ALI Smith’s short stories are a dazzling testament to the joy of text, writes Allan Massie
Public Library and Other Stories by Ali Smith
Hamish Hamilton, 220pp, £16.99
ONE morning the force of the wind “grounded a swift, the kind of bird that’s never supposed to land, a young one, still small”. So the narrator, whom we may choose to identify with Ali Smith herself – or perhaps not – carries it upstairs to the open-air top of the building and releases it. The wind takes it for a moment, and then it falls. “God knows whether it made it. God knows whether it didn’t.”Ali Smith’s stories fly like swifts, swooping to and fro, free as air. They are hard to take hold of. Ostensibly this collection is devoted to the praise of public libraries and each story is preceded by tributes from others to the importance of libraries now threatened with closure as a result of cuts on public spending. So this collection offers argument as well as pleasure. The aphorist Logan Pearsall Smith once wrote: “Some people say life is the thing; but I prefer reading”. The glory of this other Smith (Ali) is that she makes no distinction between the two. Reading is part of life, an essential part. Reading enhances life.Life informs reading.
There is great and wonderful variety here. We have a story in which a growth on the narrator’s breast turns into a David Austin rose. She is delighted when it blooms, but has to warn anyone embracing her to beware of the thorns. Smith’s stories are a bit like that, beautiful but sharp, sweet-scented but capable of pricking, even wounding.
They flit from memories of childhood in Inverness to a comic account of a struggle with Barclaycard over the purchase of Lufthansa tickets for flights she has never taken and of which she knows nothing.There are little essays on DH Lawrence, whose work means so much to her, Katherine Mansfield, and the 17th century poet Robert Herrick who wrote about Cupid being stung by a bee. This last one comes in a lovely meditation on the joys and beauties of Regent’s Park.
There’s a touching chapter recounting the sad, troubled life of the poet Helen Fraser, native of Inverness like Smith herself; a story of early blooming that withered on account of mental illness, though the vision never quite died. Smith includes some of Fraser’s poems, and they are touching and good.
Smith’s stories aren’t the kind you can tell in your own words; they would break up, disintegrate if you tried to do so. Love and death are among her subjects. Very suitably, in Greece once, the narrator and a friend keep asking the way to the sea, and meet with funny looks and comforting pats on the back. They are puzzled until a waitress at the airport tells them they’ve got the word wrong. Instead of the sea they’ve been asking people “the way to death and demise”: Thanatos instead of Thalassa.
“Words,” she says, “are stories in themselves”. So of course they are, changing meaning over time. The word “clue”, for example, comes from “a ball of thread”, which takes us back to Theseus and Ariadne and the labyrinth in Crete. Words may be a joy in themselves, but in literature it’s how you deploy them that counts. As Housman put it, “poetry is not the thing said, but the way of saying it.” Ali Smith’s way of doing so is wonderful. Her prose dances. Her imagination lights up life and experience. This is a book to read slowly, to savour its vitality and variety, one to return to and find new pleasures with each reading. n