It’s my birthday on Thursday, which is November 8th, so I sat up a little straighter when I read the same date early on in Ali Smith’s new book Artful – not quite a novel, not quite essays, but something surpassing both.
I am forever trying to remember important things that happen to have happened on my birthday, but I never succeed. Every year, I read through the list of famous people who share my birthday, and the following year I have forgotten all of them and read their names with renewed surprise. The only, quite appalling, explanation that I can suggest for this is that I spend my birthday so resolutely selfishly taken up with myself, that there isn’t room in my head to allow anything in about anyone else.
I hope that if I write down here this particular thing about November 8th from Ali Smith’s Artful then it might stick:
Then at its centre the twentieth century pivots on a vision like this one from Victor Klemperer, the Jewish academic and diarist whose career at the University of Dresden was interrupted in the 1930s by Nazi anti-Semitic laws, who lived out the war years on a knife edge, and who, having survived, just, writes the following in his diary on 8 November 1945, about sitting, not long after the defeat of Hitler’s regime, listening to a talk on the radio (translated here by Martin Chalmers):
Radio Beromünster: Reddar (that’s what the magic word sounded like), the English ray invention, which allowed them to see U-boats and guide air planes by wireless, and give them victory at sea and in the air. Inserted in the talk a piece of a Hitler speech, the very piece I once myself heard standing outside the offices of the Freiheitskampf. And if the war lasts 3 years – we’ll still have our say! – and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6 … we will not capitulate! It was his voice! It was his voice, his agitated and inflammatory furious shouting, I clearly recognised it again … And with it applause and Nazi songs. A shatteringly present past … [To think] that this is past, and that its presence can be restored to the present, always and at every moment!
It’s a shocking image, this man who has only just survived Nazism, sitting by his radio when he is jolted by the horribly familiar sound of Hitler’s voice, a voice from the past, a horror dead and buried, brought back to life with more force and presence than a mere ghost. ‘A shatteringly present past’. This is the power of technology – it brings back the past to violently disrupt the present moment.
Time is doing quite peculiar things in this diary entry of Klemperer’s. There is the bringing of the past into the present, yes, but there is also the fact that in the speech – that moment of the past – Hitler is talking about the possible future: ‘if the war lasts 3 years … and if it lasts 4 years … and if 5, and if 6…’ These years of war were yet to come when he made the speech, but had passed by the time Klemperer was listening to the radio. So not only is the past brought into the present, but the future is put into the past. And in that passing, the potential nature of the future – ‘if it lasts’, not ‘when it lasts’ – is changed to certainty.
Finally, it ends with the thought of the future being made up of a series of present moments, all vulnerable to disruption from the past. This particular radio broadcast is just one instance that shows the vulnerability of every moment still to come. Now, almost sixty-seven years (to the day!) after Klemperer wrote this in his diary, we can see that he was right in his chilling prediction – Hitler is still turning up on radio broadcasts, television programmes, in books. That terrible past continues to disrupt the present moment.
This birthday link with Klemperer’s diary entry is pure coincidence. Of course Ali Smith didn’t include this entry because it was my birthday, any more than she wrote about the Gainsborough studios in The Accidental, because she knew that I was busy researching them for my novel (see this post for more about that coincidence). Smith is the supreme writer of coincidence, so much so that it ceases to be surprising when something falls into place when one is reading a book by her.
At the launch for this book, Simon Prosser, Ali Smith’s publisher, said much the same thing. He said he wasn’t the least bit surprised when earlier that very day he’d caught sight of Lord Weidenfeld for the first time. The coincidence here is that Artful was originally four lectures given for the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in European Comparative Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford; Lord Weidenfeld is thanked at the beginning. It would be on publication day that the publisher who helped bring the book to life glimpsed someone who helped enable its inception.
I particularly like it when Ali Smith’s coincidences take the form of puns. I was reading the third part of Artful, ‘On edge’, on my way to work on the morning of the launch. I looked up as the tube approached the platform and smiled as I saw the tube was, of course, terminating at ‘Edgware’. It was too perfect.
How does Ali Smith invite all these coincidences into the lives of her readers? She covers so much ground in such a short space, so many books, so many writers that it’s inevitable you have a connection with at least one of them. But moreover it’s how she writes, in such an agile, nimble way, leaping from branch to branch in her ever-expanding forest of ideas. The book is all about making connections between different books, different ideas, utterly different things, and it is done with enthusiasm so infectious, that you can’t help but start to make those connections yourself. And so you notice little things like the joyful link of travelling towards Edgware while reading ‘On Edge’, to which you would otherwise have been blind.
Reading her books, makes me think it must be extraordinary to be Ali Smith, to have her quicksilver mind that leaps and dances between so many things with such ease and flair. Reading must be like weaving a new thread into an already intricately, beautifully patterned carpet; life must be full of nice coincidences and illuminating connections. Well if we can’t be her, we can at least read her, and hope that the tiniest bit of her genius, sprinkled on the pages like gold dust, might just rub off.