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15 October 2017updated 24 Feb 2021 6:49pm

Ali Smith’s Goldsmiths Prize lecture: The novel in the age of Trump

When politics is built on fictions, it’s fiction that can help us get to truth.

By Ali Smith

This is an edited version of a talk given at Goldsmiths University, south London, on 27 September 2017

The novel matters because it doesn’t matter – and, simultaneously, because it does. Nobody’s ever going to say this better than Jane Austen, the first real revolutionary of the form, who defined it in Northanger Abbey, a novel that understands postmodernism 150 years before the term comes into existence:

Oh! It is only a novel… only some work in which the greatest powers of the mind are displayed, in which the most thorough knowledge of human nature, the happiest delineation of its varieties, the liveliest effusions of wit and humour are conveyed to the world in the best chosen language.

The novel is a form that takes time, flips time, gives us time, renews old matter, reminds you what life is and how layered and dimensional it and language and thought and being are, allows understanding, allows fellow-feeling, analyses the notion of structure while being a structure of its own, demonstrates transformation, is micro and macro, by which I mean works on us synaptically and symphonically, and as a form always at the vanguard of its own form never stops finding the form to meet the needs of the time in which it is written and therefore the needs of all our time-cycles, the ones we’re here on earth for, the ones that went before, the ones still to come, all from the pivot-point of the present moment, the no-time and the always, that each novel engages in and holds us through.

The novel matters because Donald Trump. Do I need to add another verb to that? No, I think I’ll leave that statement to be as Gertrude Steinish as it is, if only to nod to, in an amazed way, and as if the world were itself a novel and full of unexpected twists and turns, the many online sites that now compare the stylistic choices and innovations of one of America’s foremost radical modernists to President Trump’s divisive barbaric yawp, with headings like “Who Said This, Donald Trump or Gertrude Stein?” and underneath examples like:

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a) I mean I have it even today, and I have many women at high positions. I, you know, I’ve gotten a lot of credit for that, I mean I have so many women working for me and so many women in high positions working for me and I’ve gotten great credit for it.

b) Everything is the same except composition and as the composition is different and always going to be different everything is not the same. Everything is not the same as the time when of the composition and the time in the composition is different. The composition is different, that is certain. The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living that they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living.

Poor old Stein, her reputation these days darkened by the eye of aftermath calling her out online right now for being a Nazi appeaser, since a mix of the words richAmericanJewishlesbianFranceNazi invasion and early 1940s managed not to end up fraternising with the word interned, never mind the unraided status of her art collection. But where Trump’s language will always reveal his true interests (here creditwomen, the repeated coupling of the word I and the word have, and a highlighted interest in the coupling of the words women and position and in who gets to decide about both), Stein, a woman of high position herself, is revealed as interested in how composition and time and living are related to difference and sameness, and she also knows that language will constantly tell us everything we need to know about not just its speaker but its time, and living in its time. But where Stein wrote a novel called The Making of Americans, Trump has added a word to the making of contemporary Americans. Sad! And just as much as a time of Trump will have its effect on language, language will reveal the workings of the era of Trump, a whole new terrible layer added to the meaning of that word sad.

This is because language will always renew itself. It’s what it naturally does. Stein was a conscious renewer. EM Forster says in Aspects of the Novel that she is one of the novelists who, knowing that the form itself is clock-bound, always about time, always itself a kind of pendulum, one way or another about the tick-tick-tick, went out of their way to smash the clock, pulverise it, try to escape time. Well, you can’t. But the novel form, being a form in love with time as continuum, can and does.

Picture: Martin O’Neill for New Statesman

The novel matters because though all the arts are family, related, and I tend to think at their best when they meet up with or cross over into each other, among them the novel is particularly versatile at this crossing-over in that it can borrow from and chameleon with and meet the other forms with immensely fruitful outcome. Where it crosses into the poem, and the short story – where it borrows from these forms’ essentiality, concentration and tight edit, where it borrows the short story’s indebtedness to our own mortality, and its ability to stretch form, its spatial elasticity; and where it borrows the poem’s deep-rooted ancientness of both voice and form, and borrows from both their way of allowing emphasis to work by resonance, like rings in water, as part of the shift of what we call plot – the novel blossoms into intensity.

