Ali Smith and Bending the Laws of the Novel

In a world overwhelmingly ran by narratives, omnipresent in the songs we hear on our airwaves, the news stories which pop up as notifications on our phones, and the TV shows which are increasingly available to watch in one sitting rather than through their originally-intended episodic format, it is hard to imagine a reality which isn’t constantly accompanied and shaped by stories.

Of course, stories have always been part of human nature, through creation myths explaining where we came from or moral tales which attempt to impose or unravel dichotomies of right and wrong existing in every known society, from the ancient Sumerians to the modern day. For millennia, these stories existed in remembered form; a pool of stories was passed down from one generation to the next, with some revisions or additions but few entirely novel stories enhancing the pantheon of known tales. Transmitted in verse form (regular prosody is easier to remember than prose; the Homerian epics the Iliad and Odyssey are widely believed to have originally been passed on in the oral tradition), these would eventually be set in stone in written accounts, but few of the sort we would expect to see today.

Of course, poetry is still produced today, but most longer stories set to paper are written in a form we have grown to recognise as the ‘novel’ – still, in the history of culture, a rather novel invention.

There are different accounts about when the first novel was published (this distinction is widely attributed to Murasaki Shikibu’s 1010 Tale of Genji; however, this article will focus on the European literary tradition), with some citing Miguel de Cervantes as the first European producer of what might be called a ‘novel’.

However, the attribution of Cervantes’ major work, Don Quixote, as a novel can be disputed; full of episodic “marvellous and uncommon incidents” and characters which are compelling, though continuously fail to act as ordinary people might, the work might well be described as a romance. This distinction is made by Walter Scott, who also stated that in a novel, “events are accommodated to the ordinary train of human events and the modern state of society”; Don Quixote’s presentation of a deluded knight-errant is firmly anachronistic with Spanish 17th-century society, though through the complete self-awareness present in the book, Cervantes uses this juxtaposition to poke fun at romances which were popular at the time. Don Quixotecan be described as a parody, more than anything else. As it stands, its episodic format (with, admittedly, some recurring characters and consistent motivations) has as much in common with Mallory’s Le Morte d’Arthur – definitely not a novel – as with novels of today.

Seminal in the modern understanding of the development of the Western novel is Ian Watt’s 1957 The Rise of the Novel, which attributes the form’s birthday as somewhere in the early 18th century.  This century saw, in the United Kingdom, the rise of proto-novels in works by authors such as Daniel Defoe and Jonathan Swift, whose works Robinson Crusoe and Gulliver’s Travelscontain fully-fledged worlds and some exploration into their respective protagonists’ mind states; however, Crusoe was presented deceptively as an account of true incidents, and Gulliver can be said to be a satire in the same vein of Don Quixote.

Just as neo-classicism slowly took the steps toward cubism and Rome wasn’t built in a day, the novel didn’t appear overnight. Numerous experiments all contributed to the development of the form, and while the novel as we know it today had essentially solidified by the end of Jane Austen’s writing career ended in 1817, that didn’t stop her Victorian torch-bearers from experimenting with the form. Epistolary novels had been introduced in the 18th century and continued to be a popular form in the 19th, with one of the century’s most enduring novels, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, utilising this letter-based format; however, this genre has all but disappeared from today’s popular literature. Charles Dickens is often credited with inventing the cliff-hanger, while Sir Conan Doyle distilled the most successful elements of his Sherlock Holmes novels into a successful stream of bite-sized stories which anticipated the episodic nature of television of today.

Novels were increasingly resembling real life, through form as well as narrative, the Victorians’ logical eye streamlining the chaotic nuances and nuisances of that unpredictable mesh of events we call life.

While horror novels and even science fictions were already pulpy pleasures in the Victorian era, it was clear that the (albeit often religious-bent and exaggerated) social-realist novels had become the primary form. Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and Great Expectations have all become household names, their stories bleeding into popular culture so as to be recognisable even by those who have never touched an original copy. As varied as the plots therein were, these three novels all followed a similar structure, which can be seen in the novels today. Their clear beginning, middle and ends, as well as (chiefly) persistent narrative voice, their introduction of and handling of characters, are all recognisable staples of 21st century literature.

