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(Trans)generational Vulnerabilities

Not Dead Yet: Rescuing the Silent Voice of May Young in Ali Smith’s There but for the

Pas encore morte : au secours de la voie de May Young dans There but for the d’Ali Smith
Pascale Tollance


There but for the, comme l’ensemble de la fiction de Ali Smith, associe intimement esthétique et politique, notamment à travers l’articulation que le texte nous propose entre ce qui trouve à se dire ou s’écrire et ce qui n’y parvient pas. Le silence et l’invisibilité sont au cœur de ce roman centré autour du comportement mystérieux d’un homme qui, lors d’un dîner, disparaît de la table de ses hôtes pour s’enfermer dans leur chambre d’amis pendant des mois. Ce silence se voit dupliqué par celui du personnage de May Young, vieille dame qui vit entre les quatre murs d’un hôpital et ne parle plus qu’à « l’intérieur de sa tête ». Tenter de comprendre la place de la voix / du silence de May Young dans l’économie d’ensemble du texte est une façon de se rapprocher de l’énigme centrale du roman. L’histoire de May semble en effet obéir avant tout à la nécessité de briser la prison silencieuse dans laquelle le personnage se trouve enfermé : son monologue flamboyant dément à chaque ligne l’impression qu’elle pourrait donner de n’être plus qu’une vie en sursis. Mais tout autant qu’il extrait une voix du silence, le roman donne une place à ce silence — en marge de la conversation verbeuse et creuse du dîner duquel le mystérieux Miles s’extirpe. La résistance silencieuse de May, comme la disparition de Miles, perfore le tissu d’un échange réduit à un bavardage ininterrompu. Le silence devient une force qui remplace la parole par l’écoute. Remettant en question l’idée selon laquelle elle serait « retombée en enfance », le monologue de May nous amène à réfléchir à la valeur de « l’in-fantia » et à ce que Jean-François Lyotard nomme notre « dette à l’enfance ». La voix silencieuse de May triomphe dans un idiome qui tisse le dit et le non-dit et déjoue aussi bien la menace (ou la tentation) du silence absolu que la surdité d’un discours auto-suffisant.

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Ce qui ne se laisse pas écrire, dans l’écrit, appelle peut-être un lecteur qui ne sait plus ou pas encore lire: vieilles gens, enfants de la Maternelle, radotant sur leur livre ouvert: a.d.a.d.
Lyotard, ‘Infans’, Lectures d’enfance)
That which does not allow itself to be written, in the written text, may call for a reader who can no longer or not yet read: old people, pre-school children, stuttering in front of their open book:
(translation mine)

1There but for the starts with an injunction to the reader to ‘imagine’, to picture a scene: a man is sitting on an exercise bike, his eyes and mouth covered with ‘letterbox flaps’. If one ‘look[s] closer’, as one is invited to do, the rectangles look like ‘censorship strips’ used by newspapers and magazines. But there is also, next to the man, a ten-year-old boy who can remove the flaps and does. This little vignette placed at the forefront of the novel can be read as an allegory of what Smith does again and again in her novels: rescuing from silence and invisibility those who find themselves locked behind visible or invisible walls, but also getting the reader to hear and see what they fail to see even while their eyes and ears are wide open. The extensive use of artful and comic metafictional devices, characteristic of Smith’s style, goes side by side in her fiction with direct references to the daily fare of newspapers and TV—a juxtaposition confirmed by the recently published Summer. Greta Thunberg, among others, makes it into Smith’s latest book, Greta who, we are told, ‘stopped being able to speak’ when she ‘realized what was happening to the planet’, but then ‘realized the whole point was she had to speak. That she had to use her voice’ (Smith 2020, 69).

  • 1 L’enfance est l’état de l’âme habitée par quelque chose à quoi nulle réponse n’est jamais faite, el (...)
  • 2 Several critics underline that the notion of ‘infancy’ is a key concept running through Lyotard’s t (...)

2If There but for the seems less urgently plugged onto a burning present than Summer, it gained a renewed power of interpellation in what may go down in history as the spring of the lockdown: we were then hearing about old people dying by the dozen in nursing homes, without being able to see and to be seen one last time by their friends and relatives. In There but for the, May Young, the central character and focaliser of the third part of the book, finds herself within the four walls of a hospital—soon to be replaced by an old people’s home. It also happens that May has lost the power to make herself heard—or so it seems at first—and can only speak ‘within the confines of her head’ (203). Even before May gets smuggled out of the hospital at the end of the third part, Smith rescues the old lady from her prison by giving her a voice and showing us that she is very much ‘there’, to take up the first word of the title, despite the fact she may be considered by some as being ‘not all there’ any more. The old lady is not only alive and lively, but she is given a vital part to play in the book, being one of the four pillars of the narrative. This does not mean that we immediately or fully understand why she is there at all, being so remotely connected to Miles, the man at the centre of the book. In fact, we need to leave the gap open at first, which invites us to focus on the analogy that can be drawn between the old lady who has withdrawn ‘inside the confines of her head’ (205) and the man who has deliberately locked himself inside the guestroom of virtual strangers. May’s monologue eventually adds a piece to the puzzle that is Miles, but it first duplicates Miles’s enigmatic silence. As it happens, in both cases, silence has been at least partly chosen: it is not just something one needs to be rescued from, but something that itself may need to be rescued. May’s part foregrounds the motif of a debt that cannot, yet must, be paid, a debt that connects May and Miles in a tacit manner and involves the recognition of something that cannot be put into words—a notion which finds an echo in the absolute debt Jean-François Lyotard considers we owe to what he calls ‘infancy’.1 What is approached by Lyotard through the helplessness of the infant2 is more than just a stage in life and not something out of which one grows:

  • 3 It [. . .] infantia or what cannot be spoken. Not a stage in life, not something which passes. It h (...)