Its structural possibility learns from the sculptural arts, where something extra-dimensional happens to the form – say you decide, like Henry James or Georges Perec, to cut a Barbara Hepworth-like hole in your novel either by leaving something unsaid, like James so often does, leaving readers with a hole at the centre of their reading, then that unsaid thing that pierces the work will also pierce the reader. Or say like Perec you cut out something physical like he does in La Disparation, in which a man called M Vowl disappears and so does one of the five vowels, the e, leaving many words unabl to b us d, writt n down, spok n by th voic of th nov l, which in turn opens a window on the absences in history, causing the haunting of the novel and its reader by things gone, removed, unseen, unsaid, unsayable.

And because the novel is, like the language that goes to make it, naturally rhythmic, it can sing anything and everything from the three-minutes-of-happiness pop song to the opera cycle, or both at once, and because every story tells a picture and every word paints a thousand of them, and because the novel’s footwork, its choreography with its partner in the dance, the reader, is why and how it moves us, there are the novels, like Angela Carter said of The Great Gatsby, that we lie back and have done to us, and there are the novels that ask us to do a lot or even just a little of the footwork. We all know about picking up a novel and hitting its first pages as if hitting a brick wall – but once you’ve committed, that’s you climbing over or knocking a door or a window through, and pretty soon you’ll be waltzing through walls, and so on.

The novel matters because and so on. By which I mean that I’ve come to believe that all the arts are about time, but that the novel in particular is about the and-so-on of things, continuance and continuity, the continuum. It’s a form, too, very interested in the workings of society, so it tells us about how we’re living, who we’re living with, and where we are in the endless social structural cycle that eventually gets called history.

But where the short story is a form whose briefness suggests our own – whose shortness signals what Katherine Mansfield (so short-lived herself, a writer who revolutionised the short form and was dead before she’d reached her mid thirties) has a character in a story called “At the Bay” declare: “The shortness of life! The shortness of life!” – the novel as a form is about the long view, the time continuum, in a way that suggests that even though the novel ends, time doesn’t, or won’t. No, the novel keeps on ticking, even if you pulverise it, like Stein, even if you bend it, like Woolf, or bend time in it, like Amis, and this makes it a comfort as a form, an ever-blooming thing, blooming out of itself, novel is a novel is a novel is a novel, which makes me think of the great Norwegian poet Henrik Wergeland, dying young and saying just before he died, kiss next year’s roses for me.

The novel matters because Mansfield never got to write one, never had the chance. Not that she didn’t think about it – unlike the great American short story writer, Grace Paley, who chose to work only in the short story form because, as she said, art is too long and life is too short.

The novel – even a short novel – is long, where the short story – even a long short story – is short. These are probably the only unalterable givens of the separate forms. Plus, the novel, as well as a creature of time, is a creature of its time. I’m not so sure there’s really such a thing as the historical novel or the futurist novel. I think a novel always reflects its time, the time it’s written in. It can’t not.

Futurist novels like Huxley’s Brave New World, like Atwood’s The Handmaid’s TaleOryx and Crake, Orwell’s 1984 (completed in 1948), they’re of course about their own time. Take Atwood, for instance, typically repeating that she never uses anything in her futurist works that doesn’t already exist, isn’t already happening somewhere in the real world. If they’re about the times after them, it’s because the ebbs and flows and circles of time bring us back to the same questions over and over, just in new ways, and it’s one of the novel’s tasks – well, the task of all the arts – to read the new ways the old cycles seem to be taking, and the novel is a form that knows that the past and the future are umbilical to each other, that history repeats itself and will repeat on us as soon as we think we’ve swallowed it, digested it, believed for a minute that that’s it over and gone. And this is another reason that

the novel matters, because it makes matter, and matters, new to us every time. It makes things matter anew. DH Lawrence’s Why the Novel Matters (1936) dismisses the philosophers, the priests and the scientists, the mind/body and spirit/body splits, and re-introduces at the core of things – and I’m reminded here of the Italian word for heart, cuore, from which we take the English word core – the body, undivided from mind and spirit. “In the novel,” he says,

the characters can do nothing but live. If they keep on being good, according to pattern, or bad, according to pattern, or even volatile, according to pattern, they cease to live, and the novel falls dead. A character in a novel has got to live, or it is nothing. We likewise, in life have got to live, or we are nothing.

