Edinburgh Book Festival review: Ali Smith

Ali Smith’s Book Festival event was a celebration of the way art can challenge long-held beliefs, writes Susan Mansfield
Ali SmithAli Smith
Ali Smith

At the Edinburgh Book Festival in 2016, Ali Smith launched Autumn, the first novel in her Seasonal Quartet, four books written in response to real events. Now, a year on from the launch of the final book, Summer, the political context is still (in Smith’s words) “a time in which lies are sanctioned.”

Invited back to the Book Festival yesterday, Smith began by presenting a short film made with the artist Sarah Wood, the text of which is a new short story, ‘Seeing Things.’ The speaker in the story finds herself shouting at the television as a succession of Government ministers parade a pack of lies on every subject from the pandemic to the refugee crisis.

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But Smith’s story is transformative. In a barely perceptible shift, she draws us away from the politicians to a consideration of works of art, from The Human Flood by 19th century Italian painter Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo to walls plastered with newspapers by Senga Nengudi.

Lies distract us from the truth, she says, but art (and stories) can help us forge a path towards it. Truth, “a slippery talking fish in a Neil Gunn novel,” blurs as we draw close to it, but fiction can bring it into focus. As politics forces people to be tribal, art gives us the tools to critique the fictions around us. When we confine ourselves to small worlds we think we understand, art has the power to shake us up.

While the same Government seeks to cut funding to the Arts in English universities by 50 per cent, Smith (along with all Edinburgh’s festivals) flies the flag for the Arts as an essential part of our lives.

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