. . . infantia, ce qui ne se parle pas. Une enfance qui n’est pas un âge de la vie et qui ne passe pas. Elle hante le discours. Celui-ci ne cesse pas de la mettre à l’écart, il est sa séparation. Mais il s’obstine, par là-même, à la constituer comme perdue. À son insu, il l’abrite donc. Elle est son reste. (Lyotard 1991, Infans—avant-propos à Lectures d’enfance)3

  • 4 See the passage quoted above (note 1): ‘L’enfance est l’état de l’âme habitée par quelque chose à q (...)

3Infancy is ‘the state of the soul inhabited by something to which no answer is ever given’4 something which is not outside language but at its core. Having to live with the silent presence of Miles at the heart of a house, the Lees start feeling they are becoming strangers to themselves. May, as for her, is not entirely mute and reaches us through a silent voice which weaves the spoken and the unspoken together. In the tight network that emerges from one chapter to the next, May paradoxically comes close to another character, Brooke Bayoude, the child who cannot stop talking and cannot help playing with language. While it may come in the way of discourse, ‘the remainder of discourse’ (Lyotard) also propels the narrative, giving a greater resonance and a heightened power to words, displacing and reinvigorating meaning at every step. Subverting the topos of ‘second childhood’, May invites us to imagine infancy as being involved in a form of resistance to death rather than a sign of regression or decline. I thus propose to show how Smith rescues not just voice but silence through the character of May and how, far from simply opposing them, she binds them together through an in-fant tongue of sorts.

Thereness: The Voice Inside the Body / the Voice Detached from the Body

4While the centerpiece in There but for the is a dinner party in a wealthy and trendy family in Greenwich, the four main characters and focalisers of the story all belong in some way or other to a liminal or marginal space, victims of subtle—or less subtle—forms of prejudice and silencing. At the same time as they get involved in the main event (the fateful dinner party and its aftermath), they displace the focus of the story (the dinner being only introduced in parentheses amidst Mark’s memories). Mark, a gay man of Jewish origins is the friend responsible for bringing a stranger, Miles Garth, into the Lees’ house. Brooke Bayoude, the ten-year-old child of Black British parents, is shown to boldly interfere with the dinner conversation when, being only a child, she was not really meant to be there in the first place. Anna Hardie, a young woman whose name appears in Miles’s address book, is only brought in after the event in order to try and persuade Miles to come out of the bedroom, although she barely knows him. It is also worth noting that Anna’s former job consisted in collecting the narratives of traumatized refugees once those had been reduced to a one-page format. When Anna was asked to make redundant those of her staff who failed to stick to that format she resigned and is now out of a job. Like Anna, May Young seems initially parachuted from nowhere into the story; like her she finds herself on a threshold, but the door that will not open yet is none other than death’s door.

5Smith creates a whole spectrum where the ability to make oneself heard is unevenly distributed and can be savagely reduced, as the example of the formatted narrative of refugees suggests. At the silent end of that spectrum one finds May, whose part opens with the following words: ‘there was no more talking aloud now, and there wouldn’t be neither . . .’ (201). The sense that May has withdrawn inside herself is not only conveyed by the leitmotiv ‘(with)in the confines of her head’, but also by her distance from the alien body in which she finds herself (‘a stranger whose wrists were old’ [202]) and the clothes it has been dressed in: ‘Imagine not knowing the very clothes you’re in. Finding yourself in pink when you wouldn’t be seen dead in pink’ (202). While the phrase could come dangerously close to being literally true, the reader quickly realizes that the pun may be enjoyed as a pun for a while yet, or, if one were to choose a literal reading, that the accent must not fall on ‘pink’ (‘you wouldn’t be seen dead in pink’) but on ‘dead’ (‘you wouldn’t be seen dead in pink’). ‘No, she was not dead. She was not dead yet’ (205) is the main catchphrase that runs through the text.

  • 5 Warner here refers explicitly both to Florence Dupont (The Invention of Literature) and Margaret At (...)

6The voice we hear emerges from a text freely mixing narration with direct, indirect as well as free indirect speech, as if to underline its ability to come through whatever channel it needs to take. Beyond the wide use of free indirect discourse, the narrative bears the mark of that process of ‘magnetization’ or ‘contagion’ which Rendall Stevenson describes as characteristic of Joyce’s style: what we read ‘seem[s] as if written by the characters who appear in them: as if the characters were somehow helping to tell their own story, shaping its style around their distinctive linguistic habits and expressive idioms’ (Stevenson 50). The whole of the third part, although largely in the third person and not strictly a monologue, ‘seems as if written’ by May, the person inside the pink hospital gown. Marina Warner suggests that Smith’s books project an image of the writer ‘as stenographer, as secretary of her characters, as taking dictation from the beings in the book and passing them down a live wire’ (Germana and Horton vi). Interestingly, Warner finds in all the voices that Smith invents a ‘hauntedness’ which reminds us that ‘literature was always created to resist death and bring back the dead as if they were still there’ (Germana and Horton vi).5 Although in this particular instance May is ‘still there’ because ‘she is not dead yet’, the text which carries her voice exemplifies the power voice gains when it is torn away from silence. Her monologue extends the reach of prosopopoeia, the rhetorical device which consists in attributing a voice to someone or something normally deprived, or no longer possessed, of the power to speak. Of the four parts of the book May’s part is the most musical, the one which is carried with the greatest momentum (as if modelled on one of the Gracie Fields songs that run through the old lady’s head). Through May’s voice, Smith writes ‘a conjuration against lifelessness’ (Germana and Horton vii) to borrow Warner’s words again, but she also questions the way life and ‘lifelessness’ find themselves defined and distributed in the book.

