Arch, from the Latin, arcus: a bow. Arch as in the bow-and-arrow archer bending the straight string against the curve to send the arrow into the air.
Arch, as in the backs of kittens learning how to dance-fight.
Arches in stone? In painting? The arch is self-standing, independent. It doesn’t need anything else. But it likes to compromise with the rest of a building, open other structures up. It’s internally self-supporting, like an admirably emotionally well-adjusted friend. Above all, though, its solidity is about openness, it’s a see-through structure – and a structure that lets you see through it, acting simultaneously as frame and open threshold, is a miracle of versatility: a kind of structural generosity.
It’s the perfect union of curve and straight line, the original structural marriage. Dimensionally it always offers more than one way to go – at the very least, there’s through and across.
It asks the eyes to raise. Maybe it asks the spirits to, too. Its curvature apes the leap of faith. It’s the original rainbow somersaulter, the shape that the fall of the spectrum takes as light responds to the elements and the curve of the Earth. In this, no matter what colour it is, its shape takes on something mythological.
It’s also the natural structure of continuous narrative. It holds still and complete as it rises and it falls; it’s a static trajectory, movement, journey. It always suggests further context, something that’s more than itself, beyond itself, through itself. (I always think, when I’m under the roof of St Pancras station, that the arch is akin to the spatial trajectory of the novel as a form: a roof over the top of all the journeys, all the comings and goings, of the lives that pass beneath it.)
It suggests the ups and downs of our lives and offers firm structural shape to them both. It’s natural to us – we’ve got arches in our feet and our fingerprints. If we’re being arch, we’re being mischievous, roguish, impish, flippant. Archduke? Arch enemy? It means pre-eminent, archness. Call me arch? I’ll thank you for it. That bend in the bow? It’s our first flight.
Ali Smith lives in Cambridge, UK. Her most recent book, How to Be Both (2014), was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, the Folio prize and won the 2015 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction. It was also the winner of both the 2014 Goldsmith's Prize and the Novel Award in the 2014 Costa Book Awards.
First published in Issue 3