‘Do you come to art to be comforted, or do you come to art to be reskinned?’ she asked in a 2003 interview with Jeanette Winterson.
The ‘she’ mentioned is one Ali Smith, novelist extraordinaire. Ali Smith was born the year after me, and it is always interesting reading a contemporaries view of the human experience. Reading Ali Smith is like submerging in a more real world than the one I live in. This is why reading excites me so much when the writing is so good you want to be there. Or aroundabouts, not necessarily in the middle of. But the things she writes speak more articulately to me than the world around me does. Increasingly I find myself an uncomfortable fit in a perplexing world of paradoxes. It is a world where we know more about the laws governing the universe than we have ever known before, and yet it is one that apparently is content to live at the surface of reality, less capable or desirous of teasing out meaning.
Ali Smith touches on this with the deftness and lightness of touch that invites you to the party. I want to keep reading and I don’t want to finish because when I finish it I have to re-emerge into today and the here and my now. Not always as stimulating I have to say, thinking about dragging the hoover, which isn’t a hoover its a Dyson but you will know what I mean. That’s the puzzling and delight of language. I use a word to describe a machine which is generically understood by the manufacturer of one of the original machines, but my machine is different and engineered by a more recent manufacturer.
So what I need to advise you is this – read ‘There but for the’ and I can almost guarantee you will find something in it that will delight you. Do I want to be Ali Smith? Probably . Well , I want to have her talent, and the energy and drive to work at finding a voice as compelling as hers. It entertains, it stimulates, it challenges, what’s not to like?
And as an aside, ‘There but for the… ‘ is one of my mantras. It has been a running commentary in my head since I was born into language. Great mantra, because it invites empathy and compassion at times when I might be feeling bad tempered, or mad.
If you want to read about the book there is a review here, but it is dusty compared to the book. Dive straight in, and forget the observations. It would be THE best read for a book group as it brings up lots of talking points to get controversial over.
Go back to the title of the post; this is the morality behind all good art, all good human endeavour – the attempt to find a way of living our lives cleanly amongst the greed and envy of the human species, how to find wonder and glory and love amongst the debris from terror atrocities such as the young man hacked to death by a fellow human wielding a machete, just one example . Ali Smith relates an incident of such horrific violence . I won’t tell you more, only that it connects me to what I value about being human, our interconnectedness and reliance on one another as a species. I want to tell her.