I read Ali Smith’s latest novel, There but for the a while back and loved it lots (in fact it was my favourite new release in 2011), so now I’m going to read the rest of her works, if possible in chronological order (because I am that way), starting with her first collection of stories.
Free Love and Other Stories is separated from There but for the by fifteen years and several novels and other story collections, and while the difference is quite noticeable, Ali Smith’s first collection already showcases many of her talents, in particular her love for slightly off-beat characters and her multi-hued, scintillating prose. The stories here are still a bit rough around the edges, though, and there is no single one that pulls all of traits of her writing together – they’re still spread out over the individual stories which makes for a somewhat uneven collection. But even so this is a highly enjoyable read, not just from a teleological perspective of how good a writer the author of these stories will eventually become, but very much in and for itself.
Weirdly, and very unexpectedly, I was being reminded a lot of Austrian writer Peter Handke while reading First Love and Other Stories. I never read Handke in English translation, nor Ali Smith in German, so it is possible that this is just a misguided quirk of my imagination; on the other hand, both authors do seem to share a love of nature, of literature, of popular culture, and their description of those can at times be achingly beautiful, also they are both very versatile prose stylists. What Ali Smith completely lacks is Handke’s occasional preachiness, her writerly reaction to things she dislikes in contemporary society seem more inclined towards scathing satire – as evidenced in this volume by “Scary” which is indeed almost a horror story in its depiction of a creepy case of celebrity idolatry.
Generally, these stories tend to be more straightforwardly realistic than There but for the is, some of them even have a “slice of life” feel to them (although those were generally those I thought the weakest of the lot). This might of course be owing to the short form, I assume I will find out when I read her other story collections.
My favourites in this collection are the title story “First Love” (a sweet but never saccharine narrative about first love and first sex), “College” (a moving story about a girl coping with the loss of her sister) and “The world with love” (which is really about a lot of things, first love manqué, remembrance, words and language. It also features the wonderful phrase “the words look upon the world with love” which again made me think of Peter Handke, but is also very Ali Smith because this is precisely what she achieves in her best moments (even if those are sad or melancholy), and she makes the reader share that love, and love the words back).
But the highlight of this collection is for me “Text for the Day”. It has a premise that loosely resembles There but for the – someone behaves in an eccentric, inexplicable and unexplained manner, and then is viewed mostly from several outside perspectives. The story does something entirely different with this set-up than the later novel, and is a fascinating, highly intelligent as well as very touching meditation on books and literature and what they mean in today’s world. It also has what is likely my favourite variation on the ending of Joyce’s “The Dead” – replacing parochial Ireland with the whole wide world, turning the snow into leaves torn from books, and thus replacing the sheer whiteness of the snow that is both innocence and winding sheet in Joyce with the inscribed whiteness of the written word, dead leaves that have their own kind of innocence. And even though I do not usually quote here (yeah, I know I said that before), because it’s just so moving and beautiful…
All the Margaret Atwood, gone, all the James Joyce, the Virginia Woolf, the Hardy, Lawrence, Forster. All the Carter and Rushdie, the Puig and Marquez, the Klima and Levi and Calvino and Milosz, all the Spark and the Gunn and MacDiarmid, all the Shakespeare, all the Coleridge and Keats, the Whitman and Ginsberg, the Proust, the Eliot, the Scott, the thick books, the thin books, all the one-volume obscure poets and novelists, all the known names and the lesser or unknown lost or forgotten names flying immeasurably in the air, settling on the ground like seed or leaves dropped from the trees, rotting into pieces, blown into the smithereens of meaning. Pages flutter across motorways or farmland, pages break apart, dissolve in rivers or seas, snag on hedges in suburban areas, cling round their roots. Fragments litter a trail that blows in every direction, skidding across roads in foreign cities, mulching in the wet doorways of small shops, tossed by the weather across grassland and prairies.
There are poems in gutters and drains, under the rails laid for trains, pages of novels on the pavement, in the supermarkets, stuck to people’s feet or the wheels of their bikes and cars; there are poems in the desert. Somewhere where there are no houses, no people, only sky, wind, a wide-open world, a poem about a dormant grass-covered volcano lies held down half-buried in sand, bleaching in the light and heat like the small skull of a bird.