  • 6 As Diane Leblond puts it in her joint presentation of There but for the and Artful: ‘For all the ch (...)

7May’s speech offers yet another angle from which to approach the question of what it means to be ‘there’, a word on which not only the first part, called ‘there’, but the whole book can be considered to be a long meditation. The silent visitor sitting in May’s room (her future rescuer in fact) could be seen as a double of Anna who finds herself knocking on the Lees’ guestroom door and calling to Miles ‘Are you there?’ (5). ‘See if you can get her to talk . . . . We are all missing to hear her. I tell her all the time. We’re all missing her wit about the place’, (227): these are the words of the nurse talking to the visitor, a reminder, in passing, that May used to be the life and soul of the place. ‘Within the confines of her head’, May professes her liking for that nurse because ‘[she] had the measure of the spirit of things. She knew there was more to an old body than an old body’ (227). While being ‘there’ may seem to be the most straightforward and unquestionable thing in the world, what comes through as the word flashes on and off throughout the book is that it can never be taken for granted.6 In fact, while May’s thereness has to be sought beyond the strange body she now inhabits, it is also that body which has the power to remind those who would rather not see it that she is ‘not dead yet’. The little accident in the car which takes her away from the hospital at the end of the chapter is an arch reminder of that. May remembers a different era when one did not need ‘the intimate’ (her word for the internet) to enjoy the life of the body; she remembers relishing everything younger generations always think they are the first to discover: ‘Just very good at keeping it quiet, is what we were’ (234). The picture of the post-war period that unfolds as May revisits the past is not meant to simply convey a sense of nostalgia. May stubbornly resists dematerialization in this age where ‘[it is all] the intimate, and answerphones and things you had to speak at rather than to. Nobody there’ (214). Before she stopped using a phone, May remembers leaving that precise message, ‘nobody there’, on her daughter’s answerphone, a habit described as ‘distressing’ and ‘creepy’ (214) by the recipient. ‘We are here . . . We’re just choosing not to answer the phone’ (214) is the answer May finally gets.

  • 7 Dolar devotes several pages in A Voice and Nothing More to what he calls ‘the acousmatics of the vo (...)

8What Eleanor, May’s daughter, finds disturbing is perhaps the fact that the voice that insists on finding someone at the other end of the line, is itself too much ‘there’, when those who claim they ‘are here’, are not ‘here’ at all in fact (my emphasis), or at least are not here (enough) for someone who needs to speak to someone. It is impossible not to connect that ‘creepy’, or should we say spooky, voice May leaves on the machine with the voice of Faye, the ghost of Mark’s mother, who talks even before her son does at the beginning of the ‘but’ part and who is said to have ‘been making a bed in his ear’ (93). At first sight the two ladies are poles apart: Faye has ‘been dead for forty-seven years’ whereas May, as she cares to repeat, ‘is not dead yet’. And yet the voice inside the answerphone or inside May’s body and the bodiless voice of Faye both convey in their own way the power that voice may gain when its source remains invisible. Writing about this ‘acousmatic’ voice7 Mladen Dolar shows how invisibility allows voice to be heard for itself (while ordinarily it disappears behind the words it carries). Dolar also underlines that, paradoxically, that voice which ‘implies’ the body or ‘holds bodies and languages together’ (60) does not quite ‘fit the body’ (60) and has a particular ability to ‘detach itself from the body and leave it behind’ (73): ‘It is a bodily missile that has detached itself from its source, emancipated itself, yet remains corporeal’ (73). The rupture or disruption involved means that while voice ‘has an inherent link to presence . . . to the point of endorsing the very notion of presence’, it ‘presents a break’ (60) which upsets presence and self-presence.

  • 8 For further analysis of the complex interweaving of voice and silence, see Voices and Silence in th (...)

9All the voices that feature in the novel are by definition invisible. Yet Smith finds a way of detaching certain voices and making them louder or strange—a narrative and stylistic equivalent (with multiple variations) of the recorded voice, the voice left on the answerphone. The paradox that Dolar describes helps account for the fact that Faye and May can be said to be much more ‘there’ than the guests sitting around the Lees’ dinner table whose conversation threatens to turn into confused chatter and eventually into noise. May and Faye’s voices matter because of the body they ‘imply’, a challenge to hollow words and meaningless small talk. The fact that the body in question should be so close to death can be felt to reinforce both the sense of separation and ‘alienation’ from that body and its inevitable and insistent presence. Rescuing May’s voice means far more than saving someone who is ‘not dead yet’, it means rescuing someone and something from an erasure which is worse than death. Some form of silence is required to be able to hear the words coming from inside the body. But while it helps pry our ears open, silence also demands to be heard for itself.8

Making Room for Silence

10While the reason for May’s presence in the narrative is not clear, the special role devoted to her is marked by the heading of the chapter introducing her voice, which is none other than ‘for’. This ‘for’ can be explained in one way at least: we learn that, on one of the few occasions when he chose to communicate with the outside world, Miles passed a note under the Lees’ door to ask someone to go and visit May on the day of the year when, with one exception, he has so far never failed to call on her. That information, however, does not entirely clarify the situation: there remains a discrepancy between the urgent need to find May and the lack of obvious necessity for what turns out to be a complex expedition. The reader needs to wait a while to discover that silence does not only connect the two characters through analogy, both of them finding themselves shut away in strange rooms; it sits between them even when they come face to face, across a doorstep (as one memory reveals), Miles holding out a box of chocolates without either of them saying anything:

