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Literature’s Exception(s)

The Hapax of Mourning: Ali Smith’s Aesthetics of Exception in Artful (2012)

Le hapax du deuil : Ali Smith et l’esthétique de l’exception dans Artful (2012)
Héloïse Lecomte


Dans Artful, Ali Smith mêle essai et fiction de manière novatrice, offrant à son lecteur une variation métatextuelle sur la ‘mort de l’auteur’ théorisée par Roland Barthes. L’implosion des structures narratives reflète le bouleversement du deuil, état d’exception qui suspend le cours de la vie ordinaire. Le ton de ce récit de deuil, qui comporte un personnage défunt fantomatique et un narrateur/une narratrice en deuil, est souvent cocasse, incongru, comme pour mettre l’ex-centricité à l’honneur. L’exception s’apparente notamment ici à un renversement postmoderniste des normes et conventions génériques de récits de deuil comme d’ouvrages universitaires.

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  • 1 Smith’s subsequent novel How to Be Both went on to win the Prize the following year (in 2014). On t (...)

1Artful was designed by Ali Smith as a series of four lectures she gave for the Weidenfeld Visiting Professorship in European Comparative Literature at Oxford University in 2012, but the lectures are framed by the metatextual story of a genderless narrator’s discovery of his/her dead lover’s conference notes. In this unconventional plot, as a ghostly ersatz of the deceased sporadically returns to the land of the living, the lecture references and narrative developments continually echo each other. Although the nameless protagonist appears to be going through what Freudian theories deem ‘a normal process’ of mourning (Hartung 2014, 157), as opposed to the ‘pathological state’ of melancholia (Hartung 2014, 157), Smith’s treatment of the mourning condition in Artful is highly unusual in tone. This literary experiment, unique in Smith’s creative output, has been considered a ‘transgression of the boundaries of form’ (Hall 2018), as well as a ‘genre-bending’ creation (Horgan 2016), ‘like no lectures you’ve ever encountered’ (Hager Cohen 2013). It is no coincidence, therefore, that this unclassifiable book, ‘part ghost story, part love story, part mystery, part ode’ (Hager Cohen 2013) should have been nominated in 2013 for the first-ever edition of the Goldsmith Prize, a British literary award that specialises in formal experimentation in contemporary writing.1 Critics often fail to designate Artful as a work of fiction, although Smith herself declared ‘I think that Artful is a kind of novel’ (Sethi 2012). The author’s use of the qualifier ‘kind of’ here confirms that this hybrid work indeed puts fictional flesh on the lecture skeleton, albeit in a way that foils readers’ expectations. Josh Hall voices every reader’s initial puzzlement by claiming that ‘the collection, much like form itself, can be defined via negative—as much by what it is as by what it is not: it is a collection of lectures, but it is not pedagogic; it is the story of a dead lover, but not a work of fiction; it is literary criticism but it is never less than full-hearted’ (Hall 2012). The conjunction ‘but’, which is repeated three times in this tentative definition, aptly conveys the exceptional nature of Artful as an Unidentified Literary Object. Like the peculiar figure of the revenant, whose singularity is highlighted time and again in Artful in expressions such as ‘the cough was you in a way that couldn’t not be you’ (7) or ‘no one had handwriting like it. It could only be your hand’ (88), Ali Smith’s writing is unmistakably unique in its treatment of genre, characters and tone.

2The exception is usually defined as that which stands out from the ordinary. But an exception to a given rule also has subversive potential in its departing from established norms: as an irregular anomaly, it breaks patterns and defies classification. This deviation also entails a form of exclusion: the absolutely singular exception is not destined to become a model and remains an isolated occurrence, which some critics define as a ‘hapax’. As such, the exception is eccentric, or ex-centric, and gravitates around, or on the edge of, a prescribed orbit. The period of bereavement arguably is such an anomalous, solitary moment in one’s existence, which defies the norms of social behaviour and can foster paralysing loneliness. Even though the experience of bereavement is likely to occur more than once in the course of a person’s lifetime, it is undeniable that ‘every death is unique, . . . and therefore exceptional’ (Davis 2007, 237). Consequently, the exception of mourning is a paradoxical one since it oscillates between the ‘singularity of death and its ineluctable repetition’ (Derrida 2003, 16; my translation).

