When did modernism die out? There is an argument to be made that the bold experiments of a century ago, from 12-tone composition in music to the fragmentation of conventional perspective and syntax in literature, have been tried and rejected by today’s art “consumers”. Stanley Spencer turns out to be as influential as Picasso; the popular film music composers look back to Rachmaninov and Tchaikovsky, not Berg or Schoenberg.
Ali Smith, a one-woman fictional campaign as much as a novelist, has quietly refuted this idea for years. Companion Piece, which stands alongside her recent four seasonal novels, is that rare woodland creature, a work of modernism that feels thoroughly modern.
A hundred years after the publication of Ulysses, it is reasonable to feel nostalgic for the courage, freshness and radicalism of artists as different as Joyce, Pound, Eliot, Stein, Diaghilev, Matisse and Stravinsky. Most of the great modernists were pessimistic about modern culture and politics. After the First World War, they responded by trying to re-enchant daily life, to bring back the magic they felt was being lost in urban consumerism, through a return to pre-modern stories and faiths.
In literature, however, it didn’t last long. There was soon a rejection of experimentation in favour of 19th-century modes of narrative. Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, George Orwell, Georges Simenon returned to the familiar structures of Rudyard Kipling or Arthur Conan Doyle. This was partly the fault of the modernists themselves. Whether it’s Ezra Pound’s interpolation of ideograms and ancient Greek into his fascist poetry, or the wilder linguistic excesses of Finnegans Wake, these writers had been making life too difficult for ordinary, distracted readers.
Ali Smith, however, is a modernist for our times. Her writing isn’t “difficult”. She is playful, feminist, socially liberal and contemptuous of state power in ways the earlier modernists would not have understood. She is unmistakably a 21st-century voice. But Smith’s way of telling a story – looping in time; switching from one fast-flicking consciousness to another; tying up radically different periods of history in a single place – and her amused delight in the flexibilities of language feel not only modernist but, better than that, modern.
[See also: Fate and freedom in Elena Ferrante]
Like the exiled Irish poet, she’s a sucker for a good myth. Whether it is Coleridge’s albatross in her recent story published in the NS, or the gleams of Shakespeare showing through in her recent novels, Smith returns to the big, old stories that have shaped our culture in order – as Pound exhorted – to make them new again.
I don’t know much about Smith’s life, but Companion Piece feels somehow more autobiographical than her recent fiction. In it she dispenses with the dance of characters familiar from the seasonal quartet. If this novel is a companion piece to that series, then I suppose it’s because of atmosphere – it lives in the same world of magic and anarchic art half-buried in banal daily life.
The dominant voice is that of a painter (Smith’s partner is an artist): an eerily gifted child, known as “Shifting Sand” at university, whose father is profoundly ill in hospital during the pandemic, and who is livid about Britain’s government. Sand’s need to hear and tell stories leads her into a pickle, as a mysterious and perhaps malign family sidle, one by one, into her home. Circling around this, and breaking into it, is the tale of a vagrant blacksmith girl from pre-modern times. Whether it is today’s security state, or the persecution of outsiders in Jacobean villages, in Smith’s world authority makes life hard for artistic young women.
The stories are pinned together with a simple if insoluble riddle: “Curlew or curfew, you choose.” The essence of magic, as of black(Ali)smithery, is transformation: “A star can be an arrow. One thing can become another. They say a soul is a fixed thing and can’t be changed. But all things can change or be changed, by hands and elements.”
This book, then, is about change and hope in dark times. But more, it’s about language. It’s about the love of a father for a daughter and a daughter for a father. It’s about dogs. It’s about cruelty, loneliness and bravery. It’s about the wonder of the wild world around us.
Enough of “about”. Companion Piece is very funny. It makes you look at the world afresh. For me, it turned a cold and depressing day into a bright one.
Hamish Hamilton, 240pp, £16.99
This article appears in the 20 Apr 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Law and Disorder