T.S. Eliot once wrote that the critic's job was to "exhibit the relations of literature - not to 'life', as something contrasted to literature, but to all the other activities, which, together with literature, are the components of life". Ali Smith might equally claim this as the fiction writer's task. Central to her new collection, Public Library And Other Stories, which comes hot on the heels of her triple-award-winning novel How to Be Both (2014), is the profound effect literature can have on our everyday lives, as embodied by the humble library.
Libraries in Britain are under threat. In the past five years, 337 have closed with more still in danger. Smith prefaces her 12 stories with a telling anecdote. Walking through Covent Garden with her editor, she came across a place called "Library". Curious, they walked in. It turned out to be a private members' club where any books on show were merely a "feature". This space is antithetical to the democratic, messy reality of the local library as celebrated by Smith's friends in anecdotes interspersed throughout the book.
The anecdotes are interesting in themselves but collected together they run the risk of worthiness. The stories themselves are a more effective demonstration of the value Smith places on language. The narrator of Last is obsessed with etymologies. She casts new light on the notion of telling a story by informing us that "to tell" can mean "to express in words, to narrate, to explain, to calculate, to count, to order, to give away secrets, to say goodbye".
Barely a page goes by in Public Library without someone mentioning John Milton or quoting Robert Herrick. Sometimes the references feel natural, sometimes less so. In The Human Chain, the narrator wants to tell a story about D.H. Lawrence's ashes, but gets distracted by having to spend ages on the phone to her bank after her identity is stolen. The conceit feels whimsical and slight - two separate stories bound together with the stitching too clearly visible.
In The Ex-Wife, the most successful story in the collection, a famous writer is better integrated into the story's emotional texture. At the start of a relationship, one finds the other's love of books charming. But once they have been together for a while, the non-reader feels ignored by the reader's passion for Katherine Mansfield. This obsession affects their relationship. The couple break up. The narrator takes revenge by replacing the partner's precious collection of Mansfield letters with Stieg Larsson thrillers.
Reading this collection is like spending an afternoon in a well-stocked library in the company of an erudite and playful companion. Smith delights in making unexpected connections. This can make for an amusing and insightful reading experience, but can feel slightly cobbled together. In the final story, And so on, we are told in the first sentence that this "is a commission for a short story anthology where all the stories have to be about death", which is odd. I thought this collection was meant to be about libraries.
Public Library and other stories
by Ali Smith
- Canvas, Telegraph