  • 2 In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of ‘incongruous’ is ‘that which does not (...)

3In Smith’s work, I would argue that the exception is both a marker of the hurtful isolation of grief and an exhilarating infringement of literary rules and traditions. In grief, it appears that ‘exceptionality [becomes] the norm’ as Graham Swift thoughtfully argues in his novel Wish You Were Here (Swift 2011, 121); the disruptive event of death breaks the rules of ordinary life and reconfigures the mourner’s existence in the process. As Daniel Innerarity remarks in his article ‘Order and Disorder: A Poetics of Exception’, the exception cannot be regulated, because ‘an exception . . . is not fully anticipatable. In spite of that, in practice, we can create some explicit rules for extraordinary circumstances. This is the goal of “patterned evasions”: establishing norms that regulate the breaking of norms. (Innerarity 2015, 181). Mourning is a state of exception in one’s existence, but it also implies a codified set of behaviours, which has been monitored by grief theories for decades. It is no coincidence that the figure of a therapist should appear in Artful, to help the protagonist through this mourning period. Artful’s solitary mourner remains an outsider, on the edge of society, and it is my contention that Smith relies on postmodernist theories, which give a platform to the marginal and the ex-centric, to intertwine the painful loneliness of bereavement and a sense of creative jubilation in her aesthetics of exception. By giving her story of bereavement and her lectures alike a slightly incongruous twist, Ali Smith creates a literary hapax, an undefinable and oxymoronic exception that resists classification precisely because it invests the liminal space of the edge between categories. This paper will first focus on the painful nature of the mourning exception, before underlining how Smith’s unique treatment of this grief narrative also shapes Artful’s generic singularity, as her poetics of emotion sketches the protagonist’s itinerary of mourning. Finally, it appears that the liberating potential of its narrative voice and its peculiar, incongruous2 tone truly mark the exceptionality of this book by eluding various literary conventions.

The Existential Hapax of Mourning in Artful

  • 3 ‘Le hapax est la fine extrême pointe et le superlatif rarissime de la raréfaction’ (Jankélévitch 19 (...)

4First and foremost, the state of bereavement is triggered by a brutal disruption, a death that rips apart the fabric of one’s ordinary life, thus constituting what Vladimir Jankélévitch calls an existential hapax in his work Le Je-ne-sais-quoi et le Presque-rien: ‘[le hapax] ne comporte ni précédent ni réédition, ni avant-goût ni arrière-goût ; [il] ne s’annonce pas par des signes précurseurs et ne connaît pas de “seconde fois”’ (Jankélévitch 1980, 117). The word ‘hapax’ is a term originally used in linguistics, referring to ‘a word that occurs only once within a context’, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. It has been applied to philosophical and generic considerations because it is considered the epitome of rarity.3 Jankélévitch also underlines the unique character of the moment of one’s death in La Mort: ‘événement dépareillé et incomparable, l’instant mortel élude toute conceptualisation’ (1977, 227). And since the loss of a loved one is irredeemably singular and exceptional, any attempt to define and understand it initially appears to be a doomed endeavour. As Derrida argues in his programmatic collection of essays on grief and mourning, Chaque fois unique, la fin du monde,

[l]a mort de l’autre, non seulement mais surtout si on l’aime, n’annonce pas une absence, une disparition, la fin de telle ou telle vie, à savoir de la possibilité pour un monde (toujours unique) d’apparaître à tel vivant. La mort déclare chaque fois la fin du monde en totalité, la fin de tout monde possible, et chaque fois la fin du monde comme totalité unique, donc irremplaçable et donc infinie. (2003, 9)