He sees existence as dead or deadened if it is divided, or split, or forced to live as part of a pattern rather than part of a living changing process. The novel matters to Lawrence because it reminds us not to be dead to life, and to spot the patterns or stories that leave the human state deadened. This essay, written in 1936, is also full of war imagery, the old war still an open wound, the new wars ratcheting up their new momentum.

I’ve been referring in this talk to several texts written in the middle of the 1930s, the last time fascism was raising its head so notably locally and internationally across the world, the last time of Thanatos, of full-on division rolling itself towards catastrophe – oh dear, what can the matter be? In a novel it can be any- and everything, and we are lucky to have a form that will tell us – won’t be able not to tell us – what the anything and the everything of living in a time of Trump and a time of Brexit are, and in a form that allows the time’s articulation to be layered, complex, full of all our paradox and ambiguity as a human race, laced with the possibility of transformation, because every story suggests another possible story, and because, above all, story is human, and

the novel matters because the contemporary state of the novel is always related to the state of whatever’s new to us in the contemporary. Muriel Spark’s 1974 novel The Abbess of Crewe, a satire on the Watergate Scandal of the 1970s, was written, published and in the shops while Watergate was still on the front pages. In The Abbess of Crewe a power struggle breaks out at a convent between the nuns who want to run the place according to the conservative Abbess and a free-love-loving Sixties-swinging-sister, Sister Felicity, and this takes place in a heavily bugged building among a community whose holy litanies read out at mealtimes in the convent canteen run as follows:

not to gratify the desires of the flesh. To hate our own will and to obey the commands of the Abbess in everything… remembering the Lord’s command: ‘Practise and observe what they tell you, but not what they do’ – Gospel of St Matthew, 23

and, a split second later,

systems of recording sound come in the form of variations of magnetisation along a continuous tape of, or coated with or impregnated with, ferro-magnetic material. In recording, the tape is drawn at constant speed through the airgap of an electromagnet energised by the audio-frequency current derived from a microphone. Here endeth the reading. Deo gratias.

True to its time, prophetic about our own time, this novel understands the surveillance techniques of centuries-worth of religion, it laughs in the face of earthly powers, and it morally contextualises and upends as it goes, while knowing that everything newsworthy is nothing but triviality when viewed metaphysically, from beyond its historic time slot. O con-tempora, o moresThe Abbess of Crewe will have been a mighty relief to anyone sweet hearted enough to still be shocked by corruption in sacrosanct places. Spark freshens everything, frees us all from shock, outrage and false loyalties into a place where thinking is sacrosanct instead, and understanding the motivation, power, and powerplay of others or ourselves is too, and we’re liberated from all the shock, the revelations, the same old clichés, of our times.

In other words, the people who make fictions can proffer worlds that give us back the world. They can alert us to the workings of the people who make fictions of our world and call what they’re doing truth. The novel teaches us how to read fictions, how to read structure, how to analyse the structures of the stories that we get told or we tell. Which means that

the novel matters because it’s fiction, and fiction, like truth, profoundly matters to the human species. In the age of Trump, when truth is so blatantly revealed as something dismissible, somehow simply no longer relevant, the novel matters even more, because to some extent we all live by fictions, we have all along survived by using them. But in an age in which living by fiction means having powerful fictions politically, nationally, internationally foisted upon us, fiction lets us read and understand such fictions.

But isn’t fiction a lie too? And if it isn’t, what is it? And why do we have fiction anyway, why do we love it and need it and use it all the time, what does fiction give us? What does the novel, in particular, give us?

