story of Miles is simply a backdrop for a study of so many other things – of the relationship between young and old, of the alienation of teenagers, the aged and immigrants, of bigotry and commercial opportunism. Much of the novel is seen through the eyes of Brooke, a precocious ten year old who serves the purpose of the fool in Shakespeare’s plays – though the youngest of the characters she possesses powers of observation and the wisdom and insight that the adults in the novel lack. The sections about Brooke are almost stream of consciousness and abound in the characteristic jokes, puns and facts that Smith so loves (How do Vikings send messages? By Norse code”; What do you give an elephant who’s cracking up? Trunkquillizers). Brooke’s facts, often preceded by the expression “The fact is…”, are sometimes off kilter “I SEE NO SHIPS. That was what Admiral Nelson apparently is reputed to have said …That was shortly before Nelson died on the deck of the ship and said Kiss Me Hardy to Thomas Hardy the famous author”. This confusion of facts not only gives an authentic childlike quality to the text, it also stops the reader’s attention from straying.
As always Smith pokes fun via dialogue, for example when Miles’s “hostess” Genevieve explains that they liked to hold an “annual alternative dinner party” to which they invited “people who were a bit different from the people they usually saw”. This year they had invited Brooke’s parents (who we already know are black) who had recently moved here “not from anywhere in Africa but from Harrogate”. The facile and shamelessly politically incorrect dialogue at the bourgeois dinner party itself is also both hilarious and cringe-making, a self-condemnation of white middle-class urban values and yet, as in Boy meets Girl, it is enough for Smith to lay out the dialogue without political comment or social diatribe – she trusts her readers to make their own conclusions. As in her previous novels, the blackest scenes are often the most subtle and comic. What other writer would be able to describe the scene where an elderly lady, May, suffers a bout of incontinence, with such humanity and lack of pathos? “If it’s got to come out it’s got to come out. No stopping it” May states matter of factly. As a kindly man comes to help her out of the car she jokes “”A while since I’ve been in a big man’s arms”. The man holding her laughed. A pleasure, darling, he said.”
Like so many modern writers, Smith ponders the pros and cons of the Internet – page 159 contains some of the most interesting observations yet to be seen on this subject and ends with the character, disgusted by porn he has consumed typing the words “something beautiful” into Google and coming to the conclusion “More and more, the pressing human dilemma [is]: how to walk a clean path between obscenities”. This phrase could be seen as Smith’s motto, but the fact that whilst walking that path she weaves yarns that are entertaining, irreverent, sensitive, thoughtful, shocking and delightful makes her a storyteller par excellence.
Amanda Thursfield, 2013