5Even though death is common to all human existence, each death remains profoundly unique and exceptional, in that it destroys the previous structure of the mourner’s existence. Therefore, after the death of a loved one, for the bereaved, ‘the act of living is different all through . . . Grief comes from the frustration of so many impulses that had become habitual’, as C.S. Lewis argues in his grief memoir A Grief Observed (1961, 8), written after the loss of his beloved wife. The brutal interruption of habits suspends the course of one’s existence. In Artful, where the lover has already been dead for more than a year when the story begins, the narrative immediately cuts through this prolonged period of exception, as the narrator remarks from the start: ‘I was still at a loss. If anything, I was more at a loss’ (1). Since the mourning experience is an unexampled exception, it frustrates the narrator’s habits and becomes a source of deep confusion, hence the repetition of the expression ‘at a loss’, which monitors the protagonist’s disarray. Nevertheless, grief itself remains ‘a normal response to a stress which, while rare in the life of each of us, will be experienced by most sooner or later’, according to Colin Murray Parkes (1972, 4). As such, the experience of grief, which is defined by Darian Leader as ‘our reaction to a loss’, while mourning designates ‘how we process this grief’ (2008, 26), is both exceptional and ordinary, an inconceivable scandal and the expression of a banal rule of life. Each death is then an exception within a resolutely unexceptional framework: ‘l’ipséité de la personne disparue demeure irremplaçable, comme la disparition même de cette personne demeure incompensable’ (Jankélévitch 1977, 6). Jankélévitch recognises that death is an irreconcilable oxymoron that breaks the continuity and pattern of one’s ordinary life, since it is literally ‘extra-ordinem’ (1977, 6), and yet, it remains the normal ending of every single life narrative on earth, leading to a fascinating paradox: ‘ce mélange de familiarité et d’étrangeté qui est la marque de la mort : insolite et pourtant si familière’. (1977, 9).

  • 4 Rabaté coins the expression in French, in order to underline the radical upheaval of the mourner’s (...)

6Julian Barnes also expands on this definition of grief as an utterly undefinable oxymoron which blurs the limit between the exceptional and the commonplace. He writes: ‘we are bad at dealing with death, that banal, unique thing: we can no longer make it part of a wider pattern . . . . One grief throws no light upon another. . . . Perhaps grief, which destroys all patterns, destroys even more: the belief that any pattern exists’ (2013, 68, 70, 85). The mourning period, in its wrenching singularity, disturbs patterns of expected behaviour, leading to a protracted sense of chaos, a period defined by Dominique Rabaté as one of ‘personal unhingement’,4 causing the grieving subject to feel ‘out of joint’ and isolated. In grief, one no longer lives by common social rules and what I would call the mourner’s state of exception is comparable to a state of mental emergency, where ordinary matters are relegated to the background of the mind. In Artful, simple activities temporarily become unachievable tasks: ‘reading was one of the things I couldn’t do’ (12). This frustration also affects the narrator’s ability to share his/her experience with others. Thus, Smith considers that bereavement constitutes an exceptional period of isolation in everyday life and declared in an interview: ‘I do think that death is unsayable. . . . It is a terrible taboo’ (Murray 2006, 228). The taboo of death precludes the voicing of emotions and isolates the grieving subject, in keeping with Philippe Ariès’s definition of contemporary death as ‘forbidden death’ (1977, 569). After all, the term ‘except’ denotes a form of exclusion along with exception, and in Artful, the protagonist scares his/her co-workers when mentioning his/her ghost companion, as this conversation shows:

Yeah but Sandra, I said. What’s the form for if a dead person comes back from the dead and hangs out with you? What would you do if that happened to you? Haha, Sandra said, who’s been watching too many horror stories? Then she looked concerned and said: Are you all right, sweetheart? . . . She looked at me then looked hard at her computer screen’. (54)

7The implausibility of the narrator’s experience disconcerts his/her colleague and causes an awkward pause in the conversation. As a result, the narrator is momentarily excluded from his/her work place for compassionate reasons, confessing ‘I’d been assigned next week off, on half-pay’ (55). The experience of mourning thus immures the grieving subject within an isolating bubble (‘I was lonely, I suppose, and I was going a bit mad’ [16]) in which the conditions of ordinary life disappear, as Geoffrey Gorer explains: ‘time-limited mourning is a period of intense grief characterised by withdrawal from social activities’ (1965, 72). The acuteness and limited time span of the initial period of mourning reinforces its exceptional status: ‘exceptions presume something anomalous from the established order, . . . an exception that becomes a norm ends up destroying its exceptional nature’ (Innerarity 2015, 187). Therefore, the acute phase of grief characterised by withdrawal from the world is an exceptional moment in the protagonist’s existence in Artful precisely because it is just a temporary parenthesis and does not turn into a protracted period of melancholia.