Knock knock knock.
Someone is at the front door.
May answers it. She has to. Nobody else is in. It’s a boy, standing on the doorstep. He does not say anything. Neither does she. They just stand there. Then he holds something out for her to take and when she takes it he steps back on the path. She steps back herself, on to the plastic runner over the carpet to keep the carpet good. She shuts the door.’ (260)

11In this passage, contact seems to be made over a void and only within the short space of time when a door opens and closes. The pace of the sentences slows right down, every full stop threatens to interrupt the flow, making the eerie silence of the scene heavier and louder than words. We find out that Miles’s visits take place on the anniversary of May’s youngest daughter’s premature death and that Jennifer, who died at the age of sixteen, was also Miles’s friend. At the same time, the reason for Jennifer’s death remains as unclear as Miles’s unfailing visits to her mother.

  • 9 In a book where the ‘tyrannical logic of surveillance’ is a pervading theme, as Andrei-Bogdan Popa (...)

12Miles’s urgent need to send out someone for May (the ‘for’ marking purpose and intention) is perhaps all the more vital as there remains something which cannot not be accounted for (the ‘for’ marking cause or origin). May’s monologue brings back the past and its stories but also the past and its silences. There is no need to look for any guilt to justify Miles’s behaviour, it is hinted that Jennifer died of an undiagnosed heart condition. In the first interlude, we read about this girl, Jennifer, who ‘had gone to bed one night and the next morning nobody had been able to wake her up. It was a total mystery. There weren’t many mysteries left’ (76).9 Through his yearly visits to May, Miles might be paying a sort of absolute debt, that ‘debt to infancy’ which involves something that cannot be spoken. What is owed to May is owed to Jennifer and to the ‘mystery’ of Jennifer’s death: it must be paid every year through a visit, however fleeting, although/because it can never be fully paid. May explicitly points out that some things can never be ‘settled’, a fact incongruously brought home to her by the sudden memory of an innocent rabbit she once killed:

There were things that did have to be settled in a life. Mastercard, Visa, if only.
There was the rabbit. No amount of Mastercard or Visa would settle the rabbit May’d shot, got first time too, with Philip’s old air rifle.
It was a wild rabbit that had taken to coming to visit the back garden. I wasn’t even if that rabbit was doing any harm. It sat and nibbled prettily among the flowers. (211)

13The story of the rabbit works like a fable which bears significance far beyond the confines of May’s narrative. It can also be seen as a screen, or a first step towards darker corners of the past. In one of these corners, one finds a ‘thing’ about Miles that Jennifer once said to her mother, which caused the girl to be brutally silenced:

You know my friend, Jennifer says in one of the short silences between May’s foot lifting off the pedal and pressing down on it.
What friend? May says.
He said this thing, Jennifer says.
May sighs.
He said when he was small, Jennifer says, and his grandfather was still alive, his grandfather would have him off to the tunes of the soundtrack record he had at his house of the Mary Poppins film.
May presses the pedal down. The machine whirs. She takes her foot off again.
You mean, May says in the loud absence after the whirring noise, that his grandfather would have him over to listen to the tunes off the soundtrack record he had at his house of the Mary Poppins film.
She presses the pedal. The machine whirs.
When she takes her foot off again Jennifer speaks behind her.
Yeah, but that’s not what he said, Jennifer says.
There is a silence for a moment. (249–250)

  • 10 ‘In the differend, something “demands” to be phrased and is exposed to the wrong of failing to be p (...)

14This elaborate scene opposes not just words and silence but two kinds of silence. The silence that resonates between the words is in fact silenced by the whirring noise of the machine: ‘the loud absence’ that finds its way in-between the words and the noise must be shut out. The outcome of the conversation is that Jennifer is forbidden to see and speak to her friend, which results in the girl’s stark refusal to talk to her parents: ‘Jennifer stops speaking. Jennifer won’t speak . . . she sits insolent and silent’ (252). To her parents’ brutal attempt to silence her, Jennifer opposes her own ‘loud’ silence, a silence not meant to blot things out but that demands to be heard. In it, we can hear an instance of the wrong Jean-François Lyotard describes in The Differend when ‘something demands to be phrased’ and fails to be: ‘Dans le différend, quelque chose “demande” à être mis en phrases et souffre du tort de ne pouvoir l’être à l’instant’ (Lyotard 1983, 30).10 The silence that connects May and Miles across the threshold thickens once the reader becomes aware of the wrong done to a child and the answer which was never given to another child.

  • 11 See quotation in note 1.

15The second half of May’s monologue reveals that May can talk, but she simply will not, in the same way as she will not swallow the pills that are given to her, in her opinion ‘to make her forget the day, the month, the prime minister’ (208). May is probably doing herself harm: the pills she keeps under her tongue could be the cure for what is cryptically marked on her file as UTI MRSA, i.e. a drug resistant infection. But resist she must, in one way or another, when looms the prospect of ‘Harbour House’, the old people’s home that May dreads more than death: ‘[she] would rather die and go to hell than wake up one day and find [her]self an inmate in that guest house of gone minds, gone things, bad carpets, furniture that needs permission’ (211). May’s silence partly echoes Miles’s resistance, if it may be called that, considering that Miles is the kind of man who ‘prefer[s] not to’ (114) and who, like the enigmatic Bartleby, resists without opposing any resistance, absconds while remaining impossible to dislodge. Whatever significance we attribute to Miles’s choice to take up residence inside the Lees’ guestroom (he does not seem to be quite sure himself), the result is that it puts them under the obligation to give their undesirable guest food and shelter. The Lees owe Miles nothing but they find themselves faced with an absolute debt. In the general economy of the text everyone ends up finding themselves tied and indebted to someone else, a ‘hostage’ (Lyotard) to an ‘unknown host’,11 Smith ironically turning the hosts themselves into hostages. As the recipient of Miles’s message, May’s presence in the text makes it clear that the mystery man is no exception and that more clearly than anyone else he is paying an absolute debt, ‘a debt to life’ (Lyotard) and to the unspoken that comes with it. Being somehow at the end of the chain and the closest to death, May could have been locked in the most complete silence and yet her part in the overall composition is imagined rather differently.

