The Universal Story, by Ali Smith was published in her 1996 collection, The Whole Story, but I didn’t retrieve it from my TBR shelf until a couple of weeks ago. That’s me, late again.
But in a way I might claim to be mirroring the opening of this story. Because, here’s another book that I’ve subjected to a series of false starts. Having bought it, I shelved it; forgot it; passed it by on several previous searches for something to read.
Somewhere, in the past month, some mention of it triggered a memory of owning this collection, so I tracked down my copy. Thank you, whoever reminded me. I’m sorry I can’t recall in what context we discussed this. But again, that chain of events seems appropriate to my reading. Here are the opening lines:
There was a man dwelt by a churchyard.
Well, no, okay, it wasn’t always a man; in this particular case it was a woman. There was a woman dwelt by a churchyard.
Though, to be honest, nobody really uses that word nowadays. Everybody says cemetery. And nobody says dwelt any more. In other words:
There was once a woman who lived by a cemetery. Every morning when she woke up she looked out of her back window and saw –
Actually, no. There was once a woman who lived by – no, in – a second-hand bookshop.
Is this a story for writers, more than readers? I wonder, remembering conversations I’ve had with readers who stress the importance of being drawn into a recognisable world. This opening could seem designed to irritate.
Or, it might suggest such confidence on the part of the writer that she can afford to let us see how her mind worries at the details: how much thought goes into getting them right. Or do I mean correct? Actually, the word I’m looking for is, ‘true’.
As you can probably tell, I’m hooked. But I’m guessing this is one of those marmite stories. The way the narrator keeps pausing to work things out will unsettle readers looking for a fixed character to engage with, or a scene to immerse themselves in.
The woman sat in the empty shop. It was late afternoon. It would be dark soon. She watched a fly in the window. It was early in the year for flies. It flew in veering triangles then settled on The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald to bask in what late winter sun there was.
Or – no. Wait:
There was once a fly resting briefly on an old paperback book in a second-hand bookshop window.
These changes in tack, shifting of perspectives, seem to me to mirror the way I browse a second-hand bookshop, drifting from one title to another in a random, rather than linear, fashion. Those connections are not predictable, they depend on the shape of words on a spine, or colours, or a promising illustration. Then again, they depend on where the seller has gathered their stock from, and what they’ve chosen, and how they’ve decided to arrange their shelves…
Let’s get back to Ali Smith, I’ve one last thought to add, about character. Wait, though, shouldn’t that have been at the start of my discussion? Don’t I repeatedly claim that character is at the heart of a good story?
How does that work when a story bounces around between several, and not all of them are even human? Brilliantly.
You can either trust me on that (but why would you? We don’t necessarily have the same tastes), or read it for yourself.