  • 5 As Monica Germaná and Emily Horton argue in their monograph Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspe (...)

8If the state of mourning can be described as a painful puncturing of the surface of ordinary existence, it also threatens commonly-established binaries: the mourner blurs boundaries between life and death or past and present, therefore living in a state of exception, on the edge between two spheres. When commenting on the narrator’s mental state, his/her therapist remarks ‘you appear to be very on edge’ (101). The edge, both an emotional marker and a clear-cut limit between distinct spheres, becomes the emblem of the mourner’s state of exception. Tellingly, the narrator stands on the edge between imagination and reality, not knowing if the ghost is real or the figment of a sick mind: ‘well, but this was you. And also, obviously, it wasn’t you’ (10). Smith turns the therapist’s insight into an aesthetic choice that self-consciously defies classification to embrace liminality. This exceptional in-betweenness is characterised by a central motif: the protagonists’ unspecified genders. Of course, this choice is a gesture of inclusiveness on the part of Smith who describes herself as ‘intergender’, feeling as much male as she does female. But in the context of mourning, when the bereaved protagonist and the intrusive ghost are poised on the edge between life and death or past and present, this gender indeterminacy bolsters the disruption of categories and liminal exceptionality that come with the grieving process. By foregrounding a liminal zone in a book that is both essay and fiction (or neither), and characters who are both male and female (or neither), Smith underlines the singularity of her creation and foregrounds the range of possibilities that stepping outside of the established binaries and limits of existence entails. As Jankélévitch argues in La Mort, limits generate a sense of exclusion: ‘la limite pose et refuse, ne refuse qu’en affirmant, n’affirme qu’en refusant. Dans la mesure où elle est tournée vers le dehors, la limite exclut l’altérité, borne nos prétentions, . . . elle nous enferme dans l’enclos de notre finitude’ (119). On the contrary, Smith’s works aim at including the exception, that which is outside of the limit, and giving a central place to marginal figures, following her own motto ‘I don’t want anyone to be excluded’ (quoted in Sethi, 2012). For Caren Wilton, ‘outsiders and the disenfranchised, . . . often take centre stage in Smith’s books—not just the young and old, but also the gay or lesbian, the poor and even the dead’ (2011). Giving a voice to the unusual or the marginal is also a factor of openness that extends the character cast and the generic possibilities of Smith’s work, in a paradoxical move aiming at including exceptional characters who would remain the odd-one out in other stories. The choice of this bereaved, genderless protagonist and his/her ghostly dead counterpart in Artful appears to confirm this ethical and aesthetic positioning.5

A ‘Polygeneric’ Exception: Artful’s Literary Hapax

9However, the exceptionality of Ali Smith’s writing in Artful does not only lie in her narrative and characterisation choices. From a generic perspective, the uniqueness of the structure rests on the perfect correlation between the narrative of the protagonist’s mourning process and the selection of artistic references. The facets of bereavement are mirrored by nods to poems such as ‘The Unquiet Grave’ or ‘One Art’ (by Elizabeth Bishop). ‘The Unquiet Grave’, an anonymous ballad whose stanzas are disseminated through the first part, continually crosses the boundaries between fiction and the lecture in which it is quoted. The link between the poem’s theme and Artful’s narrative frame are obvious: the bereaved poet has a conversation with his dead beloved, while the protagonist receives visits from his/her otherworldly deceased lover. The book opens with the poem’s first stanza, which leaves the reader to wonder whether the narrator’s voice is a continuation of the poet’s lament, since Smith craftily connects this stanza’s last lines with the narrative’s first words: the couplet ‘I’ll sit and mourn all at her grave/For a twelvemonth and a day’ leads to ‘the twelvemonth and a day being up, I was still at a loss’ (1). The protagonist thus borrows the poet’s vocabulary and attitude to exemplify his/her own situation, in a blurring of boundaries between the poem (both as a work of art and a lecture example) and the narrative frame. As Katy Hastie remarks, ‘if readers pay attention to the imbedded aesthetic commentary they will find it impacts the fictional action of the book; for example, a Michelangelo sonnet that speaks of “dark eyes” conjures the ghost with black eyes like “cut coals”’ (2012, 3). Other authors famously incorporated fiction into their essays (one may think of Woolf’s imagining of a Judith Shakespeare in A Room of One’s Own), but Smith brings the interlacing of lectures and fiction to an unprecedented degree in this hybrid work that defies conventions, on the edge of generic classification. By doing so, she turns Artful into a ‘polygeneric’ hapax, as defined by Michel Murat: ‘des œuvres sans antécédents et sans postérité génériques, pareilles à un coup de dé impossible à rejouer’ (2001, 33).