  • 12 For further considerations on the figure of the parasite and on Smith’s approach to ‘being-with’, s (...)

16Miles introduces a radical interruption in the narrative: Greenwich, the leafy suburb of the Lees, also happens to be on the Prime Meridian. Somehow Miles withdraws into that zero zone when he removes himself from the dinner table. In the middle of a conversation that goes nowhere and where not a word can be got in edgeways, the only thing to do is perhaps to vanish altogether rather that feed the ambient noise. In a paper which opts for a Heideggerian reading of Miles’s withdrawal, Ben Davies suggests that the Lees’ spare room ‘opens up a space for thought’, ‘a space for thinking about dwelling’ and that ‘both characters and readers are invited “to take the measure” of Miles’s dwelling, as well as their own’ (Davies 510). The figure of Bartleby, alluded to in passing, may complement that interpretation of Miles’s forced occupation of the room but it also colours it slightly differently, lending it darker and more tragic undertones. The way the figure of the uninvited guest and the parasite are compounded through Miles certainly emphasizes a mode of presence which is not entirely straightforward.12 Besides, although the suspended time Miles inhabits is to some extent the time of the fable or the allegory, Miles also moves inside real time, so that the Lees’ guestroom could become like ‘the Centre for Temporary Permanence (or interchangeably, the Centre for Permanent Temporariness)’ (6) Anna used to work for. Miles’s own thereness, is something one could freeze into, a state of being neither living nor dead, a still zone out of which no exit is to be found—‘but for’ the presence of someone out there who is ‘not dead yet’. The characters that revolve around Miles can be considered to free his silence from the absolute zero that needs to be inscribed somewhere, a zero the does not mark just an end, but a beginning. Davies’s reference to Heidegger proves particularly fitting in this case: ‘Miles creates a boundary that at once stops people from entering but also marks “that from which something begins its presencing” (‘Building Dwelling Thinking’)’ (Davies 511). Anna, who has been knocking on the Lees’ door to no avail (‘Miles, are you there?’), is left pondering over Miles’s silence:

What would happen if you did just shut a door and stop speaking? Hour after hour of no words? Would you speak to yourself? Would words just stop being useful? Would you lose language altogether? Or would words mean more, would they start meaning in every direction, all somersault and assault, like a thuggery of fireworks? Would they proliferate, like untended plantlife? Would the inside of your head overgrow with every word that has ever come into it, every word that has ever silently taken seed or fallen dormant? Would your own silence make other things noisier? Would all the things you’d ever forgotten, all layered there inside you, come bouldering up and avalanche you. (66)

17The silent ‘fireworks’ that Anna imagines on the other side of the door actually take place in her own head as she speaks, her monologue turning into a flamboyant mise en abyme of the novel as a whole. Miles’s silence is what ‘makes the other things noisier’. It is the breath that the other guests never draw, the breath that has the power to revive and fertilize language. May’s silent chatter may be seen as an instance of ‘the inside of your head overgrow[ing] with every word that has ever come into it’. Voice and silence get rescued together in the creation of this new tongue. Infancy is still involved in the process, but not so much as what interrupts the ‘avalanche’, ‘the somersault and assault’ as what prompts it in a language that is not simply different, but that constantly differs from itself. In the pages of the book, the old lady sits happily next a voluble child called Brooke.

The Idiom of Infancy

  • 13 May could be perceived as suffering from dementia, but Smith chooses to challenge that notion and c (...)

18‘May Young was old. You’ll always be ‘young’ now you’ve married me, Philip had whispered in her ear at the altar, June 7, 1947. But she was no fool, she knew exactly how old she was’ (201). These words placed on the first page of May’s section set the tone for what follows: if May has reached the stage some call second childhood, it is not to be understood as a euphemism for senility.13 May will not be treated as a child or infantilized. On the other hand, she displays a youthful disposition which manifests itself in her gusto and energy and through an orality that takes different forms. May loves a sweet and when offered one by Josie, the girl sent out to visit her, she ‘open[s] her mouth like a child’ (243); later, having prompted Josie to organise her escape, she agrees to wait till after lunch so as not to miss out on the mince, her favourite dish. Orality, however, mostly expresses itself in the pleasure taken in language. Apart from the fact that May easily skips or somersaults from one idea to the next, her monologue is full of puns, a feature which, to some extent, all the main characters of the book share, chief among them Brooke Bayoude, the truant child.

  • 14 ‘Infans’, foreword to Lectures d’enfances.