“When my love swears that she is made of truth / I do believe her, though I know she lies.” This is Shakespeare on our singular ability to live multiple lives simultaneously, and knowingly, lovingly, to suspend our disbelief. Wittgenstein says that lying is “a language-game”. Psychiatrists and psychologists associate children’s first lies with their initial claiming of autonomy; Joseph Brodsky puts it like this: “The real history of consciousness starts with one’s first lie.” The consciousness is in the double knowledge. A lie’s not true. A fiction also knows it’s not true, but the difference between a lie and a fiction is this: a lie goes out of its way to subvert truth. That’s what a lie is for. That’s its intention. A fiction has no such intention. If it intends anything to do with truth, it’s to help us get to truth, maybe truth that’s difficult to articulate, and for which reason has had to take another shape.

My mother sat bolt upright; I could only see her back, which was like a wall of pink silk. Sometimes a little light flickered into our room, the telephone kept purring next door. Down on the street, a man was whistling a tune. My mother trembled: “Did you hear that? Did you hear that whistling? That was the Horst Wessel Song that someone was whistling in the street – here in Amsterdam.”

I don’t know the song she means, but I wonder why it would make my mother so frightened and sad. I couldn’t find her face anymore, it was so far away. Then in my mind I changed my mother into a tree, because a tree is calm, a tree is unafraid. A tree doesn’t get hungry, or cry. It doesn’t laugh, and it doesn’t talk. I turned her into a tree so that she would stop trembling. After that, I was able to sleep.

That’s from the German writer Irmgard Keun’s 1938 novel, Child of All Nations, translated by Michael Hofmann. What can the novel do, in the age of Trump, in the age of the Nazis, in the age again of wounding and widening division and bordering? It can tell us where and how the people of the age are living it. It can tell us what it means, on the continuum, if we choose to continue to live like that. It can give us an experience that’s emotionally intelligent, a dimensionalising, inclusive experience.

There’s a book that came out in English in the 1930s called The Yellow Spot and it simply lists – early enough to make it clear to everyone who read it what was happening and what would come of its lists – as many of the injustices and brutalities happening to the Jewish people who lived in Germany as it could. It is a terrifying read. Humankind cannot bear very much reality. Its litany is fact, and its list of facts is – well, there isn’t a word in existence terrible enough for it.

At roughly the same time, Keun in Berlin was, astonishingly, attempting to sue the Gestapo for loss of earnings because they’d insisted on burning her books as an anti-Nazi writer. Her novels of the 1930s are stories of innocence up against foul cruel power and rot, in a way that increasingly reminds readers of the root meaning of the word innocence, or, as Roland Barthes describes it, a doing of no harm. “This dictatorship has made Germany a perfect country,” she writes in a brilliant novel called, in English, After Midnight, “and a perfect country doesn’t need writers. There’s no literature in Paradise.” We need the novel because paradise is always a lie, a construct, doesn’t exist, and

the novel matters because if one of us is exiled, we’re all exiles, we are all homesick, and the novel is one of our homes. Keun’s characters know that words matter. In Child of All Nations the main character’s writer father is keeping them alive by the skin of what words he can still sell, what talks and lectures he can still give in a world that’s banning him, ousting him country by country. The girl dreams of the importance of words spoken out loud. “I imagine a lecture must be something like thunder made out of diamonds,” she says.

Pretty soon after Keun started writing the kinds of novels the Nazis didn’t want anybody to read, she was on the run herself from totalitarian paradise. This is her description, again from the novel After Midnight, of the immigrant experience:

You’ll find any other country is smooth and hard as a chestnut shell. You become a trial to yourself and a burden to others. For the roofs that you see are not built for you. The bread that you smell is not baked for you. And the language you hear is not spoken for you.

The novel matters because, as the painter Cézanne, who thought of himself as a realist, liked to repeat, life is terrifying. Let me send you towards an early novel by John Berger, 1958, called A Painter of Our Time, where he writes:

Simply: those who have lived through some extreme suffering and danger see their lives whole. They have watched their own lives as you can watch a shooting-star. It is impossible for them to live at the beck and call of vague generalisations. They know too well how much depends on particulars – the particular wrong answer, the particular bowl of soup, the strength of a particular pair of lungs. They know their own particulars – in every sense.