10Artful’s generic exceptionality thus lies in its playful and versatile treatment of lecture material, since part of the narrator’s monologue also resembles a theatrical performance, which addresses its audience/reader as much as the ghost. The protagonist’s monologue is also reminiscent of Smith’s own performance of the lectures at St Anne’s College in Oxford: ‘the ensuing monologue can be read as a plaintive soliloquy by the androgynous and unnamed narrator embarking on an Orphic quest, it can also be read as a meta-fictive Platonic discourse; a philosophical conversation between the text and an absent “you”’ (Hastie 2012, 1). Artful’s generic exceptionality then stands at the crossroads between fiction, essay and theatre. The paradoxical exceptionality of mourning appears in Smith’s subsequent novel How to Be Both (2014) and the generic coalescence also recurs in Public Libraries (published in 2015), which is a collection of both short stories and thoughtful essays. But what truly sets Artful apart in Smith’s already genre-defying creative output is that it combines both types of exception, thematic and formal, to intertwine the protean combination of genres with an extremely personal and moving story of mourning.

11Because Smith plays with and around the edge, Artful seems to create its own exceptional generic category. As a singular combination of essay-fiction, living-dead characters, past-present episodes, its oxymoronic quality contributes to its singularity. The experience of mourning in Artful is both painful and liberating, because of the multiple meta-layers that run through the text. It is precisely because of its generic inventiveness that Artful’s grief story is told in an unexpected tone, as the distressing death of a human being is given a scholarly twist and turned into a playful variation on Barthes’s ‘death of the author’ (1967). By literally killing the author of the lectures and mischievously imagining the aftermath of his/her death, Smith foregrounds her own refusal to conform to established dogmas, thereby underscoring the subversive spirit of the exception. The lover’s painful death is oddly liberating for the surviving character, since it allows this self-proclaimed unliterary narrator to appropriate the dead lover’s office. After moving the dead lover’s chair, he/she notes that ‘the light [is] much better here’ (4). The comedic chair-pushing episode hides a deeper metaphorical and metatextual undercurrent: ‘I started dragging the chair across the room .. . . I could see a gouge appearing beneath me as I pushed. But it was my floor, I could do what I liked to it’ (4). Smith’s exceptional rewriting of Barthes’s death of the author also lies in this ‘provocative gouging of academic ground’ (Kemp 2016, 70). In her review of Artful, Leah Hager Cohen notes that Smith ‘does not invent the new so much as rearrange the known’ (2013): the furniture is the same, but the layout changes, showing that exceptionality lies in the uniqueness of the teller’s perspective, which shines a distinctively new light onto literary conventions: ‘the narrator’s rearranging of furniture not only disrupts the status quo, but also destroys it’ (Kemp 2016, 69).

12The narrator declares early on ‘my own job was trees’ (41), but being a gardener does not prevent him/her from hijacking the dead scholar’s lecture notes and adding his/her ideas to the unfinished sections: ‘maybe I could fill it in for you, the stuff you hadn’t had the chance to say about Cézanne’ (88). By leaving the completion of the notes to a gardener who writes about Oliver Twist in a section dedicated to Cézanne, Smith playfully subverts the reader’s expectations and redefines scholarly authority. Artful is indeed full of art from disparate sources, mingling canonical poems and pop songs. While this transgression of established hierarchies between art forms is not exceptional per se, as a tenet of the postmodernist ‘erosion of key boundaries, the distinction between high culture and so-called mass or popular culture’ (Jameson 1991, 14), Smith expands on this critical current by mischievously mingling allusions to classic and popular culture. For instance, when the narrator imagines his/her dead lover’s apparition, multiple visual references clash in a typically postmodernist fashion: ‘light would be coming off your head like Renaissance saints in paintings, you’d be haloed in a kind of golden light like in the song by Beyoncé where she can see the person’s halo and that person is your saving grace’ (142). By inscribing itself in a literary current that brazenly defies tradition, Smith’s writing forfeits part of its conceptual singularity but it also emphasizes the rule-breaking quality of the exception.

