'Artful' is a novel of literary humor

Dwight Garner / New York Times News Service /


“Artful” by Ali Smith (Penguin Press, 237 pgs., $25.95)

In Anthony Minghella’s 1990 film, “Truly Madly Deeply,” one of the great weepies in cinematic history, a bereaved woman (Juliet Stevenson) is visited by the ghost of her dead, cello-playing boyfriend (Alan Rickman). It doesn’t go well. He brings friends over. She asks: “Are you telling me there are dead people in my living room watching videos?”

The Scottish novelist Ali Smith’s slim new book, “Artful,” is equal parts ghost story and academic treatise: It reads like a clumsy but seductive blend of “Truly Madly Deeply” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lectures on Literature.” At one point its grief-stricken narrator asks a spectral vision of her dead lover, “You came back from the dead to watch TV?”

“Artful” began its life as a series of four lectures delivered by Smith, early in 2012, at St. Anne’s College, Oxford. These lectures have fairly straightforward titles: “On time,” “On form,” “On edge” and “On offer and on reflection.” They deal with art and storytelling, and they intimately refer to dozens of writers, from Ovid, Sappho and Rilke through Stevie Smith, J.G. Ballard and Angela Carter.

These lectures are placed, like the filling of a dumpling, inside a love story. In “Artful” the person who composed the lectures, a writer, is recently dead. This writer is assigned no gender and is always referred to in the second person, but it’s hard not to read this character as female: Smith writes frequently about same-sex passion and dedicates her books to her longtime partner, Sarah Wood.

This writer has come back to haunt this book’s narrator, an arborist, sometimes movingly, sometimes hilariously. The dead writer begins to steal things: first a tea mug, then the TV remotes, then a car key. The narrator complains to her therapist that among the pilfered items is “the hoover plus its nozzle attachments.”

When I remark that “Artful” is clumsy, what I mean is this: This book’s fictional and nonfiction aspects don’t mingle comfortably. Each is underdeveloped. Smith, whose excellent novels include “Hotel World” (2001) and “The Accidental” (2005), has a shrewd intellect but isn’t at home with academic expression, even when attempting to satirize it.

There’s a good deal of clanking exposition in these lectures. Each central term is walked over the Oxford English Dictionary and provided multiple definitions. “Edges involve extremes,” we read. “Edges are borders. Edges are very much about identity, about who you are.” You begin to long for an edge to slice your head off.

The narrator has a sense of humor about her lover’s academic excess. About the campy headings that are given to sections of these lectures — one is “Please Mr. Post Man, Look and See: Remembrance of Things Post” — the narrator says: “They were kind of awful, and it was as if they knew this about themselves and were vulnerable to it.”

When I remark that “Artful” is also seductive, however, I mean that Smith has an agile and mischievous mind. “Artful” injects more pleasure into your head than some books that aren’t clumsy at all.

I will keep this book on my shelves forever, I suspect, for one line alone, a play on the song “Smile,” made famous by Nat King Cole. “Simile,” Smith writes, “though your heart is breaking.”

If that doesn’t make you happy, you may be, like the writer in this book, dead.