I saw Berger speak only once, and it was, I think, the last time he spoke publicly in this country. When Andrew Marr, in the audience, asked him for his advice and thoughts about the huge mass movement of people across the world right now – and that mass movement of displaced people is even bigger and under even more catastrophic pressure today than it was two years ago when Berger was speaking – Berger took a moment to think, then he said, as an answer: “I have been thinking about the storyteller’s responsibility to be hospitable.”

Come back to the 1700s for a moment, and to Robert Burns, who carried around with him a pen whose nib was diamond – with which he could, and did, write verses and dedications on things like the windows of inns and pubs, on glass tumblers, drinking glasses, like the verses written on a drinking glass to his friend Willie Stewart:

You’re welcome, Willie Stewart,
You’re welcome, Willie Stewart,
There’s ne’er a flower that blooms in May
That’s half sae welcome’s thou art!

The landlady whose pub he was in was really annoyed, until she sold the glass to a gentleman for a shilling. Then Walter Scott at some point bought it. Scott didn’t buy, though, the window pane on which Burns wrote verses for his friend’s daughter, Polly Stewart, because the Globe Tavern in Dumfries still has in its window the same pane with a beautiful verse about how art can’t stop flowers dying but all the same here’s a giving of wealth, truth, and eternal youth, to you, Polly Stewart, and again, the words of welcome, “You’re welcome, Polly Stewart”: the act of hospitality etched into the view of anyone who ever glances out at the world through that piece of glass; the point of the stylus; the point where the world and the word come together in written style itself; the meeting of matter with matter.

And the contemporary novel? Here comes Kamila Shamsie’s astonishing Home Fire, speaking ancient and brand-new truth to a world overconcerned with screens, divides, fakery, paranoia, lies and partisan tribalism. Home Fire tells a new version of Sophocles’s Antigone, and it uses the novel form mated with an ancient form, the classical tragedy, to reveal the root of tragedy right now in the contemporary world in a story about Islamic radicalisation and British and American politics – which isn’t to tell you in any way what the experience of this novel is like, a novel so breathtaking in the calm and witty and unshowy and inexorable telling of its story that, as I was reading it, I kept finding myself not sitting on the sofa any more reading the book but somehow standing in the kitchen wondering why on earth I’d gone through to the kitchen, what for? And realising it was that I’d kept having to put the book I was reading down and leave the room, and as soon as I realised where I was and where I wasn’t, I was off, back to the grip of the book again.

The novel will home us and unhome us both. Here, too, Shamsie fuses the formal continuum of the novel with the refusal to compromise that’s in classical tragedy; she fuses the hope with the hopelessness. The result is powerful, and in this making of a new home for the old story of the small girl who takes it upon herself to speak truth to power, she produces what I think you can truly call a contemporary classic.

A classicist and novelist and I had a conversation about this novel. She said she liked it all the way up to its last page (I don’t think this is a spoiler) where, as she put it, the characters lost their agency.

I said, but it’s a tragedy.

She replied, it’s beyond a tragedy!

Well, yes. It’s a novel.

The novels I like best, if we’re going to get individual, are the ones that invite, or demand, that their reader take part in their making, be present in them, be creative in response to them, and in being part, be the opposite of excluded, be active, be alive to them and them in turn alive to the reader.

But the novel, in all its forms, in all the shapes it takes, matters because it can and will take all the shapes. The novel matters because it’s a really good read. The novel matters because it does and it doesn’t matter in a world where we do and don’t matter. The novel matters because you’re welcome, and the novel matters because of the very contemporary exclamation mark after the word sad. The novel matters because of all the things the words the and novel and matters and because can mean to us, singly and in combination, and then because of the closeness and distance between the words word and world, and in turn the closeness and distance the form of the novel can bring about between word and world.

But oh, it is only a novel.

Only a novel. That’s all. 

Ali Smith’s “Autumn” is shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize; “Winter” is published next month by Hamish Hamilton. She appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 26 November. For more details on the Goldsmiths Prize, click here

You can hear her deliver the lecture as part of the New Statesman’s culture podcast, The Back Half. Listen on iTunes here, on Acast here or via the player below:

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This article appears in the 11 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, How May crumbled