13However, Smith’s widely-recognised ‘postmodern designation’ (Germaná and Horton 2013) remains constantly counterbalanced by a poetics of emotion that reinforces the blurring of aesthetic lines in Artful. According to Marina Warner, in Smith’s writing, a ‘strong emotional current flows in counterpoint to sharp wit, wordplay and bravura stylistics’ (ix). The displacement of generic lines and categories also stems from this emotional current’s ability to create movement, since, as Sarah R. Greaves writes, ‘emotion, of course is a Romantic keyword, derived as it is from the Latin emovere or movement’ (in Ganteau and Reynier 144). In Artful, it appears that the protagonist’s emotional reminiscence cannot be contained by the bounds of one specific genre: it exceeds generic categorisation. Through the lyrical powers of emotion, as the ghostly apparition moves around, ‘leaving a trail of rubbly stuff’ (9) reminiscent of the dead lover’s scattered ashes, memories of the past also spill over into the present, fictional developments encroach on lecture material and the lines are blurred between reality and wishful fantasies. The acknowledgement of this emotional prevalence thus widely contributes to the exceptionality of Artful’s polygeneric hapax.

Liberating the Narrative Voice: Incongruous Exceptions

14But it is Smith’s quirky treatment of the mourning narrative that truly shapes the uniqueness of her literary hapax, as it breaks with the conventions of traditional narratives of mourning. In order to shape the liberating potential of her own metatextual mourning story, Smith borrows stylistic features from some of her literary predecessors evoked in the lecture sections of Artful. For instance, when commenting on Flaubert’s style in her second lecture, ‘On Form’, she notes that ‘he goes out of his way to literalize metaphor’ (81), and she herself pushes this very technique to its extremity. This stylistic choice thus accentuates the peculiar humour and slightly grotesque or nonsensical quality of her storyline, which sometimes also appears to be derived from Lewis Carroll’s multiple wordplays in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (an inspiration acknowledged by Smith, who compares the ghost figure to ‘a rabbit in Alice’ in the early pages of the book, 8). As explained by Diane Leblond in her review of Artful, ‘the process of reading is paralleled by a very literal form of remembering: it conjures up the dead lover’ (Leblond). This grief story unlike any other subversively reverses the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice by staging a spontaneous return of the genderless Eurydice figure to the world of the living. But the ghost’s apparition also breaks the generic rules of traditional ghost stories and remains an exceptional figure by being neither horrific nor Romantic. Indeed, for Lee Kovacs, ‘the ghosts of the literary Gothic are fearsome creatures. They weep and they wail, they hover about castles and moors, they are unrelenting in their passion, and they are deprived of their once-human form. Haunter and haunted live in different spheres; they cannot relate, they cannot connect’ (1999, 3). Instead of expanding on this horrific tradition, Smith’s ghost, albeit slightly different from its living version, is a familiar, intimate creature which snores and watches television. Artful therefore domesticates the tone of ghost stories and normalises this potentially frightening Gothic figure. As Victoria Segal argues in her review of the book in 2013, ‘the fictional framework of grief and ghosts gives these essays a blood-warm intimacy’ instead of turning the narrative into a conventional ghost-story plot. The ghost is therefore another oxymoronic figure in Artful: it leads to the creation of an exceptional ghost story all the while normalising the usually horrific trope of the ghostly apparition.

