What do you think?
Rate this book
264 pages, Paperback
First published October 20, 2016
What you reading? Always be reading something, he said. Even when we’re not physically reading. How else will we read the world? Think of it as a constant.Smith parallels two key moments in recent history and present day UK by connecting them both to dishonesties in politics, suggesting these lies had critical impact on society, the Brexit vote and the Profumo Scandal of 1963. She astutely smuggles the latter into the novel by interlacing the scandal and the life of her main characters, Daniel and Elisabeth, with the vibrant and tragically short life of Pauline Boty (1938-1966), the only female representative artist in British Pop Art, whose legacy is continuously oscillating between oblivion and rediscovery. Pauline Boty used a shot of the famous chair photograph series by Lewis Morley of the women at the heart of the Profumo scandal, Christine Keeler, in a collage painting which has been mysteriously missing soon after she had painted it, Scandal ‘63.
Elisabeth had last come to the field just after the circus had left, especially to look at the flat dry place where the circus had had its tent. She liked doing melancholy things like that. But now you couldn’t tell that any of these summer things had ever happened. There was just an empty field. The sports tracks had faded and gone. The flattened grass, the places that had turned to mud where the crowds had wandered round between the rides and the open-sided trucks of the driving and shooting games, the ghost circus ring: nothing but grass.
“¡Los prepucios van y vienen, pero Mozart es eterno!”Voy a empezar con unas palabras del crítico y escritor José María Guelbenzu que me han parecido muy acertadas y que, cautivado por la novela, de paso, alimentan mi vanidad: «Ali Smith (…) exige al lector que se merezca la lectura».
“Era el peor de los tiempos, era el peor de los tiempos.”Una exageración, claro está, nunca ha habido tiempo bueno pues no hay libertad/paz/derechos/justicia/prosperidad si no la disfrutamos todos. Necesitamos alarmas como esta de Ali Smith que nos despierten de tanta indolencia y resignación, necesitamos reaccionar… y rápido.
“Thatcher nos enseñó a ser egoístas y no solo a pensar, sino también a creer, que la sociedad no existe.”
“And whoever makes up the story makes up the world…So always try to welcome people into the home of your story…”I felt welcomed into the kindnesses Smith creates in this novel. There is wickedness in the world, and tragedy, but it doesn’t have to define us. We can create a world that turns inexorably, like the seasons, to longer days and more clement weather. And we can find people to love in the most unlikely places. Love is the [only?] thing that makes life worthwhile.
"...I'm tired of the news. I'm tired of the way it makes things spectacular that aren't, and deals so simplistically with what's truly appalling. I'm tired of the vitriol. I'm tired of the anger. I'm tired of the meanness. I'm tired of the selfishness. I'm tired of how we're doing nothing to stop it. I'm tired of how we're encouraging it. I'm tired of the violence there is and I'm tired of the violence that's on its way, that's coming, that hasn't happened yet. I'm tired of liars. I'm tired of sanctified liars. I'm tired of how those liars have let this happen. I'm tired of having to wonder whether they did it out of stupidity or did it on purpose. I'm tired of lying government. I'm tired of people not caring whether they're being lied to any more. I'm tired of being made to feel this fearful. I'm tired of animosity. I'm tired of pusillanimosity.The central story, at least for me, is the love story of sorts between Elisabeth and her elderly neighbor, Daniel. We see them in many different iterations, during her childhood (where her mother wanted her to stay away from him) through her adulthood when she is his only visitor while he is unconscious in a hospital. He encourages her to be a reader, to use her imagination, to think.
I don't think that's actually a word, Elisabeth says.
I'm tired of not knowing the right words, her mother says."
"We have to hope, Daniel was saying, that the people who love us and who know us a little bit will in the end have seen us truly. In the end, not much else matters."There is an art storyline too, about the sole female UK pop artist Pauline Boty, who turns out to be a real person (see here.
The man creases up. It seems he was joking; his shoulders go up and down but no sound comes out of him. It's like laughter, but also like a parody of laughter, and simultaneously a bit like he's having an asthma attack. May be you're not allowed to laugh out loud behind the counter of the main Post Office.Whether it is the ridiculous bureaucratic hurdles she encounters in her efforts to secure a passport or the disdain she receives at her rebellious choice of thesising on Pauline Boty,Elisabeth comes across as a feisty heroine who is subdued by the autumnal phase of her friend and the dried momentum of her own life. Amidst random allusion to political upheavals in Europe (read Brexit) and the millennium bug, it is the generous badinage between the two key characters that bring this work to life. Velvets of sentiment and pun run through the pages, making Elisabeth’s first person narrative as effective as Daniel’s reticent third person narrative.
The background is rich dark blue, Daniel said. A blue much darker than the sky. On top of the dark blue, in the middle of the picture, there's a shape made of pale paper that looks like a round full moon. On top of the moon, bigger than the moon, there's a cut-out black and white lady wearing a swimsuit, cut from a newspaper or fashion magazine. And next to her, as if she's leaning against it, there's a giant human hand. And the giant hand is holding inside it a tiny hand, a baby's hand. More truthfully, the baby's hand is also holding the big hand, holding it by its thumb. Below all this, there's a stylized picture of a woman's face, the same face repeated several times, but with a different coloured curl of real hair hanging over its nose each time— […]Ali Smith herself is of course playing the opposite game, for her stories lead in the end to pictures, real pictures by a female artist of the nineteen-sixties who was briefly famous, then forgotten, then recently rediscovered. But, as she did in her previous novel, How To Be Both, Smith conceals the painter's name until halfway through the book. I shall do the same, giving details and showing some of her work only in my second section, which I shall mark off as a spoiler. It is not that Smith is playing a guessing game—I had never heard of the artist, and I was an art history student myself at the time—but that the author's medium is words. Typing out the excerpt above, I had a small reproduction of the painting itself by my side. They do different things. The painting makes an immediate impact, after which you begin to look for the detail. But Daniel starts with the detail, which is to say with the meaning behind the picture. Describing it to a child, he becomes a kind of magician, conjuring rabbit images which chase one another in her mind. Much later we realize that he is also conjuring the woman who selected these images, casting us back to that brief early-sixties period when the postwar winter was turning to spring.
All across the country, there was misery and rejoicing. […] All across the country, people felt it was the wrong thing. All across the country, people felt it was the right thing. […] All across the country, people felt unsafe. All across the country, people were laughing their heads off. All across the country, people felt legitimized. All across the country, people felt bereaved and shocked.Any reference you may detect, here and elsewhere, to the famous opening of A Tale of Two Cities is deliberate; it is the book that Elisabeth reads when she visits Daniel. At another time, she brings Brave New World, whose dystopia is reflected in a modern England of security cameras and electrified fences. But Smith does not forget the origin of that title, Miranda's cry of innocent wonder in The Tempest. One other book Elisabeth has with her, clearly a talisman of Daniel's also, is Ovid's Metamorphoses, which relates even the most cataclysmic of changes to the age-old processes of the natural world. And Ali Smith's own writing reflects this too:
November again. It's more winter than autumn. That's not mist. It's fog.+ + + + + +
The sycamore seeds hit the glass in the wind like—no, not like anything else, like sycamore seeds hitting window glass.
There've been a couple of windy nights. The leaves are stuck to the ground with the wet. The ones on the paving are yellow and rotting, wanwood, leafmeal. One is so stuck that when it eventually peels away, its leafshape left behind, shadow of a leaf, will last on the pavement till next spring.