19May and Brooke embody in their own manner the principle of free association that runs through the text and plays havoc with meaning. One distinctive effect of this disruptive principle appears in the way it breaks down words and redistributes phonemes. In his review of the book for the New York Times, Charles Mc Grath described Smith’s heavy use of puns as ‘almost tic-like’—‘as if Ms Smith couldn’t quite help herself’. The fact that punning may end up appearing mechanical at times is an indication of how fundamental it is to the make-up of the novel. At every step, the text displays its ability to double upon itself, to make and unmake itself. The repetition or dislocation of words could be seen as an instance of the ‘stammering’ or ‘stuttering’ (or more ambiguously in French ‘radotage’) which Lyotard considers as an apt way to bring out ‘what does not allow itself to be written, in the written text’14—even if in Smith’s text new meanings never fail to emerge from the meaningless letters. One may also think of Deleuze’s singular approach to stuttering in ‘Bégaya-t-il’, ‘bégaiement’ being reinvented as a language of affect where the sentence is forever felt to be in the making, or ‘becoming’, and grammar in a constant state of ‘imbalance’ (‘une syntaxe du devenir’, ‘une grammaire du déséquilibre’ 141). For Deleuze too, the tension created by what he calls stuttering ‘brings language to its limit, its outside, its silence’ (‘faire bégayer la langue, et en même temps porter le langage à sa limite, à son dehors, à son silence’ [142]). Smith’s particular handling of words can be seen as a making it ‘noisier’, to take up Anna’s suggestion: every word of the title in particular (‘there’, ‘but’, ‘for’, ‘the’) is regularly detached, italicized or emphasized in one way or another. The unobtrusive words, words we often simply do not notice, suddenly ‘demand’ to be heard. The making it noisier is also a making it strange. Punning underlines the instability of meaning, but also a core of nonsense that is part and parcel of language. Brooke has pointedly been seen as an Alice kind of character. May herself flirts with nonsense when she opens her mouth and notices that ‘The wrong things were coming out of her mouth by themselves’ (242).

  • 15 Talking about what he calls the effect of the ‘even if’, le ‘quand même’, Lyotard writes: ‘L’effet (...)

20Allowing everything, anything, including ‘the wrong things’ to come out is perhaps not to be considered as a mere game in a book which offers various instances of a ‘wrong’ to which you can never really do justice, to refer to Lyotard again. The wrong that cannot be spoken not only demands to be heard but demands an answer—literally demands that we find some kind of idiom for it. This idiom does not cancel the différend, as Gérald Sfez puts it, but ‘signs and countersigns it’: ‘La phrase trouvée persiste et signe le différend. En un sens elle le contresigne’. Interestingly in Lectures d’enfance, Lyotard approaches infancy through the ‘as if’ children ‘know so much about’ (66), a ‘comme si’ which he also connects with ‘survivance’, survival, or rather the possibility to ‘invert the meaning of survival’. Lyotard points out that, in this instance, survival must not be confused with remission or a form of defiance in the face of annihilation; he sees it as a ‘scrupule’, a concern and care for this ‘as if’ (‘Je dirais sans plus d’explication que cette pensée de la vie comme énigme du commencement n’est acceptable que s’il ne s’agit pas de rémission, ni d’un défi, mais d’un scrupule. Le scrupule d’un comme si’ [65]). This image of the ‘survivant’ seems particularly apt to describe what is conveyed in There but for the through the figure of May: ‘her not dead yet’ is no denial of death and no mere ‘remission’ either; it is more like this ability to begin again and again which has found its idiom, an idiom for which the ‘silent voice’ which Smith invents could be a name. The ‘debt’ to infancy is a debt to the utter powerlessness in which the in-fant can find itself but also to what it ‘knows about (day)dream, memory, questions, invention, obstinacy, heartfelt listening, love, and a true receptiveness to stories’,15 all of which have their own way of suspending the meaning of what is spoken and of accommodating the unspoken.

21This definition of infancy can also help us introduce a nuance between the revenant and the ‘survivant’. For in the spectral presence of what lines and displaces every utterance, we find once again side by side May and Faye. The infancy which ‘haunts’ (Lyotard) language invites the ghost to return not as exactly as ‘metaphor’ (Peeren) but literally in fact, namely in the play of shifting letters. Faye, the ghost, has a good sense of humour and she has chosen this time to speak to Mark in rhyme, ‘an attention-getting device’ (85). Close as they may come (sharing two audible letters), May and Faye differ in their ability to sustain the ‘comme si’, the ‘as if’. While Faye once found an idiom in her art for the horrors to which she tried to bear witness, she finally committed suicide: she is the revenant, the one who must remind us of a wrong that can never be repaired. May, as for her, stands for the possibility to ‘invert’ (Lyotard) the lack of any right word and turn it into an adventure that involves playing around with the ‘wrong’ words. Each stand on either side of the same door: Faye can be seen to carry the message to be found at the beginning of Hotel World: ‘Remember you must die’, while May would be speaking the line placed at the close of the same novel: ‘Remember you must live’. May Young’s name is connected with possibility—starting with the possibility to collapse the opposition between a proper noun and a common noun (Young/young) or to turn a first name into a modal (May/may). May’s place is finally on the lawn, next to Josie, the girl that rescued her, where she is spotted by Brooke, the child who makes a place for her in her notebooks.

22The power to displace set categories, to ignore separations and divisions, to bring walls down proves invaluable in a world of ‘fortifications’ which, according to one dinner guest, ‘humanity has always needed’ (146). The ghost herself is very good at going through walls but the book emphasizes the need to build special places, guest rooms that provide a shelter for infancy. These are not to be seen as dead ends: the final release of Miles and May brings the relief of a door that opens, but Miles tells Brooke that the guestroom door on which people have been knocking has not been locked for months. As for May, the highly comic escapade that brings her close to Greenwich Harbour instead of the dreaded Harbour House saves her from a fate that she has been actively fighting right from the start. We read in Brooke’s notebooks that the old lady died in March: the survival she embodies is clearly no avoidance of death but rather an attempt to ‘invert the meaning of survival’ (Lyotard). In the meantime, May got a lovely change of clothes which includes blue pyjamas: she can rest in peace with the knowledge that she will not have been ‘seen dead in pink’.