15This unexampled ghost story, in which dust and sewer smells prevail, is resolutely down-to-earth and tangible. As Márcia Lemos reminds us, when metaphors are literalized, ‘figurative meanings are often taken literally, producing ludicrous situations’ (2009, 26). In Artful, the narrator builds the correlation between the ghost’s appearance and its previous cremation early on as the ghost walks around, ‘leaving a trail of rubbly stuff very like what I’d had in my hand when we all stood round and I threw the urnful of you up and down the old Roman road’ (9). The mention of dust literalises an odd post-cremated condition, and the smell also ties in with the associated imagery of the underground, evoking both the smell of drains, and of rotting flesh decomposing: ‘you smelt quite strong for someone imaginary . . . there’d been some notes through the letterbox, about drains’ (42, 52). The incongruous displacement that literalises the metaphor of the Underworld underlines the grotesque blending of comedy and tragedy in Smith’s style, the oxymoronic combination that defines its tone and singles it out as an exception to conventional grief narratives.

16Furthermore, the protagonist’s world is also literally characterised by contagious dispossession as the metaphor of loss is extended throughout the narrative frame. The ghost keeps stealing objects from the apartment, harking back to the figure of the Artful Dodger in Dickens’s Oliver Twist, which the narrator is reading: ‘I tried not to mind that every time you left more things from the house would have gone missing: my watch, almost all the pens, the remotes for both the tv and the dvd (which meant I couldn’t actually switch them on), the little onyx owl off the mantelpiece, the red pair of pliers, the recharger for the electric toothbrush, the tweezers, even once a whole table lamp went’ (52). This endless list of vanishing objects underlines the comic and slightly hyperbolic quality of this contagion of loss, applied to mundane, everyday items. As Glen Cavaliero reminds us, the essential quality of humour in the writing or description of otherwise tragic contexts is that it functions as an ‘emotional safety-valve’ (1999, 7). Smith’s peculiar, literal treatment of loss intertwines laughter and anguish, in keeping with Albert Holfstadter’s definition of the tragicomic tone, which establishes it as the ‘ambivalent union of the tragic and the comic, . . . an intimate union of two opposed forms of concern, grave and light, in a single whole of concern’ (1965, 295). Although the humorous treatment is refreshingly unique in its non-conformity to expected elegiac tropes, it does not preclude an undercurrent of grief.

17The exceptionality of the narrative voice therefore stems from its untraditional, tragicomic reaction to sorrow. Strikingly, the continuation of the protagonists’ love story in the after-life punctures Romantic clichés, as Smith stages hilarious half-hallucinated encounters between the narrator and the ghost, mingling the casual and the extraordinary in questions such as ‘you came back from the dead to watch tv?’ (11). Instead of a story of eternal love overcoming death, Artful offers a twisted variation on Romantic topoi and positions itself as an exception to canonical expressions of grief. Ali Smith purposefully veers away from the traditional style of the elegy as a ‘song of lamentation’ (Kennedy 2007, 2). In doing so, she creates a resolutely singular tone and steps aside from the rules and norms of elegiac modes.

18In Artful, the elegiac borders on the incongruous, which the OED defines as ‘out of place, inconsistent with what is becoming’. According to an archaic definition, the incongruity once was ‘a violation of the rules of grammatical agreement’, which is reminiscent of the exception in its glorification of bold singularity. Julian Barnes explains that incongruity can be inherent to the mourning state of exception: ‘there is a grotesquerie to grief. You lose the sense of your existence being rational or justifiable’ (84). This definition does highlight the ambiguity of Smith’s tragicomic tone, which mingles playfulness and a darker subtext to convey the exceptionality of mourning: ‘whereas the tragic, the pathetic, and the comic are each like a separate tone, the tragicomic is like an interval which, containing the original tones, has its own timbre, by which its individuality is assured, and which must itself first be heard before it can be understood’ (1965, 296). It is striking that Hofstadter should emphasize the singularity and exceptionality of tragicomedy, because this quality also appears in Artful, which ‘has its own timbre’ as well. According to George Wilson Knight in his interpretation of Shakespearian tragedies, the comic and the tragic are incompatible, so that to bring them together is to compound ‘a new sublime incongruity’ (1930, 160). The instrument of Smith’s incongruous exception lies in this oxymoronic discrepancy between the narrator’s tone and the subject matter and Artful’s blending of tragedy and comedy.