In the early 20th century, Modernism seismically shook up the formula, with the works of writers such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce deliberately subverting readers’ expectations of what they might find between the covers of a body of prose. If the Victorian era cemented the understanding of the novel as a prose text which generally follows a significant period of one’s life (of course, there were many novels in the early 20thcentury which also followed this structure; see The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, For Whom the Bell Tolls), then Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Joyce’s Ulysses shattered this structure, in vastly opposite ways. Lighthouse followed a family across a period of 10 years, with its second part, ‘Time Passes’, being possibly told from the point of view of the house; while Ulysses records in intimate detail the events of the life of a single man across the span of a single day, sometimes down to the second.

However, Modernism soon shifted to post-Modernism and, though the books today come in a variety of genres, from science fiction to comedy to vampire-horror-cum-romance, they tend to follow the same linear structure and development of one character as can be seen in the majority of mainstream Victorian books. (Even books often considered as avant-garde, such as the magic realism of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita and the linguistic mastery of Nabokov’s Lolita, tend to follow a similar chronological format.

Of course, there are some notable exceptions; Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is in essence a novel told through a collection of short stories, while Ian McEwan’s massively successful Atonement tackled a generational structure more ambitious than that found in To The Lighthouse. But perhaps the most striking works on the literary scene are the novels of Ali Smith.

How to be both is split up into two sections, both titled, in a stroke of genius, ‘one’. The two sections contain completely different stories, set centuries apart and following the lives of essentially unrelated characters. However, George feels a strong connection with Francescho/Francescha’s paintings, and the two repeatedly cameo in each other’s stories, lending the novel itself a sort of narrative harmony. Crucially, the novel was published in two different formats, one in which ‘one’ comes first, and the other in which ‘one’ comes first. Through structure, Smith inherently questions reader’s notions about how a novel should be read, and both sections are suitably enigmatic that, whichever way you read the book, you’ll be looking for answers to the first section you’ve encountered which won’t necessarily be answered in the next. The fact that I’m using the words ‘first’ and ‘next’ is redundant: by naming both sections ‘one’, and the reader randomly encountering whichever section they’re going to read first, Smith suggests that each part should be read in conjunction with the other.

Shakespearian gender-play is also a prevalent theme in Smith’s work, and this is more prominent in Artful than even the suggestively-titled How to be both. In Artful, the readers never learn the gender of the narrator. By purposely omitting this vital detail, Smith at once questions the novel’s traditional notions of character development (to create a fully-fledged character without an assigned gender seems like a gargantuan task for any writer, though it is one Smith pulls off) and asks why characters necessarily need genders, anyway.

The novel is interesting for other reasons, too. Its narrative thrust (essentially the narrator musing, Woolf-esque, about his/her/their deceased spouse) is broken up by a series of essays supposedly written by said deceased spouse, on topics as various as ‘time’, ‘form’, and ‘edge’. These academic essays – fully fledged essays they are – are startingly readable, and, like the two parts in How to be both, lend the novel a sort of thematic harmony which is the sum of separate, interrelated parts rather than one persistent narrative thread. While Artful’s inclusion of essays and constant references to classical literature might lend the work an academic, elitist, edge, throughout her body of work Smith shows equal reverence to pop and contemporary culture, referencing internetesque poems about Google and popular music as well as Cézanne and Sylvia Plath.

This juxtaposition of the old and the new (most blatantly represented in the twin stories of How to be both), Smith shows a reverence for what has come before while striving towards a new. It is telling, then, that Artful is named after one of Dickens’ most enduring and colourful characters, who has captured the imagination of millions in spite of as well as because of Dickens’ status as a literary megalith. Like Jack Dawkins, Smith is herself an artful Dodger, avoiding the constraints of the form of the novel, and a skilled and cunning word-player and bricolagist, taking what is old and transforming it into the startingly new.

In an age where stories are readily-available in all matters of media, books need to focus on the flexibility of their form to stand out from the crowd and retain their relevance in an ever-changing, ever faster-pacing, world. Ali Smith has managed to make unique novels which will be almost impossible to transform into film due to their reliance on the tricks and playfulness of language, the written word, and modes of media which can be held in the hand and are fully pliable. More so, while doing so, she has managed to craft heart-warming and life-affirming tales, and proven that authors need not rely on the centuries-old plot trajectories of an ageing form.

Matteo Everett

Note: this article originally appeared on

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