A FRENCHMAN SAYS THAT there are ‘readerly’ texts and ‘writerly’ texts. Those in the first category are simply to be consumed and enjoyed; those in the second offer a little more resistance, insist on their status as texts or things made, perhaps deliver more sophisticated and demanding pleasures, ortolans rather than oven-ready birds or chicken nuggets. Has Ali Smith cheerfully collapsed the distinction, or cheerfully embraced it? She’s certainly aware of it. Her choices in this remarkable “anthology” – and more on that in a moment – range from Djuna Barnes to Beryl the Peril, and from John Keats, Liz Lochhead and Grace Paley to Xandra Bingley, Armando and Dubravka Ugresic. Exactly. There’s a clue to the principle of organisation and where she might stand on that wavery post-structuralist line on the very first page of text. Smith’s choice of epigraphs to the collection makes a case very neatly. The first is, uncontroversially, from Virginia Woolf, ‘The Common Reader’: “Any method is right, every method is right, that expresses what we wish to express, if we are writers: that brings us closer to the novelist’s intention if we are readers.” So far, so straightforward. But then comes a passage from the wonderful Christine Brooke-Rose’s Between: “As if languages loved each other behind their own facades, despite alles was man denkt daruber davon dazu. As if words fraternised silently beneath the syntax, find each other funny and delicious in a Mischmasch of tender fornication.” A perfect overture to the delights that follow.
Something about anthologies. The word originally means a collection of flowers, which might mean anything from a hastily tied posy from the garden or hedgerow to an elaborate arrangement. There may even be some Barthesian distinction in floristry between something that is meant to say sorry or thanks or I love you and something that stands on its artful own. Anthology rarely means a treatise on flowers. As often as not it’s a publisher’s idea for a quick book.
But not this time. The Reader is a publisher’s idea by which writers – and Ali Smith is the first – compile a selection of favourite works and authors; favourite and affordable, since as anyone who has ever strayed into this territory knows, the thorny part of the exercise is securing and paying for permissions. (I once was quoted an eye-watering sum for permission to use part of Hart Crane’s epic poem ‘The Bridge’.) Even if the budget didn’t stretch to everything she might have wanted to put in these 400-odd pages, it is hard to imagine The Reader being any better than it is, or more artful. It is, quite simply, Ali Smith’s best book yet, which is not in any way to belittle Hotel World or The Accidental, both very good books indeed. It is just that this is on a different level of imagination.
Interestingly and properly, Ali Smith appears on the cover and title page as author. Where normally you might find “edited, with an introduction by . . .”, there is no such (readerly?) apparatus. This is Smith’s book, a brilliant collage of texts and textual fragments, divided into half a dozen notionally autobiographical panels: Girls, Journeys, The World, Histories, Beliefs. I almost wish she had omitted the autobiographical introduction which sets out her own precocious engagement with the printed word, or had thought to include some fragment of her own younger, writerly self that betrayed the anxieties of influence or the slow escape from someone else’s style into her own.
Is it possible to trace Smith’s own evolution by direct reference to these texts and fragments? I guess it might be – and the margins of my copy show a dozen or so pencilled cross-reference queries to Smith’s stories – but you won’t get them here because they seem entirely beside the point. This isn’t a gazetteer, concordance or genealogy, but a book to be enjoyed in its own right and on its own enormously generous terms. To show the potential equivalence between a literary source and a later imagining is to miss the point of reading as a felt experience. To recognize that, like any family reunion, not all the most important members were necessarily present by reason of distance and cost, is to recognise that expecting The Reader to deliver a complete explanation or even a critical template makes no sense whatsoever.
Sometimes it’s important to embrace the obvious. Beginning the ‘Dialogues’ section with ‘On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer’ is hardly surprising, but it resonates here like a freshly brazed cymbal because of what it sits between. After it comes Kasia Boddy’s astonishing hospital fable ‘On the Ward with TV, iPod and Telephone’, which is about the ways we anthologise our existences, especially in times of trouble. Just before it, there is a stunning passage from Woolf’s Orlando, which ends with the words “Ransack the language as he might, words failed him. He wanted another landscape, and another tongue”.