19Smith also distorts canonical quotes or proverbs and twists images to adapt them to the painful exceptionality of death, thereby mingling pangs of emotion and exhilarating wordplay, which for Fiona Cox constitutes her characteristically ‘mordant wit’ (2018, 25). In one of the book’s most striking examples, the narrator exclaims: ‘time heals all wounds. Or, as you used to say, time achilles-heels all wounds’ (7). Smith’s playful tone and her use of creatively syncretic images convey the exceptional singularity of grief. The near-homophonous misquote and idiomatic wordplay is both humorous and thoughtful in its hijacking of clichéd popular wisdom as it underlines the exceptional, oxymoronic nature of Smith’s treatment of mourning: ‘the often-painful pun reacts to the pains of living; it can make them more manageable’ (Redfern 1985, 185). As befits Smith’s representation of the process of mourning, in tragicomedy, Albert Holfstadter argues, ‘there must be enough pathos so that it does not appear predominantly comical and enough comicality so that it does not appear predominantly pathetic. . . . There must be enough gravity to prevent mere comic floating, and enough levity to prevent the fall into unmitigated earnestness’ (301). In another striking occurrence of witty wordplay, when the narrator evokes his/her original mispronunciation of the literary term ‘simile’, he/she turns it into a humorous motto: ‘I thought that the word simile was pronounced to rhyme with smile. . . . Simile, though your heart is breaking’ (77). By breaking the rule of pronunciation, Smith exploits the rich denotative power of the phonetic mistake in this reference to the romance theme of Chaplin’s Modern Times (a piece of music which was then turned into a song entitled Smile by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons, starting with the lines quoted by Smith: ‘Smile, though your heart is aching/Smile, even though it’s breaking’). The reference to Chaplin’s own mastery of the art of tragicomedy and the bittersweet blending of joy and sadness alluded to in this quotation illustrates both Smith’s playful tone and her use of creative images to convey the exceptional singularity of grief.


20Artful remains an exception even in Smith’s already unclassifiable body of works because it defies conventions and distorts genre, gender and grieving patterns. Its singular tragicomic tone can best be symbolised by the oxymoron, the painful jubilation or jubilatory pain, which resists categorisation and enables Smith to innovatively rewrite canonical references in a humorous, de-clichéfying way. The key to this process can actually be found in Smith’s definition of Shakespearian plays, which appear to be a model for her in Artful, since they ‘fuse category to defy category, tragedy and comedy coexist, fight it out, resolve in uncanny rebirth and restorings of the dead to life’ (169). Smith adapts this pattern to her own writing by refusing categorisation, resurrecting the dead and mingling tragedy and comedy throughout. In this theatrically playful shifting of the heavy furniture of fiction-writing or scholarly work, Smith intermingles the playful disruption of traditions and the exploration of emotional inscapes in order to establish her writing’s exceptionality.

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1 Smith’s subsequent novel How to Be Both went on to win the Prize the following year (in 2014). On the prize, see Mark Davies’ article in the same issue.

2 In the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, one of the definitions of ‘incongruous’ is ‘that which does not conform’ and thus resists categorisation.

3 ‘Le hapax est la fine extrême pointe et le superlatif rarissime de la raréfaction’ (Jankélévitch 1977, 95).

4 Rabaté coins the expression in French, in order to underline the radical upheaval of the mourner’s existence: ‘désajointage personnel’ (2005, 320).

5 As Monica Germaná and Emily Horton argue in their monograph Ali Smith: Contemporary Critical Perspectives: ‘this fascination with liminality, and the unstable boundaries of self, reflects Smith’s wider preoccupations with desire, love and commitment as functioning outside accepted heteronormative structures of contemporary society’ (2013, 3).

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Héloïse Lecomte, « The Hapax of Mourning: Ali Smith’s Aesthetics of Exception in Artful (2012) »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 58 | 2020, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2020, consulté le 23 octobre 2020. URL :; DOI:

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Héloïse Lecomte

Héloïse Lecomte is a former student of the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon (2012-2017) and an agrégée in English (2015). She is a doctoral student at the École Normale Supérieure de Lyon and has been a member of IHRIM (Institut d'Histoire des Représentations et des Idées dans les Modernités) since September 2017. She is preparing a thesis under the supervision of Vanessa Guignery on the poetics of mourning in contemporary Irish and British fiction, with a particular focus on the works of Ian McEwan, Penelope Lively, John Banville, Anne Enright, Graham Swift and Ali Smith.

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