The Accidental (Ali Smith)

I’m quite enjoying The Accidental so far, although it appears some Amazon reviewers would strongly beg to differ. (“This book won the Whitbread Novel Award. According to another website, the Whitbread Award lost its sponsor and ceased to exist the same year.”) Here’s a passage from where one of the characters, a professor of English, finds himself suddenly and overwhelmingly enthralled by the family’s houseguest. The rather convenient entry of a large moth into the room, and its doomed flight into a candle flame, sets us up for the following:

Moths and candlelight! Like a moth to a flame! Dr Michael Smart had been reduced to cliché!

Deeply exciting, though, cliché was, as a concept. It was truth misted by overexpression, wasn’t it, like a structure seen in a fog, something waiting to be re-felt, re-seen. Something dainty fumbled at through thick gloves. Cliché was true, obviously, which was why it had become cliché in the first place; so true that cliché actually protected you from its own truth by being what it was, nothing but cliché. Advertising, for example, loved cliché because it was a kind of pure mob truth. There was a lecture in this, maybe for the Ways To Read course. Source? clearly French, he would look it up. Larkin, for instance, the Sid James of English lyric poetry (now that was quite a good observation, Dr Michael Smart firing on all cylinders) knew the power of cliché. What will survive of us is love. His old racehorses in that horse poem didn’t ‘gallop for joy’ but for what must be joy. Larkin, an excellent example. Comic old sexist living all those years in the nether librarian circles of Hull, no wonder he was such a curmudgeon, but he could crack a cliché wide open with a couple of properly pitched words. Or when Hemingway, for example, wrote it before anyone else had even known how to think to express it, didst thou feel the earth move (or however it was he faux-peasantly put it in the not-very-good For Whom The Bell Tolls, 1941 Michael believed), could he have had any idea how his phrase would enter the language? Enter! The language! Cliché was earth-moving, when you understood it, when you felt it, for the first time. Earth and movement, an earthquake, a high-pitched shattering shift in the platelets far down in the heat, below the belt, beneath the feet. Moth plus flame.

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