Reviewing anthologies and reference books by reference to inclusions and omissions – and the cant dictates that omissions are always “baffling” – is a mug’s game. So is any structured attempt to find the chemical formula for Smith’s own prose in the work and voices of these writers. A style – if there is such a thing as style – is more like a strand of DNA than a compound. It might theoretically be possible one day, though I hope none of us are around to see it, to analyse every cadence of a work for the genetic trace of ancestors. Some writers at different times engage in different ways, affectionately or aggressively, with ancestors and contemporaries. Take Norman Mailer, who unsurprisingly isn’t part of Ali Smith’s bunch. He successively took on John Dos Passos, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Malaquais and the existentialists, and even tried to write his own versions of his peers and forebears: The Fight is Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King with gloves on; Of A Fire on the Moon is Moby-Dick with NASA funding. This may be a guy thing, and a very high proportion of the writers included in The Reader are female.
Not very surprising again, any more than that there is a high proportion of Scots (Jamie, Atkinson, Kay, Spence, Leonard) but in an exercise that might be compared to parliamentary “pairing”, be honest and say whether if you’ve read John Keats, Edward Thomas, W. B. Yeats, Hugh MacDiarmid, William Blake, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, William Shakespeare, e. e. cummings, Thomas Hardy, Rainer Maria Rilke (all of whom will belong in somebody’s great tradition) you can also claim to have read, and not merely heard about, Zora Neale Hurston, Margaret Tait, Joy Williams, Amos Tutuola, Yip Harburg, Mari-lynne Robinson, Fred D’Aguiar, Robert Creeley, Lavinia Greenlaw and Gertrude Stein. There are men in the second list because this isn’t about gender quotas, lost or “suppressed” traditions. There are no women in the first list because Woolf’s already been mentioned, Austen’s coming up in a moment, Katherine Mansfield is irretrievably minor, and Sylvia Plath is similarly overrated; but there might have been. There’s nothing feminist or doctrinaire about Smith’s inclusions. They seem natural, logical, almost organic. The segue from Northanger Abbey – “No one who had ever seen Catherine Morland in her infancy would ever have supposed her born to be a heroine”; that’s all you get, chapter one, line one – to Djuna Barnes’s cheerful enchantress, to Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady Sings the Blues’ (which she claimed not even to have read; it was ghosted by William Dufty), to Laura Hird and to George Mackay Brown’s scouringly simple story of the witch Marian Isbister is to follow a gracefully tessellated narrative, told from multiple points of view and put together with graceful simplicity.
Similarly in the ‘Dialogue’ section – those before were all from ‘Girls’, alongside Beryl, Nell Dunn and Orlando. In the second section Smith puts together John Berger’s remarkable essay on his own changing engagement with the Grunewald altarpiece and W. G. Sebald’s ‘After Nature’, a lesser known work in verse by a writer of luminous prose.
It’s not merely a clever juxtaposition; it says something profound about art and politics, art and the construction of culture/civilisation; it also says something about how the acts of looking and writing are related, which is rightly assumed but not often seriously examined. Similarly, when Smith goes from there to H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) on the movies’ changing personification of Greta Garbo, it’s not just a self-conscious change of pace – the way DJs will throw in a slow one or a funny one, just to vary the texture – instead it actually deepens a dialogue about what we understand about art and how it portrays us, men and, most directly, women. The Peacock, the Holy Mother, the slapper, the witch, the sacrificial whore of jazz balladry, the untouchable screen goddess: there are very profound things going on here behind the simple succession of ‘extracts’.
And so it goes on through the other sections. It might be said that The Reader doesn’t end as well as it begins, and might have been shorter, two cardinal errors in fiction writing, but it ends beautifully with Italo Calvino’s apologia for fiction as a net of possibilities, Rilke’s ‘Ninth Elegy’ – “And so we keep pressing on, trying to achieve it” – and Robert Creeley’s ‘End’: “End of page / end of this // company . . .” I’ve almost never regretted the end of a book more or that a beautifully designed cover should be so unresistant to the marks that have already appeared through regular returnings. The Reader is nothing less than a celebration of the twin challenges of writing and reading, and of their essentially conjoined nature. It is both utterly readable and bravely writerly. Voiced by Creeley, Smith ends with a prayer that should be muttered nightly by anyone who loves books: “let the world stay // open to me / day after day, // words to say, / things to be.”
by Ali Smith
Constable and Robinson, £12.99
pp480 ISBN 1845293118