23‘Think of how quiet a book is on a shelf, he said, just sitting there, unopened. Then think what happens when you open it’ (345).

24If opening There but for the feels like being carried by an ‘avalanche of words’, the title, in its truncated form suggests that these words will not completely fill the silence that comes in their wake. Nobody has the last word in the book, not even Brooke who is shown to be reading rather than writing in the very last sentence of the novel. The notebooks of the endlessly curious child, the pages on which every fact and every story appear worthy of being saved side by side with her own inventions offer a perfect image of a hospitality that excludes no one and nothing on principle. In this collection of narratives, May largely contributes to the introduction of several layers of time which come to co-exist simultaneously, a feature which fascinates Brooke, who finally imagines the locked bedroom as a place where Miles the boy and Miles the man can stand next to each other—a key to the prologue. May also adds her own original silent voice to the text, an idiom which pays its debt to what cannot be spoken while resisting the potentially deadly attraction of silence. In the succession of centres which form in the book, only to be decentered one by one, May’s privilege is perhaps to mark more visibly than others the place of a debt that can never be paid but that must be paid ‘for’ that very reason. This emphasis on destination and on a recipient who gives its sense to a message also takes us back the prologue: the man who has the flaps removed by the boy is taught to make a paper plane by that same boy and to send it across the room. The paper, which we are told is A4 (A for?) is a reminder of the single A4 page on which the tales of refugees was meant to fit. Once such a rubbish idea has been made into a plane, what remains is the pure intention, the pure message to an invisible recipient.

25The tension between the urge to speak and the call of silence appears clearly again in Summer. Smith’s latest experiment juxtaposes three main figures: next to Greta Thunberg who decided she ‘had to use her voice’ (69) we find Ashley the writer who can no longer utter a single word. But another key figure, next to them, is Lorenza Mazzetti and her postwar experimental cinema—in particular her film about trauma and ‘not talking’ which centers on deaf mute characters ‘followed around by a crowd of funny and merciless children’ (260). As one character puts it, ‘the film says all these complicated things, and it does without saying a word’ (109). Beyond the homage paid to the filmmaker’s art, Smith draws her readers’ attention to the part played by silence in her own brilliantly voluble and eloquent work.

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Davies, Ben, ‘The Complexities of Dwelling in Ali Smith’s There but for the’, Critique 58.5 (2017): 509–520.

Deleuze, Gilles, ‘Bégaya-t-il’, Critique et clinique, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1993, 135–143.

Dolar, Mladen, A Voice and Nothing More, Cambridge (Mass.): The MIT Press, 2006.

Guignery, Vanessa, Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009.

Leblond, Diane, ‘Two Novels Inbetween: There but for the (2011) and Artful (2013), by Ali Smith, Études britanniques contemporaines 47 (2014), last accessed at on 2 June 2021.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Le Différend, Paris: Les Éditions de Minuit, 1983.

Lyotard, Jean-François, Lectures d’enfance, Paris: Galilée, 1991.

Mc Grath, Charles, ‘After Hiding, He Becomes a Celebrity’, The New York Times 18 October 2011, last accessed at on 22 November 2020.

PagÈs, Claire, ‘De quoi l’enfance est-elle le nom ?’, Lyotard à Nanterre, ed. Claire Pagès, Paris: Klincksieck, 2010, 327–348.

Peeren, Esther, The Spectral Metaphor. Living Ghosts and the Agency of Invisibility, New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2014.

Popa, Andrei-Bogdan, ‘Ali Smith’s There but for the: Identity, Hospitality and Transcendence in the Age of Surveillance’, East-West Cultural Passage 20.1 (2020): 52–73.

Sfez, Gerald, Jean-François Lyotard, La faculté d’une phrase, Paris: Galilée, 2000.

Smith, Ali, Hotel World, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2001.

Smith, Ali, There but for the (2011), London: Penguin Books, 2012.

Smith, Ali, Summer, London: Hamish Hamilton, 2020.

Stevenson, Randall, Modernist Fiction (1992), Edinburgh: Longman, 1998.

Tollance, Pascale, Graham Swift. La Scène de la voix, Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2011.

Tollance, Pascale, ‘Penser l’être-avec : hôtes et parasites dans la fiction d’Ali Smith’, Lieux Communs 1, L’Atelier 12. 2 (2020), last accessed at on 5 June 2021.

Warner, Marina, Foreword to Ali Smith, eds. Monica Germanà and Emily Horton, London: Bloomsbury, 2013, vi–ix.

