'How adaptable human beings were without even realizing it, slipping blindly from state to state. One morning is was summer, the next you woke up and the whole year was over; one minute you were thirty, the next sixty, sixty next year quick as a wink, how fast it all was...'
Well that certainly got my attention, as did this...
'How quickly and smoothly. yet how shockingly, when you thought about it, the seasons and the years gave way to each other...'
And as I read There but for the by Ali Smith I was reminded of something that seemed to have happened yesterday, but was in fact seven years ago.
It was at a library book group. The librarian would wheel in a trolley of reads for us to choose from and we would then come back the next month and talk about them. I passed across a book to another member of the group. It was a book I had failed to enjoy/understand/finish and to a spectacular degree. I loathed it, couldn't see what on earth it was trying to do or tell me, far too over the edge and modernist with a touch of emperor's new clothes for me to grasp, and so when that book group member said she needed a read for a train trip to London I said 'Why not try this one?' as I passed her my failure. Now this really was a bit naughty of me, and when we met again at the next book group session she told me as much... stuck on a train with a book you just can't get on with, what on earth was I thinking suggesting she read this.
So that made two of us who just couldn't get our heads around The Accidental by Ali Smith.
Well that was in 2005, dovegreyreader has happened in the interim and a great deal of reading water has passed under the bridge since, but I have also avoided Ali Smith's writing, and this despite being urged by many to brave it and discover for myself a writer who is really pushing the boundaries of what fiction can do. So when Ali Smith was scheduled into my programme at Port Eliot this year I had a mild panic attack. In fact Ali was to join Michele Roberts to talk about Angela Carter in the dovegreyreader tent but sadly had to do a very quick turn around due to a bereavement, hence just Michele and I at that talk, but in the run up and the preparation for the festival it really did focus my attentions on my 'problem' and I knew I had better sort this.
Deciding on the deluge and let's-not-do-this-by-halves approach to any possible conversion I sent for the books, as many by Ali Smith as I could lay hands on, and eventually decided to read There but for the, Ali Smith's latest novel. I'm not sure whether what happened next is about the reading muscle which I may have developed over the last six years, or a willingness to be more open to different, perhaps more challenging writing... possibly about not creating a comfort zone for myself but rather preferring to wander freely around the bookish world. A reluctance to pass judgement without a thorough investigation maybe.
Ali Smith suggested this on the subject of style versus content in her talk at The Edinburgh Writer's Conference recently...
For a style may not be to your taste. It may not be your style. But that's an important issue, one that marks style's power. The last thing literary style is is a matter of indifference; that's why it's so powerful a stirrer of love and passion, anger and argument. That's why it can really trouble us. That's why a style you don't take to can feel so like a personal assault.
I can see now that I should not have reached that mind-limiting conclusion about Ali Smith's writing, based on a quarter of a read of one book seven years ago, heavens the doors that close when I do that sort of thing.
I am learning.
So I picked up There but for the with some trepidation, but also a sense of anticipation of the 'OK you can do this variety', and you will know by know that I wouldn't be writing a word about it unless I had undergone some Damascene conversion, which I did and by about page twenty.
I just love it when I come across a writer who truly understands and can convey the voice of a child so convincingly and with such pin-point accuracy, but there is a dinner party here, and I love a good dinner party in fiction. I am always reminded of that superlative one in Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, but Ali Smith, to my mind has added in elements of Abigail's Party, as the most incredible stream of consciousness conversation develops, and one that seemed to be as true a reflection of the real thing as fiction can possibly achieve. I found myself even trying to do a seating plan as I figured out the characters around the table and who said what in response to whom, which might have been more about me trying to get control of thing. But I somehow needed to know where exactly Miles Garth was sitting and what may have prompted him to get up between the main course and the sweet, go upstairs and lock himself in the one of the bedrooms in Anna Hardie's house, and then stay there...for months.
It's an odd premise for a book but I suspect that Ali Smith loves a situation like this given that I gave up on The Accidental because it was another unusual situation that at the time I didn't have the reading patience to grasp. But this time I stuck with it, found myself looking forward to picking the book up, loved the unresolution, the child's voice, the word play, the puns, the jokes, the bravura, the people and the way that Ali Smith made me work to figure out the tiniest links and connections.
And I asked myself an enormous number of questions as I read because there is nothing like a conversion to ensure I do this.
What took me so long to twig to something everyone else knows already...Al Smith is one very clever writer...
Does a lot need to happen in a book for me to enjoy it...
Is plot a diversion from the words...
Is it a brave author who exposes themselves in this way...
Am I supposed to 'write in' the remaining words in that title in an attempt to make the unfamiliar familiar..
Why do things have to have meaning, why can't they just be...
Why do I as a reader consistently try to make connections and make sense of them, when here is a writer who is going to subvert my expectations... time to cultivate my inner sense of Keatsian Negative Capability
Who is in charge here, me or Ali Smith...
I just loved every word of this book and may have failed miserably in any attempt to explain why or to really give you the essence of the book, but this is reading as experience and I just soared with it all and I wonder if any of you recognise this feeling??
Are there any Ali Smith fans out there and which of hers would you recommend I read next and why??
Do you all have authors you have avoided and if so why??
What might persuade you to try them??
Final words to Ali Smith, my new reading craze
'Think how quiet a book is on the shelf, he said, just sitting there unopened. Then think what happens when you open it.'