There But for The by Ali Smith


Words are all we have – said Samuel Beckett once, but I don’t know where he said it and in what context. Anyway, I agree with him, being a fanatic of words myself.

And Ali Smith is a fanatic of words, too. Sometimes she does get on my nerves (I’m not such a devoted fan of puns and word-plays as she is) but mostly I just look (and experience) with awe and wonder what she does with words.

For example, on the day when I wake up and suddenly realize the connection between the short story the main character had written once in his teens and the thoughts of an old lady about some awful event her daughter told her about a long time ago. I don’t want to go into details – suffice it to say that I was leaning to the kitchen table for a good long while the morning I made the connection, and I very much wanted to go back to bed, curl up, and cry, because it breaks my heart to think how one can make beauty out the horrible. (Must things be horrible before there can be beauty?)

Words are all we have. Imperfect, sometimes false, sometimes true.

And our lives are all we have. Imperfect, false, true, unknowable, impossible to share.

As far as I know her work, Ali Smith always writes about this. About unknowable lives – like here, about a man called Miles, who goes to a dinner party, and in the middle of the party he excuses himself, proceeds to shut himself in the spare bedroom, and doesn’t leave it for months.

Certain questions arise:

Who’s this Miles?
What the hell does he want?
Why doesn’t he leave the room?
And who are the other people in his life?

Words are all we have. Certainty – we don’t. So all we get by way of answers is:

He’s an average middle-aged guy.
I don’t know, perhaps he doesn’t, either.
I don’t know, perhaps he does.
Just people – nothing special.

More questions:

Why’s this good to read?
And what’s all this, anyway?

More possible answers:

It’s good to read this because this story is just as accidental as any life, and life’s accidental quality and randomness always fascinates me. And anyway – perhaps tomorrow you will shut yourself in a room. And perhaps you’re already shut in a room today.
And what’s all this – a celebration of imagination and of the power of words, words, words – most of all.

Hotel World by Ali Smith

I read about this book on one of my favourite blogs and I immediately felt that this was a novel I must read. After a couple of months I did get around to reading it, and Hotel World turned out to be exactly as wonderful and heartbreaking as I expected.

The events and characters of the novel are centered around the Globe Hotel, and even though the characters, with the exception of two sisters, don’t know one another, for one night they get close to one another. In the first part of the novel we learn that 19-year-old Sara Wilby had a fatal accident in the hotel earlier that year, but her ghost is still haunting the premises, although not for long, as she happens to be spending her last night on earth. During this night, the other characters of the novel (Sara’s grieving sister, the receptionist of the hotel, a journalist spending the night in the hotel, and the homeless woman who can usually be seen begging near the hotel entrance) all strike up a fleeting acquaintance with the others, but the events of the night will mean something different for all of them. For someone it will mean the end of their life and past; for someone it will signify the beginning of the future; and for someone it will start as any other night on the road, spent with work, then something interesting will happen, but finally everything will revert back to normal. What is common in the experiences of the different characters is that during the night, each of them will have to face death, grief, the passage of time and the all-permeating sense of their alienation from the whole world.

The story itself is hardly worth mentioning, though, as the basic plot functions mostly as a starting point for a long series of memories and dreams. Ali Smith shows only a little of everything, and leaves the rest to our imagination. As regards the setting of the novel, for example, we learn that the story takes place in an unspecified, relatively small town somewhere in the North, and we see some typical streets as well, but finally it remains impossible to pin down the exact location.

And Smith proceeds in the same way with the characters: we learn a couple of crucial details about everyone’s life (for instance, we can read some of the traumatic details of the past of the homeless woman, Elsa; and we get a glimpse of the budding love affair of Sara which could never be fulfilled) which is enough for us to start to care for them, but then, as we don’t get any further details about their lives, we are forced to rely on our imagination and fill in the gaps in their stories on our own. And I think it’s very good that we get only a little of everything in this novel, as that little is already dark and sorrowful enough.

As regards the structure of the novel, each part is narrated by a different narrator, and each narrator has a unique language usage, each puts the emphasis on different events, or views the same events from a strikingly new perspective. Yes, these are exactly the kind of typical postmodern games I love and can enthuse about for hours, and indeed, some elements of the novel can be labeled postmodern: its non-linear structure, the way the chapters and the characters are interconnected, and the creative language use and punctuation which characterizes certain chapters are postmodern traits.

But now it was not simply the clever use of such techniques which truly fascinated me, but the way Ali Smith uses these to express very dramatic, very human experiences, and the way she captures pain, grief and the passage of time by the gradual loss of power over words. For instance, it’s a recurring problem for Sara’s ghost that more and more words slip her mind as time passes, and the more words she loses, the more she feels separated from her old, earthly life. For Else, a similar loss of words occurs: during the period of her physical and mental deterioration she has already forgotten some words, and she is prone to omitting the vowels when she speaks. And Sara’s sister, Clare has a similar problem as well – she is unable to control her pain and the flow of her words, and in the chapter she narrates there’s no punctuation other than an occasional ampersand

All this may sound a bit strained, but believe me, it’s not. The unique language sounds natural from all the characters, and it expresses deep and painful emotions and memories in a highly poetic, beautiful, yet absolutely authentic and un-melodramatic way. However, the final effect of the novel is not like that of a mellow, sad elegy. This novel is more like a sly poison slowly taking effect in your bloodstream, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that everything is hurting and your heart is breaking for every character.

A kind of lyrical punch in the stomach.