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1 L’enfance est l’état de l’âme habitée par quelque chose à quoi nulle réponse n’est jamais faite, elle est conduite dans ses entreprises par une arrogante fidélité à cet hôte inconnu dont elle se sent l’otage. L’enfance d’Antigone. Je comprends ici l’enfance comme obédience à une dette, qu’on peut appeler dette de vie, de temps ou d’événement, dette d’être-là malgré tout, dont seul le sentiment persistant, le respect peut sauver l’adulte de n’être qu’un survivant, un vivant en sursis d’anéantissement (Lyotard 1991, 66) / ‘Infancy is the state of the soul inhabited by something to which no answer is ever given, it is driven by an arrogant faithfulness to the unknown host to whom it feels hostage. Antigone’s infancy. I understand infancy here as a debt, what you might call a debt to life, to time or to the event, the debt that comes from being here in spite of everything. The abiding feeling of being obliged by that debt is the only thing that can save the adult from being a mere survivor, someone living on borrowed time before being annihilated’. (This translation and all the following are mine)

2 Several critics underline that the notion of ‘infancy’ is a key concept running through Lyotard’s thought long before the latter part of his work where it is addressed more specifically. In an article called ‘De quoi l’enfance est-elle le nom?’, Claire Pagès points out that ‘in-fancy’ as ‘what does not allow itself to be written’ can be approached as another name for previous Lyotardian concepts pointing to what cannot be articulated, appropriated, represented (etc.); yet she insists that ‘infantia’ remains closely connected with the particular condition of the defenseless infant, deprived of the means to articulate its affects or unable to make itself heard: ‘Notre sentiment est que la parenté des deux enfances est bien plus étroite que [Lyotard] ne l’affirme. L’âge de la vie qu’est l’enfance devient le modèle de cette enfance du discours et se confond même parfois avec elle. Alors, il apparaît que l’enfance du discours n’est pas tant incapable de parole et imparlable que mise de côté par le discours, tout comme l’enfant peut parler mais ne pas être écouté ou n’avoir pas voix au chapitre’ (Pagès 328)

3 It [. . .] infantia or what cannot be spoken. Not a stage in life, not something which passes. It haunts discourse. Discourse keeps casting it aside, marking it as separate but in doing so it obstinately constitutes it as lost. Unwittingly, discourse thus hosts infantia, which is its remainder.

4 See the passage quoted above (note 1): ‘L’enfance est l’état de l’âme habitée par quelque chose à quoi nulle réponse n’est jamais faite [. . .]’ (Lyotard 66).

5 Warner here refers explicitly both to Florence Dupont (The Invention of Literature) and Margaret Atwood (Negociating with the Dead).

6 As Diane Leblond puts it in her joint presentation of There but for the and Artful: ‘For all the characters brought into contact with Miles, as well as for the lover who was left behind, “thereness” is not a given: it becomes a problem, a question that is put to them, and to the reader’.

7 Dolar devotes several pages in A Voice and Nothing More to what he calls ‘the acousmatics of the voice’. He defines the acousmatic voice in the following manner: ‘The acousmatic voice is simply a voice whose source one cannot see, a voice whose origin cannot be identified, a voice one cannot place’ (Dolar 60).

8 For further analysis of the complex interweaving of voice and silence, see Voices and Silence in the Contemporary Novel in English, ed. Vanessa Guignery, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009. I also address at length the paradoxes of voice and its relation to silence in my book on Graham Swift: Graham Swift. La Scène de la voix, Villeneuve d’Ascq: Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2011.

9 In a book where the ‘tyrannical logic of surveillance’ is a pervading theme, as Andrei-Bogdan Popa argues, the need to accept and preserve ‘mysteries’ takes on a particular significance. Talking about Miles’s own participation in storytelling (in the contest he once attended), Popa draws from that quote ‘there [are not] many mysteries left’ and comments: ‘[Miles’s] submission to the storytelling contest pertains to [. . .] how certain pieces of private information do not lend themselves to any kind of comfortable disclosure and easy interpretation’ (Popa 59).

10 ‘In the differend, something “demands” to be phrased and is exposed to the wrong of failing to be phrased right away’.

11 See quotation in note 1.

12 For further considerations on the figure of the parasite and on Smith’s approach to ‘being-with’, see my paper ‘Penser l’être-avec: hôtes et parasites dans la fiction d’Ali Smith’ (Tollance 2020).

13 May could be perceived as suffering from dementia, but Smith chooses to challenge that notion and certainly blurs the limit between making sense and talking nonsense. In his review of the book for the New York Times, Charles McGrath underlines May’s ‘sharp’ wit: ‘For takes place inside the very entertaining head of May Young, an elderly woman who, though suffering from dementia, has a very sharp and insistent take on things [. . .]’.

14 ‘Infans’, foreword to Lectures d’enfances.

15 Talking about what he calls the effect of the ‘even if’, le ‘quand même’, Lyotard writes: ‘L’effet est l’enfance, qui s’y connaît en comme si, qui s’y connait en douleur due à l’impuissance et en plainte d’être trop petite, d’être là en retard (sur les autres) et d’être arrivée trop tôt, prématurée (quant à sa force), qui s’y connaît en promesses non tenues, en déceptions amères, en défaillance, en abandon,—mais aussi en songerie, en mémoire, en question, en invention, en obstination, en écoute du cœur, en amour, en véritable disponibilité aux histoires’ (Lyotard 1991, 66).

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Pascale Tollance, « Not Dead Yet: Rescuing the Silent Voice of May Young in Ali Smith’s There but for the »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 61 | 2021, mis en ligne le 01 novembre 2021, consulté le 29 novembre 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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Pascale Tollance

Pascale Tollance is Professor of English at Université Lumière–Lyon 2 (France). She has written extensively on British-Canadian author Malcolm Lowry, as well as on a number of British contemporary writers. She is the author a book on Graham Swift (Graham Swift. La Scène de la voix. Villeneuve d'Ascq: Presses Universitaires du Septentrion, 2011) which focuses on the staging of gaze and voice in Swift’s fiction. She is co-editor of the online journal L’Atelier and is on the editorial board of the online journal Polysèmes, and has coordinated a number of volumes for both journals. Her field of research includes post-colonial literatures with publications on Jean Rhys, Janet Frame, Alice Munro, J. M. Coetzee, and Nadine Gordimer.

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