It seems somehow wrong that I now ‘own’ my copy of Public Library, Ali Smith’s fifth collection of short stories. For Smith, books are found, borrowed, chanced upon, stolen; temporarily yours, but no more so than a visiting friend or a lover. Like spouses, our long-term paper-backed partners (such as Katherine Mansfield who, in one story, is an ever present third partner in a relationship), can also be stolen, lent, or adopted. As much as any collection of short stories can be said to be unified around a theme, this one deals with the potential of art, particularly literature, to infiltrate life, and books – the books we seem to come across by accident – are a principal means by which this infiltration occurs.
There is in this collection a recurring investment in the book as a material object. I do not mean that the edition itself is fancy; it isn’t. But even in a dog-eared paperback, there is a magic that transcends the everyday. This fits with one of Smith’s ongoing projects: to find the profound in the commonplace, the everything in the nothing (the word ‘stone’ once meant mirror, we learn in ‘Last’; mundane derives from ‘mundus’, the world). In ‘The Poet’, Olive Fraser finds music beneath the spines of an old collection of novels. In ‘Grass’, a copy of Herrick’s poems is a portal back to childhood afternoons working in a shop, in which the same book anticipates its future reading amidst the wild flowers of a country lane. The stress on materiality somehow emphasizes Smith’s politics, for investing particular copies of books (rather than the abstract and high-minded ‘Literature’ which they contain) with magical power makes public libraries into temples or treasure repositories, reliquaries where contact with the artefact has the miraculous power of transformation, transportation, and healing. And so this all adds up to a theory of something like a Benjaminian ‘aura’ which is attached to books as objects despite their status as ‘copies’, reproductions. Reading, for Smith, is communion not only with the voice of the author (voices linger continually, internalized after reading and hearing: a dead father in ‘Good Voice’, The Spinners in ‘The Beholder’) but also with past readers. The past reader in ‘Grass’ is the author’s younger self, and the séance through the abandoned paperback is vivid and evocative. Getting to know Mansfield in ‘The Ex-Wife’ after the departure of the narrator’s partner, a Mansfield-lover, is balm and catharsis.
This is a highly political book. Sometimes it is overtly political, as in the eulogies for libraries closed which recur throughout. There are also two more subtle manifesto-like passages which end stories: a fantasy, prompted by an automated customer complaints system and its impersonal bureaucracy, details the anarchy that an army of selves might reek if liberated from the tyranny of a capitalist society; and a yearning lament for ‘Elsewhere’ which describes an other-place to which books are both passport and travelling companion. The collection is profoundly democratic in that Smith shares her authorial position with a cast of other contributors – friends and strangers, she tells us – who fill pages between each of the stories with recollections of their own formative libraries. The library throughout, though never featuring in Smith’s own stories explicitly, becomes ‘the most democratic of institutions’ (a Lessing quote from the back-cover) and the most liberal, where the reader is free to choose their reading, free of charge, and to remake each book freely with each re-reading. The possibility in ‘The Human Claim’ that D H Lawrence’s ashes might not be sitting in their urn but instead be anywhere, floating on ocean or breeze, is expressed joyfully, for – again, the imagery is materialistic – Laurence’s ashes are both his body, ‘corpus’, and his body of work. His words, like his ashes, drift freely on the wind thanks to libraries.
Smith’s prose-poetry, which is effortlessly internal to her narrators (many of whom share similar voices and worries, dealing with dead parents and breaking relationships), is endearing and affecting. The extraordinary is always rooted in the corporeal (literally, in ‘Good Voice’, where a rose sprouts from the narrator’s heart – this is inconvenient, but only because the thorns tear shirts) and this lends Smith’s voice much of its considerable charm. As with her recent novels How to be both and There but for the, there is constant humor (the aforementioned rose, a metaphor for the narrator’s depression, means she can deal with any ‘shit’ thrown at her, for her rose benefits from a healthy mulching with manure) which contributes to the easy marriage of the magical and the mundane, the highly-wrought and the off-the-cuff. The narration is often arch, winking at you from the pages, rightfully proud of its own showmanship and subtlety, and is fundamentally human (human is cognate with ‘humus’ – earth – Smith would like that).
Better than shelving it, I might take my copy, now read, and leave it on a train, drop it on the street, balance it on a fence, package and post it to an unknown reader: pregnant, waiting to be found, to spend time with someone else, to come alive again through its rereading.
By Robert Hawkins
Public Library, Hamish Hamilton, £16.99